In Peru, fusion is a natural part of everyday cooking. Over the last 400 years, Andean stews mingled with Asian stir-fries, and Spanish rice dishes absorbed Amazonian flavors, producing the country’s famed criollo (creole) cooking. More recently, a generation of experimental young innovators has pushed local fare to gastronomic heights. You’ll never go hungry in Peru: from humble spots in Moyobamba to trendy boîtes in Miraflores, this is a country devoted to creatively keeping the human palate entertained.
Embracing Local Cuisine
Peru, once a country where important guests were treated to French meals and Scotch whiskey, is now a place where high-end restaurants spotlight deft interpretations of Andean favorites, including quinoa and cuy (guinea pig). The dining scene has blossomed. And tourism outfits have swept in to incorporate a culinary something as part of every tour. In 2000, the country became the site of the first Cordon Bleu academy in Latin America, and in 2009, Bon Appétit magazine named Lima the ‘next great food city.’ In 2017, three Lima restaurants made the list of the World's Best Restaurants, with Virgilio Martínez earning the Chefs Choice Award. And the honors roll on. Of Peru's 3.1 million annual visitors, 40% do gastronomic tourism. And maybe you should too.
Foodie fever has infected Peruvians at every level, with even the most humble chicharrón (fried pork) vendor hyper-attentive to the vagaries of preparation and presentation. No small part of this is due to mediagenic celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, whose culinary skill and business acumen (he owns dozens of restaurants around the globe) have given him rock-star status.
Staples & Specialties
Given the country’s craggy topography, there's infinite variety in regional cuisines. But at a national level much of the country’s cooking begins and ends with the humble potato – which originally hails from the Andes. (All potatoes can be traced back to a single progenitor from Peru.)
Standout dishes include ocopa (potatoes with a spicy peanut sauce), papa a la huancaína (potato topped with a creamy cheese sauce) and causa (mashed potato terrines stuffed with seafood, vegetables or chicken). Also popular is papa rellena, a mashed potato filled with ground beef and then deep-fried. Potatoes are also found in the chowder-like soups known as chupe and in lomo saltado, the simple beef stir-fries that headline every Peruvian menu.
Other popular items include tamales (corn cakes), which are made in various regional variations – such as humitas (created with fresh corn) and juanes (made from cassava).
The coast is all about seafood – and ceviche, naturally, plays a starring role. A chilled concoction of fish, shrimp or other seafood marinated in lime juice, onions, cilantro and chili peppers, it is typically served with a wedge of boiled corn and sweet potato. The fish is cooked in the citrus juices through a process of oxidation. (Some chefs, however, have begun to cut back on their marinating time, which means that some ceviches are served at a sushi-like consistency.) Another popular seafood cocktail is tiradito, a Japanese-inflected ceviche consisting of thin slices of fish served without onions, sometimes bathed in a creamy hot-pepper sauce.
Cooked fish can be prepared dozens of ways: al ajo (in garlic), frito (fried) or a la chorrillana (cooked in white wine, tomatoes and onions), the latter of which hails from the city of Chorrillos, south of Lima. Soups and stews are also a popular staple, including aguadito (a soupy risotto), picante (a spicy stew) and chupe (bisque) – all of which can feature fish, seafood and other ingredients.
Other items that make a regular appearance on seafood menus are conchitas a la parmesana (scallops baked with cheese), pulpo al olivo (octopus in a smashed olive sauce) and choros a la chalaca (chilled mussels with fresh corn salsa). On the north coast, around Chiclayo, omelets made with manta ray (tortilla de manta raya) are a typical dish.
None of this means that pork, chicken or beef aren’t popular. Aji de gallina (shredded chicken-walnut stew) is a Peruvian classic. In the north, a couple of local dishes bear repeat sampling: arroz con pato a la chiclayana (duck and rice simmered in cilantro, typical of Chiclayo) and seco de cabrito (goat stewed in cilantro, chilis and beer).
Along the coast, where the Asian presence is most significant, you will also find the Peruvian-Chinese restaurants known as chifas. The cuisine is largely Cantonese-influenced: simple dishes low on heavy sauces.
In the chilly highlands, it’s all about soups – which tend to be a generous, gut-warming experience, filled with vegetables, squash, potatoes, locally grown herbs and a variety of meats. Sopa a la criolla (a mild, creamy noodle soup with beef and vegetables) is a regular item on menus, as is caldo de gallina (a nourishing chicken soup with potatoes and herbs). In the area around Arequipa, chupe de camarones (chowder made from river shrimp) is also a mainstay.
The highlands are also known as the source of all things cuy – guinea pig. It is often served roasted or chactado (pressed under hot rocks). It tastes very similar to rabbit and is often served whole. River trout – prepared myriad ways – is also popular.
Arequipa has a particularly dynamic regional cuisine. The area is renowned for its picantes (spicy stews served with chunks of white cheese), rocoto relleno (red chilis stuffed with meat) and solterito (bean salad).
For special occasions and weddings, families will gather to make pachamanca: a mix of marinated meats, vegetables, cheese, chilis and fragrant herbs baked on hot rocks in the ground.
Though not as popular throughout the entire country, Amazon ingredients have begun to make headway in recent years. Several high-end restaurants in Lima have started giving gourmet treatment to jungle mainstays, with wide acclaim. This includes the increased use of river snails and fish (including paiche and doncella), as well as produce such as aguaje (the fruit of the moriche palm), yucca (cassava) and chonta (hearts of palm). Juanes (a bijao leaf stuffed with rice, yucca, chicken and/or pork) is a savory area staple.
Desserts tend to be hypersweet concoctions. Suspiro limeña is the most famous, consisting of manjar blanco (caramel) topped with sweet meringue. Also popular are alfajores (cookie sandwiches with caramel) and crema volteada (flan). Lighter and fruitier is mazamorra morada, a purple-corn pudding of Afro-Peruvian origin that comes with chunks of fruit.
During October, bakeries sell turrón de Doña Pepa, a sticky, molasses-drenched cake eaten in honor of the Lord of Miracles.
The main soft-drink brands are available, but locals have a passion for Inca Kola – which tastes like bubble gum and comes in a spectacular shade of nuclear yellow. Fresh fruit juices are also popular, as are traditional drinks such as chicha morada, a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage made from purple corn and spices.
Though the country exports coffee to the world, many Peruvians drink it instant: some restaurants dish up packets of Nescafé or an inky coffee reduction that is blended with hot water. In cosmopolitan and touristy areas, cafes serving espresso and cappuccino have proliferated. Tea and mates (herbal teas), such as manzanilla (chamomile), menta (mint) and mate de coca (coca-leaf tea), are also available. Coca-leaf tea will not get you high, but it can soothe stomach ailments and it's believed to help in adjusting to high altitude.
Beer & Wine
The craft-beer trend has come to Peru, with interesting innovations such as quinoa beer. Small-batch brewers have popped up in Huaraz, Cuzco and Lima. The best-known mainstream brands of beer are Pilsen Callao, Brahma, Cristal and Cusqueña, all of which are light lagers. Arequipeña and Trujillana are regional brews served in and around those cities. In the Andes, homemade chicha (fermented corn beer) is very popular. It tastes lightly sweet and is low in alcoholic content. In rural Andes villages, a red flag posted near a door indicates that chicha is available.
Local wines have improved greatly over the years. The best local labels are Tabernero, Tacama, Ocucaje and Vista Alegre. Pisco is also very popular.
Where to Eat & Drink
For the most part, restaurants in Peru are a community affair, and local places will cater to a combination of families, tourists, teenagers and packs of chatty businessmen. At lunchtime, many eateries offer a menú – a set meal consisting of two or three courses. This is generally good value. (Note: if you request the menú, you’ll get the special. If you want the menu, ask for la carta.)
Cevicherías – places where ceviche is sold – are popular along the coast, and most commonly open for lunchtime service, as most places proudly serve fish that is at its freshest. In the countryside, informal local restaurants known as picanterías are a staple. In some cases these operate right out of someone’s home.
Peru has a vibrant street-food culture. The most popular items are anticuchos (beef-heart skewers), ceviche, tamales, boiled quail eggs and choclo con queso (boiled corn with cheese). Also popular, and quite delicious, are picarones (sweet doughnut fritters) usually served with sweet syrup.
For a cheap and tasty meal, check out the many pollerías (spit-roasted chicken joints) found just about everywhere.
Vegetarians & Vegans
In a country where many folks survive on nothing but potatoes, there can be a general befuddlement over why anyone would choose to be vegetarian. This attitude has started to change, however, and some of the bigger cities have restaurants catering exclusively to vegetarians. In recent years, Lima and Cuzco have become progressive centers for vegetarian and sustainable dining, with raw food, organic and vegan options that finally befit their ambitious fine-dining scenes.
In addition, one can always find vegetarian dishes at a regular Peruvian restaurant. Many of the potato salads, such as papas a la huancaína, ocopa and causa are made without meat, as is palta a la jardinera, an avocado stuffed with vegetables. Sopa de verduras (vegetable soup), tortilla (Spanish omelet) and tacu-tacu (beans and rice pan-fried together) are other options. Chifas can also be a good source of vegetarian meals. Before ordering, however, ask if these are platos vegetarianos (vegetarian dishes). The term sin carne (without meat) refers only to red meat or pork, so you could end up with chicken or seafood instead.
Vegans will have a harder time in conventional restaurants. Peruvian cuisine is based on eggs and dairy and infinite combinations thereof. There are grocery stores and a handful of eateries with gluten-free options, mostly in tourist centers.