In every corner of Peru, you can see it, smell it, taste it – over 500 years of culture, simmering in a true melting pot of flavor, where plates of the traditional and the nouveau all take their culinary cues from around the world and their own backyard.
Perhaps the easiest way to immerse yourself in any given culture is by putting your mouth to work: not by attempting the local dialect, but by sampling as many of the most popular foods as you can. Fresh meats and other ingredients give you a crash course in local industry and agriculture. Types and amounts of spices often correlate with area climates. And signature cocktails? They describe the local sense of fun and relaxation with just one sip.
There’s no better place in Peru to dive head first into the epicurean culture than Lima, the gastronomical capital of South America. A city with more Chinese restaurants than traditional Peruvian eateries, its bustling markets overflow with culinary treasures from every corner of the country and street vendors and high-end chefs alike covet the same quality ingredients and demand perfection from every dish. Lima is a foodie’s unending smorgasbord, stocked with local cuisine inspired from all corners of the earth. Here, a melting pot was forged from centuries of traders, travelers and immigrants coming and going from the Orient, Europe and Africa and the diversity of Lima’s past is evident in the foods of today. A favorite destination among locals, “chifas” serve typical Chinese food adapted and enhanced with Peruvian ingredients. Italian favorites also get the local treatment, with chefs often substituting the aji chili pepper in place of traditional Italian herbs and spices that are scarce in Peru.
Ceviche – or “cebiche” as it is known locally – combines the best fresh fish with lime juice and onion. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish and the flavors combine to create a delicious dish usually served garnished with peppers and sweet potato. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a shot of “leche de tigre” or tiger’s milk, the spicy leftover juices from ceviche that is said to be an aphrodisiac. Stateside eateries may try to duplicate this Peruvian original, but no artful interpretation can compare to the creations you will find here, especially one that you craft with your own hands under the guidance of a native culinary artist.
Spend a morning in the Villa Maria del Triunfo Market, South America’s largest and most diverse outdoor market. The scene is one of pure culinary chaos: unending ramshackle stalls teeming with whole fish, having arrived fresh from the Peruvian coast and all across South America, mingling with a rainbow of fruits from the highlands and jungles of Peru. You will rub elbows with some of Lima’s most talented chefs from high-end bistros and family-owned huariques as you search for your own ceviche ingredients, moving on to a local restaurant to assemble and taste your Peruvian creation. Though the original ceviche recipe used by pre-Hispanic coastal residents remains a mystery, Peruvians have invented dozens of variations on the dish, both modernized and traditional.
Back on the bustling streets, Lima’s food stands rival those in Hanoi and Seoul, serving incredible tamales, Peruvian sandwiches, shish kebab anticuchos of skewered meat and syrup-covered fried doughnuts called picarones. Try the “five flavors,” a snapshot of Peru’s culture on a plate, combining spaghetti pasta, ceviche, rice and Andean ingredients to create an eclectic dish. At the other end of the spectrum of palatable offerings, bite-sized dishes paired with sumptuous cocktails are a constant at the exclusive tapas restaurants, a dining experience that is decidedly Spanish with no shortage of Peruvian flavors commingled.
The culinary evolution of Peru has come full circle and returned to its Andean roots in many ways. Thought to be “peasant food” for centuries by the colonial-minded European Peruvians, Andean ingredients of quinoa, maize and potato once shunned are now featured regularly in haute cuisine. The potato, in particular, holds a special place in Peruvian history as the starchy staple was first cultivated some 7,000 years ago in the south of the country, paving the way for thousands of different native varieties. Indigenous cuy, also known as guinea pigs, yield a meat high in protein and low in cholesterol that has long been a source of sustenance in the Andes. In larger municipalities, cuy is a common ingredient in street fare and fine dining alike.
A treat that is best enjoyed in the remote Andes is a pachamanca meal, a hearty mixture of meats, vegetables, potatoes and spices that is baked in the ground by hot stones. This ancient cooking method is designed as an offering to Mother Earth, returning the food to the earth from which it sprung in an act of reverence and appreciation. Pachamancas are usually reserved for special occasions, taking several hours to roast and often prepared in mass quantities and enjoyed in a festive banquet setting.
The Paracas Peninsula on the northern coast of Peru is renowned for its spectacular seafood. Peru’s ancient settlers thrived in this area in spite of the desert climate, with the cold waters of the Humboldt Current creating the perfect conditions for an unending Pacific bounty of fish and shellfish. Paracas is famous for its scallops, baked on the half shell with Parmesan cheese and butter, tossed in a ceviche, or enjoyed raw with a simple sprinkling of lime juice and salt. Not far from the peninsula, Pisco in the Ica Valley is where you will find the birthplace of the grape liquor used in the famous pisco sour, Peru’s national drink. Lime juice, egg white, sugar water and pisco are blended with ice and garnished with bitters to create a crisp, tangy cocktail that is a standard in eateries throughout Peru.
Wherever you are or whatever you’ve eaten, taking a post-dinner walk is a must. El Paseo – the stroll – is a tradition with Spanish roots in which families and dinner guests take a long walk together, allowing time for swimming heads to slow, full stomachs to settle and spirited conversation to continue. Leisurely walks wind you through the cosmopolitan blend of the old world and the worldly in Lima, next to the lapping waves of the Pacific in Paracas and along the undulating hills of the Sacred Valley with mind and belly brimming with Peruvian hospitality, history and an eclectic mix of flavors.
The Inside Scoop
By: Marni Granston
Experiential Travel Specialist | Ker & Downey
Seeing the wonders of the ancient Inca civilization of Machu Picchu, like many travelers, was my initial draw to Peru. But Peru is a destination full of rich culture, offering up an incredibly unique culinary experience as well. One of my personal favorites was the Alpaca. Prepared in a variety of ways from an alpaca burger, carpaccio or tenderloin, it’s an absolute must when sampling the local cuisine.
For those looking to sample more of the indigenous meats of the Andes and want to embrace the “bizarre foods” sort of experience try a local favorite, guinea pig… Can’t say I tried this one personally. Your Ker & Downey guide can recommend some wonderfully quaint restaurants to indulge in these local favorites throughout your journey. Want to learn how to make some of the traditional dishes? Ker & Downey will arrange for your own private cooking lessons where you can master the recipes of your favorite Peruvian dishes to share with your friends at home.