Peruvian cuisine reflects the influence of indigenous peoples, including the Inca, together with cooking traditions and ingredients brought by European immigrants. Spanish colonists introduced rice, wheat and meat following their 16th-century conquest and these all feature prominently in Peruvian cuisine today, together with the Incan staple crops of corn, potatoes, legumes and quinoa.
However, throughout the colonial period and right up until World War II, Peruvian cuisine focused on Spanish influences and rejected anything that was considered indigenous. But in recent years, traditional foods such as quinoa and kiwicha have found a renewed popularity as their health benefits are lauded, even being used in astronaut meals by NASA. Peruvians are beginning to rediscover their culinary roots, with chefs raising awareness about local ingredients and cultural food traditions.
Peruvian cuisine has also been recognized for its fusion of multicultural influences, with immigrants from across Europe, Asia and West Africa leaving their mark. It has been described by US food critic Eric Asimov as one of the most outstanding examples of “fusion” cuisine. Today Peru is considered an important center for the genetic diversity of world crops, supporting thousands of varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, chilies and corn.
Regional variations in Peruvian cuisine
Peruvian cuisine has also been heavily influenced by the country’s diverse geography and includes a few distinct delicacies found nowhere else in the world. Aji peppers are a base ingredient for many dishes throughout the country, providing spice and color, while rice is among the most popular accompaniments.
Fish and seafood are the main sources of protein along the coastline, while Lima is renowned for its Creole cuisine and chifa (a Chinese-Peruvian fusion). In the valleys and plains of the Andes Mountains, the diet is still largely based around traditional ingredients, including corn, potatoes and tubers, as well as alpaca and guinea pig meat. The most elaborate dishes are reserved for fiestas, including pachamanca which is made from a variety of meats, herbs and vegetables which are slow-cooked underground on a bed of heated stones.
Peruvian cuisine in the Amazon region features animals hunted in the jungle and its waterways, such as paiche fish and mammals like agouti, paca and peccary. Turtles and black caiman are also hunted for their meat, but it is prohibited by Peruvian law. Jungle fruits such as camu camu are also popular, together with mammee apple, cherimoya and guanabana.
Traditional Peruvian cuisine
While ceviche is found throughout Latin America, it’s considered by Peruvian’s to be their national dish. The icy Humboldt Current which flows just off Peru’s coast supports an abundant source of seafood and this dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juice showcases it. Ceviche is usually spiced with red onion and aji pepper and often served with sweet potato or the white Andean corn of choclo. The juice that results from “cooking” the raw fish in citrus is known as leche de tigre, or “tiger’s milk” and is often downed in a shot glass or spiked with Peru’s national drink, pisco.
Another popular seafood dish along the coast is chupe de camarones (shrimp chowder) which is made from thick, freshwater shrimps which are cooked with stock, potatoes, cream and chilies.
Peru’s most popular beef dish, lomo saltado, shows a distinct influence from Chinese cuisine, with strips of soy marinated beef stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and aji chilies. It’s usually served with both rice and french fries which are often tossed through the meat. Anticuchos are another popular beef dish, featuring grilled meat (traditionally the heart) marinated in vinegar, cumin, aji chilies and garlic and cooked on skewers. It’s often served by street vendors or as an appetizer, complete with a garlic sauce.
Alpaca is also sometimes used in lomo saltado and has served as an important source of meat in the Andean highlands for centuries. It’s gamey taste and lack of greasiness also makes it ideal for jerky which is a Peruvian invention and whose name comes from the Quechua word charqui which means “to burn”.
When it comes to chicken, aji de gallina is a firm Peruvian favorite both inside the country and abroad. The chicken is cooked in a thick sauce made from ground walnuts, cheese, evaporated milk and yellow chilies and served over rice with boiled potatoes and black olives. A vegetarian take on this is known as papas a la huancaina and sees potatoes covered in a similar sauce, topped with hard-boiled eggs and often served as a side dish.
Pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken) is another prominent Peruvian poultry dish, with a whole chicken marinated in garlic, herbs and spices before being roasted on a spit and served with a green huacatay (black mint) sauce and fried yucca.
Chicken is also a common ingredient in causa, a potato casserole which originated as a Quechuan dish. It features mashed yellow potatoes mixed with a lime and yellow chili sauce, together with layers of avocado, hard-boiled eggs, olives, shredded tuna, salmon or chicken. This visually appealing dish is normally served chilled as a salad or as a side to the main meal.
For most visitors to Peru, the most confronting (but unique) dish is cuy. Guinea pig is one of the Andean region’s most important sources of protein and roasting it whole over an open wood fire (after being stuffed with herbs) is the way to cook it. It’s usually served with an aji sauce and eaten with the hands like you would fried chicken.
Other popular dishes include rocoto relleno, peppers stuffed with ground beef, onions, garlic, olives, raisins and spices, before being topped with cheese and baked in a sauce made from eggs and milk. This fiery hot dish has long been associated with the city of Arequipa, but today you’ll find it in restaurants across the country.
Peruvian desserts and drinks
Many of Peru’s most popular desserts were brought by the Spanish and are found throughout their colonies, including alfajores, turrones nougat and arroz con leche (rice pudding). Don’t miss the opportunity to try the lucuma fruit which has a similar appearance to mango and a custard flavor like maple syrup and is often used to flavor desserts and ice creams.
For a unique soda experience, keep an eye out for Inca Kola which is a Peruvian cultural icon and the only beverage in the world to beat Coca-Cola sales. But the national drink of Peru is undoubtedly pisco which is made using fresh grapes and best tried in a pisco sour cocktail with lime juice, sugar and egg whites.