In the last decade, Peru has undergone a culinary renaissance.
While the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu have long been one of its greatest drawcards, right now many travelers are visiting one of South America’s most popular countries simply to eat.
Peru’s menu is inventive and incredibly diverse. Using what Pachamama (Mother Earth) gave them, the Peruvians have developed a cuisine incorporating the country’s three main geographical zones - the coast, the Andean highlands and the Amazon jungle – while blending influences from different cultures.
A gastronomic powerhouse
Peru’s reputation as a gastronomic powerhouse has in recent years grabbed the world’s attention. For four years running, (2012 to 2015), South America’s third biggest country won the World’s Best Culinary Destination in the World Travel Awards, known as the “Oscars of Tourism”, beating formidable rivals like Italy, France and Japan.
This year it was voted South America's Leading Culinary Destination in the same awards.
Central typifies the varied nature of Peruvian cuisine, taking its diners on a culinary expedition through the country’s ecosystem. Chef Virgílio Martínez and his team forage at every altitude - in the sea, jungle, mountains and desert - to discover native ingredients to incorporate into their menu.
One of the restaurant’s dishes ‘Tallos extremos’ was inspired by a trip to Aija in the Cordillera Negra in the Andes, where Martínez met a man fermenting ocas in river water and cooking the tuber below the ground on hot stones.
At Maido, the culinary boundaries between Peru and Japan are blurred, offering a Nikkei menu with a focus on Japanese flavors while using Peruvian techniques.
What makes Peru such a culinary heavyweight?
Ingredients which come from 65 feet (20 meters) below sea level to over 13,000 feet (4000 meters) in the mountains make Peru’s culinary culture so distinct.
The country’s gastronomy benefits from its climatic diversity as well as its geography. Peru’s three main geographical zones, the coast, jungle and highlands, include some 90 different micro-climates, making it one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet.
These micro-climates mean Peru offers a huge variety of products such as an astounding 3000 different types of potatoes as well as quinoa, rice and corn. Peru is also home to 2000 species of fish and shellfish such as tuna, sea bass and crab, 650 types of native fruits such as lucuma (popular as an ice cream flavour with its maple-like taste), the hot chili pepper known as aji and exotic herbs like the mint-like muña (móon-yah).
Peruvian cuisine is also heavily influenced from its long history of immigration. Peru’s population is a mix of indigenous people, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Africans and all of them have left an indelible footprint on the nation’s menu.
The best of Peruvian cuisine
Arguably Peru’s flagship dish, ceviche involves marinating bite-size pieces of raw fish (and sometimes squid and octopus) in citrus juices, usually lime. The acidity of the juices cooks the fish, leaving it with a delicate flavor and soft, chewy texture. Ceviche is usually spiced with red onions and aji peppers and served with choclo, a white Andean corn, or sweet potato. Before refrigeration was invented, ceviche was eaten only during the day because the fish would spoil before nightfall. Most Peruvians still eat ceviche only during the afternoon, and many traditional ceviche restaurants (cevicherias) are only open for lunch.
A stir-fry with French fries, this Asian fusion dish is what’s known as Chifa cuisine, the legacy of Chinese contract laborers who came to Peru during the 19th century. The dish features beef strips, yellow peppers, tomatoes, onions and French fries seasoned with soy sauce and served with white rice. Chinese restaurants, known as “chifas”, can be found on almost every corner in big cities like Lima and Cusco. These restaurants are great examples of Chinese-fusion cuisine.
Pronounced ‘kwee’, cuy is guinea pig which has been a staple in the Andean diet for around 5000 years. Cuy is a delicacy and usually baked or barbecued on a spit and served whole, including with the head, ears, teeth and feet still intact. It tastes like a mix between fatty chicken and pork and can be found in many places, from upscale restaurants to skewered on a stick in the local markets. Cuy is such an important part of Peru’s culture a famous painting in Cusco’s cathedral depicting the Peruvian version of The Last Supper shows Jesus and his disciples sharing a plate of the furry little critter.
This classic South American cocktail is made with Pisco (a grape distilled brandy), simple syrup, egg whites, lime juice and Angostura bitters and packs a punch. Pisco always contains an alcohol content of between 38 and 48 per cent after a law was passed forbidding the dilution of distilled Pisco with water. The Pisco Sour is so revered by Peruvians that they have an official holiday in its honor – Día Nacional del Pisco Sour (The National Pisco Sour Day) – on the first Saturday of February. This tasty tipple is also available in variations including maracuya (a local passionfruit) as well as “chilcano” made with ginger ale and exotic fruit macerated Pisco.
This traditional appetizer is made of layers of cooked, mashed yellow potatoes filled with chicken or tuna and vegetables like onions, choclo and avocado. Served cold, causa is usually garnished with black olives, a hardboiled egg or shrimp and topped with mayonnaise. The name causa comes from the Incan Quechua word kausaq, which means "that which gives life", another name for the potato. Not only is causa limeña delicious, it’s a beautiful little piece of art on your plate.
A quintessential Peruvian street food, anticuchos are pieces of beef heart seasoned with cumin, garlic, vinegar adobo and chili and then skewered and seared over a grill. This hearty snack is usually served with corn and boiled potatoes and sold from street carts. Beef heart, known as anticuchos de corazón, is the most popular anticucho but they can be made of any type of meat including chicken sweetbreads and chinchulines - pork, beef or lamb intestine.
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