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Over the last decade or so, the rest of the world has begun to wake up to something Peruvians have always known: theirs is a diverse and exciting cuisine the equal of any other. Foodies around the globe have taken note of Peruvian cuisine, which blends influences from many different countries with the huge variety of locally-available ingredients. Peruvian food reflects the great cultural diversity of the country and which is also generally healthy – as well as simply being a pleasure to eat.
- Douglas Lewns
If there is one dish that no visitor to Peru should leave the country without sampling, it is ceviche (pictured above). Practically the national dish and considered part of Peruvian national heritage, ceviche is made by curing raw fish in citrus juices and spicing it with chilli before serving it with corn, potatoes and onion. There are many variations and sometimes shellfish is used to accompany or replace the fish. Most locals only eat ceviche at lunchtime since the high acidity of the dish can upset delicate stomachs and you are advised to follow their lead. The majority of cevicherías are closed after lunch anyway.
When Chinese immigrants in Peru and especially Lima began to experiment with local ingredients, chifa cooking was born, a unique hybrid of Chinese and Peruvian cuisines. Chifa cooking is quite distinct from Chinese cuisine although some techniques and styles are recognisable. Many well-known chifa dishes now exist and are extremely popular in Peru and one of the most beloved of Peruvians is lomo saltado, slices of beef stir-fried with onions and tomatoes and served with French fries and rice. If you want to try chifa food but don’t know what to order, lomo saltado would be a good place to start.
Peru is home to literally thousands of varieties of potatoes and is arguably the place where the humble tuber was first domesticated several millennia ago so it is unsurprising that potatoes in various forms feature prominently in the Peruvian diet. Papa a la Huancaína, a kind of Peruvian comfort food, consists of boiled yellow potatoes served in a creamy and spicy sauce. This is one of the most common dishes in all parts of the country.
The quintessential Peruvian street food and the local take on a snack that can be found in various guises around the world, Anticuchos are pieces of meat, often seasoned and marinated in vinegar and spices, barbecued on a skewer. The local favourite is made from beef heart so if you want to try the most authentic, this is the one to go for. If this makes you feel squeamish, versions using other meats are also available.
Perhaps not one for lovers of cute furry animals, cuy chactado is, in fact, deep fried guinea pig. Cuy has been eaten in the Andes for thousands of years and more recently it has become popular all over the country. If you order cuy chactado, you will receive a whole guinea pig that has been seasoned and then fried, served with salad, potatoes or corn. Some people say it tastes like chicken, others say pork and yet others say rabbit; you’ll just have to decide for yourself – if you can conquer the natural aversion many people have of eating an animal they usually see as a pet.
This dish is typically eaten during celebrations in the Andes as its preparation can be elaborate and time-consuming. Originally an Andean innovation, this meal has now spread across the whole country. The basics of making pachamanca involves placing heated stones in a hole and then layering spiced meat, potatoes, vegetables or beans on top. Everything is covered over and left for several hours until it is ready to be dug up and eaten.
The outside world has now become aware of quinoa, a fashionable ‘superfood’, but it has been eaten in Peru from time immemorial and was known to the Incas as ‘the mother of all grains’. In the Andes, it is combined with other locally-available ingredients to make a hearty and energising soup. A trip to Peru is the perfect chance to taste this much-vaunted health food in the land where it was originally domesticated.
‘Charqui’ is the Quechua word for salted dried meat and is the origin of the English word ‘jerky’. Originally the meat used for charqui was alpaca but the technique is now used with all kinds of other meat too. Look out for olloquito con charqui, a dish that combines olluco, an important root vegetable in the region, with pieces of alpaca charqui.
Those with a sweet tooth will find themselves spoilt for choice in Peru but one of the best known classic Peruvian desserts to taste is suspiro de limeña, meaning ‘sigh of a Lady from Lima’. This appetising dessert dates back to the early nineteenth century and combines blancmange with a meringue topping. It is most commonly found in Lima where it was created but is now also one of the best-loved desserts all over the country.
Piranha has long been a common food for the inhabitants of the Peruvian jungle and you should try it once, even if it’s just for the thrill of eating something so uncompromisingly exotic as this infamous flesh-eating fish. Piranha is not to everybody’s taste, though – it has meat with a pungent fishy smell and is something of an acquired taste. It is best eaten lightly grilled since other cooking methods tend to exacerbate its fishiness. Even if you don’t like it, at least you get to say you’ve eaten piranha!
Apart from anything else, a visit to Peru can be a memorable culinary adventure and there is something for every taste, from simple barbecued street food to elaborately prepared festival meals and not forgetting the delicious array of Peruvian desserts – all washed down with a glass or two of refreshing local beer or a couple of pisco sours. You can even learn to make pisco yourself! Don’t forget to check out the top things to do in Peru that will make your visit worthwhile.