By Russell Sabo
One of the best parts about visiting Peru is the food. Peruvian food is some of the best in the world, and it comes from the many different climates that exist there. There is seafood from the coastal region, food from the Andes mountains, and food from the jungle regions. All of them come together to make Peru one of the top voted places to visit for world-class gastronomy.
There are some foods that you are required to try when you visit Peru. Well, perhaps not “required,” but they’re so well-known as typical Peruvian foods that they should be had if you want to get the cultural/gastronomical experience that comes with visiting a different country.
I had the opportunity to try a few of the many Peruvian offerings from the coastal region and I wasn’t disappointed. Many of the foods there are the typical foods of the rest of the country, but then there’s also all of the seafood too. So many kinds to choose from and so cheap too. I felt bad once I returned home and had to pay four to eight times as much for decent seafood. Living in Minnesota doesn’t offer much in the way of good, cheap, REAL seafood.
Modern Peruvian food is a fusion of many of the different cultures that came to settle in Peru over the years. The Incan diet was mostly vegetables and seafood, and then the Spanish came and introduced rice, wheat, sugar, bananas, grapes, cilantro, olive oil, garlic, onions, as well as cows, goats, pigs, and chickens. This fusion caused cheese, eggs, and milk to be added to already yummy dishes (such as chupe, or stew) to make them even more yummy. Cebiche (also spelled: ceviche) was born with this fusion of Spanish/Incan culture also.
An Arab influence was also introduced to Peru in the form of empanadas and all kinds of sweets and desserts. African slaves taught the Peruvians how to make the most out of meat scraps and leftovers by introducing such foods as anticuchos, picarones, and tacu tacu. A Chinese influence was also introduced, and while the Chinese food remained mostly untouched by Peruvian influence, the Peruvians made use of Chinese ingredients (ginger, scallions, and soy sauce) and added them into daily use. From this we get Lomo Saltado (a Peruvian stir-fry) and the practice of eating rice with every meal.
Everything sounds pretty good so far, but then we add the Italian influence to Peruvian cuisine. Italians traveled to Peru and introduced staples such as pasta, salsa verde, lasagna, ravioli, and panetón (panettone). And of course, pizza can be found in almost every city there. And finally, Japanese immigrants taught the Peruvians how to properly cook seafood and how to create cebiche at a moment’s notice instead of overcooking the fish in the citric acid for hours.
Which Peruvian Foods to Eat?
Now that you know a little about the influences of Peruvian foods, let’s make a list of Peruvian foods to eat when you visit Peru or go to your local Peruvian restaurant.
Papa a la Huancaína
Papa a la Huancaína is eaten all over Peru and is very popular. Made from queso blanco or queso fresco, vegetable oil, soda crackers, ají amarillo, and potatoes, it’s very easy to make and absolutely delicious. The sauce is so popular that it’s sold by itself and you can use use it on any dish you prefer to add a little spicy and creamy flavor to anything. As papa a la Huancaína, the sauce is poured over boiled potato slices which are plated on lettuce leaves. A large black olive is added on top along with some slices of hard-boiled egg. If you get the chance to travel to Peru, this will be one of the dishes that you have to try.
Causa is a starter dish that resembles a small layer cake. Made from starchy potatoes, ají amarillo, vegetable oil, lime juice, and salt to create the potato layer, this Peruvian appetizer can then be topped with tuna fish, chicken salad, fish fillets, avocado, egg salad, or just about anything else you can imagine.
Papa Rellena, or stuffed potato, can be either an appetizer or a main course. Papa rellena is mashed potatoes that are molded to resemble a potato shape with a filling of meat inside of it. A ground beef filling is common, although chicken, seafood, or practically anything else can be used as a filling. It is fried in oil until golden and then served with salsa criolla and/or rice.
Rocoto Relleno is a stuffed red pepper, although not just any red pepper will do. This is a stuffed rocoto pepper, grown primarily near the city of Arequipa, Peru. These peppers are very hot and require special preparation to bring down the heat. Chopped beef (not ground beef) is the filling for this large appetizer, although some cooks use chicken or shrimp. They’re served with Arequipa-style Potato Gratin.
Chicharrón de Calamar
Picture onion rings, except with squid instead of onions.
Chicharrón de Pescado
Deep-fried, breaded fish pieces. Serve it with mayonnaise, tarte sauce, salsa criolla, or ají.
Habas are broad beans. Fry them in a bit of oil and salt them and they become a tasty table snack, like beer nuts or popcorn.
Ocopa is a similar dish to papa a la Huancaína. Cold, sliced potatoes served with a green sauce called Ocopa. The sauce is made of queso fresco, onion, crackers, huacatay, evaporated milk, and ají amarillo (or ají mirasol). This is a specialty dish in the city of Arequipa, Peru.
Soltero de Queso
Soltero de Queso is a colorful salad that’s made of queso fresco, onion, tomato, corn, olives, beans, and rocoto for a little heat (or any other hot pepper). This dish is another specialty of the city of Arequipa and even has its own day in the city: Día del Solterito de Queso that takes place annually every second Sunday in February.
Patacones are slices of plaintains that have been smooshed into flat, round cakes and then fried. These are common throughout the Caribbean countries and northern South America, although in some places they are called tostones. They normally accompany another food. If you order cebiche, it is likely to come with some patacones on the side.
Cancha is a snack that’s similar to popcorn except that it doesn’t pop. Once heated, the hull merely cracks open, leaving you with a crunchy, salty appetizer that goes well with beer. It’s even more similar to corn nuts. In Peru, nearly every restaurant (that I visited) served a free bowl of cancha before a meal and it also accompanies cebiche.
Anticuchos are a very popular street food in Peru. They’re normally made of cow hearts that have been cut into strips, marinated, skewered, and then grilled. When walking from bar to bar in Peru, make sure to stop by an anticucho vendor for a yummy snack.
Tequeños are cheese-sticks wrapped in Wonton dough and then fried in oil. They are served not only in Peru, but throughout all of Latin America. They’re normally made of queso fresco, but other cheeses can also be used, or you may find them with ají de gallina used as a filling. Either way, they’re sure to satisfy.
A triple sandwich is something that almost everybody eats in Peru. Made of three slices of bread, tomatoes, avocado, hard-boiled egg, and mayo, this sandwich is easy to make, and if you’re in a hurry, a triple sandwich is what you need. Although why hurry if you’re in Peru? Slow down and enjoy!
Pan con Chicharrón
Pan con Chicharrón is considered by many people to be the best breakfast sandwich in the world. It’s made of brined and then braised pork with a few slices of sweet potato served on a special bread called roseta. Any quality restaurant or food stand that sells pan con chicharrón will likely have a line of people waiting so make sure to get there early!
This is how you will end your night in Lima after drinking in the bars and clubs. You’ll head to the nearest sanguchón joint to cure your hangover, or at least alleviate it. Sanguchón is basically a large deluxe hamburger. It’s made of beef burgers, lettuce, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, eggs, thin, fried potato sticks, with your choice of sauces. If you love greasy after-bar food, you won’t want to miss out on this monstrosity.
Bread, Empanadas, Tamales
Humitas have been around a very long time, since pre-Hispanic times, and are still common. They are similar to tamales, and are made of fresh corn that has been ground and mixed with lard. Consider this mixture to be a dough. This dough is spread onto a corn husk, where you can either wrap it up plain and then steam it, or you can add other ingredients like onions, raisins, cheese and garlic and then wrap it up and steam it.
Tamalitos verdes are made in a similar fashion to humitas, except that cilantro (and optional spinach) is added to the dough mixture. They’re very popular on the north coast of Peru, and from my memory of trying one, it had a bit of a green tea flavor (I’m not a fan of green tea). Still, try one for the experience when you’re in Peru.
Beef or Chicken Empanadas
Empanadas are another dish that is very popular in Peru, and much of South America. These are basically flat circles of dough with beef or chicken, or whatever meat mixture you prefer placed in the center of them and then folded over to make a pocket, like a turnover. Pinch off the edges to seal the empanada and then baked until the dough is golden. If you don’t have empanadas while you’re in Peru, you’re missing out on a delicious treat.
Chapla is an Andean bread, one of the most popular. It’s served at any time of the day and is best served with cheese. It’s easy to make at home and will resemble a puffed up pita bread.
Seafoods and Cebiches
Cebiche, which can also be spelled “ceviche” or “seviche,” is one of the classic dishes of Peru and fish cebiche is the original and most traditional of the different types of cebiche. It’s made of very fresh fish that’s been “cooked” in lime juice. Slices of onion, ají and salt are also mixed in and the dish is accompanied with sweet potato and cancha. Order this when you go for lunch because only tourists eat cebiche for dinner.
Cebiche mixto is a very popular cebiche (second only to fish cebiche) that is prepared in much the same way as fish cebiche, except that fresh seafood is also incorporated into the dish. Shrimp, calamari or octopus, clams, and scallops are added to create what was my favorite cebiche in Peru. It’s also accompanied with sweet potato and cancha, and it’s common to get a big slice of Peruvian corn (the big kernels) on the cob.
Tiradito is very much like cebiche with a few exceptions. Cebiche uses chunks of fish that have been cooked in citric acid, whereas tiradito uses thinly sliced fish that has the citrus added right there at the table. Basically, it’s raw fish flavored with lime juice. The normal cebiche toppings (cancha, sweet potato, and corn) are also included.
Trucha, or trout, is another popular dish and it can be prepared in as many different ways as you would prepare them in your own country, plus some, I would imagine. Trucha is not a native species to Peru. It was introduced from Canada in an effort to improve the protein consumption of some of the poorer communities. Once introduced, the trout have thrived. So… trout in the desert? Yes! And on your plate too, hopefully.
Meats and Poultry
Ají de Gallina
Ají de gallina is one of the classics of Peruvian gastronomy. It’s shredded chicken covered with a spicy, yellow sauce served over potato slices or rice. The sauce, made of Parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, ají amarillo, bread, garlic, and onion, makes the dish taste amazing. Because it’s one of the classics, don’t miss out on trying this dish. This is what Peru is all about!
Alpacas are so cute, and so tasty! In the mountainous regions of Peru, alpaca meat is a staple. It’s comparable to beef, except it has less calories. And it can be prepared in a many ways as beef can. Alpaca steaks, alpaca soup, alpaca stew, alpaca burgers, anticuchos, shoulder, you name it and it can be done.
Arroz con Pato
Arroz con pato is rice with duck. In the city of Chiclayo, Peru it will be green rice with duck, with spinach and cilantro added to the rice to give it its color. Add some beer into the dish and you have a winner! I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s on my must-have list when I return to Peru.
Arroz con Pollo
Arroz con Pollo is rice with chicken. Arroz con pollo is eaten all over South America and Central America, but in Peru it’s special, because like arroz con pato, it uses cilantro to color and add flavor to the rice. It also uses dark beer. So if you’re not a fan of duck, Peru has your back with a chicken dish.
Asado de Ternero con Pure de Papa
Asado de ternero is roasted veal (young cattle) served with a beef gravy and mashed potatoes. It seems like a plain dish, but my opinion is that if it’s made in Peru, they’ve probably done something to make it taste fantastic.
Chicharrón de Cerdo
Chicharrón in Peru simply means “deep-fried.” So chicharrón de cerdo is deep-fried pork. The meat is boiled in water until all the fat renders out and after the water boils away, the meat is cooked in its own fat. Delicious! Sometimes a very lean meat will just be thrown into oil and deep-fried that way, which is how one gets chicharrón de camarón (deep-fried shrimp ).
Guinea Pig! Is it a pet or is it food? In the Cusco region and surrounding Andes regions, cuy chactao is considered a typical dish of Peruvian cuisine. It’s seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, and cumin and then deep-fried in oil until the skin is golden and crisp and the meat is very tender. I’ve been told that the taste is very much like chicken (of course!) It’s served with potatoes and/or salads. If you visit the highlands of Peru, this is considered one of the must-have meals you should eat.
Pollo a la Brasa
Pollo a la Brasa, which is also known as Peruvian chicken, is one of the most popular dishes in Peru. You can find a Pollo a la Brasa restaurant in every larger city and many of the smaller ones. Its popularity is equal to that of ceviche and chifa (Peruvian Chinese food). It’s a rotisserie chicken that was originally cooked in charcoal and flavored with salt, but it has evolved to include other spices. Soy sauce is one of the ingredients common to the many different versions of this dish, as well as ají amarillo. There’s a chance that you can find it here in the United States under the name of Peruvian chicken or blackened chicken.
Locro de Pecho
Locro de pecho is a stew with beef brisket used as the meat. In general, locro is popular throughout South America and there are many different variations of locro, but one will mainly find locro de pecho in the Andes region in cities like Arequipa and Cusco. This dish is made at all times of the year and is very popular. It’s made with beef brisket, onions, garlic, ají panca, salt, pepper, cumin, mint, turnips, leeks, and potatoes.
Lomo Saltado is Peru’s answer to beef stir-fry. I’ve personally made it before, and even though I’m not currently a world-class chef, it turned out delicious! It’s made from thinly sliced steak, garlic, onions, tomatoes, ají amarillo, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, Peruvian rice, cilantro, and French fries, all stir-fried together (except the rice, cilantro, and French fries, which are added at the end) into one delicious dish you’ll rave about to your friends. It’s also hard to screw up; I used 6 month old steak with a bit of freezer burn and it still turned out great. Now imagine being in Peru and ordering this freshly made by the people who make lomo saltado for a living!
Carne Asado is roast beef, cooked for as long as possible (actually about 2 1/2 hours) until the beef is very tender, but not falling apart. Served with potatoes and Peruvian rice, this is comfort food the way it’s meant to be, and if you have leftovers, you can use them to make cold sandwiches the next day.
Anticuchos are the ultimate street food in Peru, most often made of beef heart, although other types of beef are used, as well as chicken. The meat is marinated in spices and beer or wine before threading it onto a skewer (like a shish kabob) and cooked at a medium high heat until done. You can buy them at anticucheras on the street and some restaurants serve them also. My experience with anticuchos is: You don’t want to miss out!
Zarza de Patitas
Pig’s feet salad! Sounds yummy, right? This is essentially boiled pig’s feet which is then covered with fresh onions, tomatoes, vinegar, salt, and pepper. I can’t personally attest to the deliciousness of this dish but it’s on my list of foods to try when I visit Cusco.
Beans, Rice, and Grains
Peruvian rice is a staple food, and is eaten with many meals. You won’t have to go very far out of your way to try Peruvian rice when you’re in Peru. And if it’s something you want to cook yourself, you’re in luck. It’s very easy to make. Consisting of white rice, vegetable oil (or olive oil), garlic, and salt, you can have it prepared and ready to eat in a little less than 30 minutes.
Arroz con Mariscos
Arroz con mariscos is Peruvian rice cooked with seafood (shrimp, squid, scallops), vegetables, and spices. You’ll find this dish very easily along the coastal cities of Peru where the seafood is very common.
Arroz Árabe is Arabian rice. It’s made with rice, angel hair pasta, raisins, garlic, almonds, and cola instead of water. This dish is served more often near the holidays and for celebrations.
Arroz tapado is a layered dish of rice, seasoned ground beef, and then rice. Peruvians will make this when they really don’t feel like cooking as it’s very easy to make and done within a half hour. This dish resembles causa because of the layers, or a sloppy joe sandwich with rice substituted for a hamburger bun. But with the seasonings added, you can be sure this is more delicious than a simple sloppy joe!
Tacu tacu is one of the typical plates of Peru, created by the African slaves. It consists of rice and beans mixed together with seasonings added. From there other things can be added, such as steak and/or a fried egg. I had the seafood version of this dish and I wasn’t impressed because of how fishy it tasted, but I’m sure it would be delicious with beef, pork, or chicken.
Soups and Stews
Chupe de Camerones
Chupe de camerones is a thick soup made from either crayfish or shrimp. It’s a very popular soup, especially along the coast. If you visit any of the cities or towns along the coast of Peru, you’ll find this dish on the menu in at least one of the restaurants. I’m not much of a soup-person, but I ordered this on a whim and I felt like I was in culinary heaven after my first spoonful. Of course, any soup that has cheese in it (in this case, queso fresco) gets a big thumbs-up from me.
Estofado de Res
Estofado de res translates into beef stew. Beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, wine, and all kinds of seasonings combine to make this ultimate comfort food for those cool Andean nights.
Sopa seca, or dry soup, isn’t actually a soup at all, but rather spaghetti with chicken, onions, olives, and raisins. This is one of the rare Peruvian foods that isn’t served with rice. Instead, it’s normally paired up with another dish called Carapulcra Chinchana (a potato stew). Both of these dishes originate from the Ica region south of Lima.
Carapulcra Chinchana is a potato stew that is often served with sopa seca (see previous entry). It’s made with potatoes, pork, onion, spices, and peanut butter. This is another stew that will keep you satisfied, especially when it’s paired with sopa seca.
Sancochado is the reason to cook or go to the restaurant on Sundays. It’s a very hearty soup made with meat, vegetables, beans, and different sauces. The meats can vary, according to taste; some sancochados have more than one kind of meat. The same for the vegetables. The sauces are varied also. You can choose from huancaína, salsa criolla, ají amarillo, and mostaza.
Seco de Cordero
For the lamb-lover, Peru has seco de cordero, or lamb stew. This stew is made from lamb, onions, potatoes, cilantro, spices, and beer! Eat it with Peruvian rice and you have a stew that will keep you happy until supper.
Cau cau is a traditional tripe stew with the normal stew ingredients of onions, potatoes, garlic, and ají amarillo. It’s said that this dish originated from the African slaves who were doing the best they could with the bits and pieces of food that they were given. For those you who aren’t all that excited about eating animal stomachs, there are other variations of cau cau in which the tripe is replaced with chicken, fish, or seafood.
Adobo is one of those special dishes that are only served on Sundays. It’s made from pork, onions, rocoto pepper, chicha (or a cob of Peru’s purple corn), garlic, and Peruvian spices. Many people like to have this after a long night of drinking, making it a perfect hangover food. You can find this dish in any region where rocoto peppers are commonly found, such as Arequipa y Cusco.
Alfajorillos are a better alternative to alfajores (dry cookies filled with honey). Alfajorillos are more of a softer bread that are filled with dulce de leche (sweet milk). These are a great dessert or if you’re in a cafe, they’re excellent with coffee.
Queso helado translates to “cheese ice cream.” However, there’s no actual cheese in this dessert. It’s prepared from three different kinds of milk: regular milk, unsweetened evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk. Also eggs, sugar, cinnamon, coconut, and cloves. It’s a cool, tasty treat for a hot summer day.
Picarones are a dessert that has been around since the colonial times of Peru. Imagine a doughnut made from squash and sweet potato that’s covered with chancaca syrup (chancaca is also known as piloncillo, panela, rapadura, or papelón in other countries). If the thought of a doughnut made from squash and sweet potato turns you off, you should know that it’s also mixed with sugar, flour, and yeast before it’s deep-fried. Eat these with anticuchos; it’s all good street food!
Chicha morada is a very common drink in Peru. It’s made from Peruvian purple corn and spices and has been around since before the Incans began to conquer South America. If you’re in Peru, don’t miss out on having at least one glass of these tasty drink.
Agua de Manzana
Juices are very popular in Peru and you can find juguerías in every larger town and city. Agua de manzana, or apple water, is most often made at home. Made from apples, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sugar, and water, it’s all cooked until the apples are very tender, then blended, strained, and refrigerated. This makes for a refreshing, cold drink to serve visitors when you don’t have chicha morada to offer them.
Algarrobina is a syrup that’s made from the black carob tree. It can be mixed into milk or smoothies for a good nonalcoholic drink, and it can also be mixed into cocktails. It’s said to be healthy with it’s nutrient values. I had it mixed with milk in a restaurant in Lambayeque and it was very good. I look forward to having it again.
Inca Kola is the most popular soft drink in Peru. It had even successfully competed with Coca Cola until Coke fixed that problem by buying the Inca Cola company. It has a bubble-gum flavor, so if you like bubble-gum, this is the soft drink for you. I buy it whenever I have the opportunity. If I’m in Peru then I get it at least once, but make sure I’m trying every other different drink available.