Eating Out in Peru
Now that Thai food is in every pub and sushi on the shelves in Tesco, it's no surprise that foodies have been casting around for the next big thing. And it's no surprise to us that Peruvian food is tipped to be the next big thing. We've been banging on for years about how it's not only the best food in South America, but up there with the great world cuisines and so we're pleased that everyone is finally starting to catch on!
Recent years have seen top-flight Peruvian restaurants opening in London, New York and LA, but of course the very best Peruvian food is in Peru, and in 2013 Lima was home to 2 of the world's top 50 restaurants according to the San Pellegrino list - that's as many as London! And even if you don't splash out on either of these world-beaters, we can guarantee that the food in Lima and the rest of Peru will blow you away.
Lunch is traditionally the main meal in Peru and usually will consist of at least two courses. These vary depending on where you are, but typically the first will involve a soup of some kind, while the second will feature fish or meat, with rice and potatoes (yes, Peruvians feel having both is highly important) and a small salad. You can always order a la carte, but most restaurants will also offer a fixed menu del dia which will offer a set first course and one or two main course options.
Fewer Peruvians eat out at dinnertime, as this meal is traditionally taken at home with family. However, that is changing, particularly in the big cities and among younger people. In the evenings, people often have just a single course, and often opt for classic Peruvian dishes like pollo a la brasa. You'll find pollerias everywhere in Peru and they essentially do one thing very well: spit-roasted chicken and chips. Perhaps with a salad, but that's about it. This jack-of-one-trade really pays off, though - it's probably the best grilled chicken in the world and you can be in and out in 15 minutes - this is what fast food should be about!
Another popular evening choice, particularly on the coast, is a chifa - the Peruvian-Chinese fusion that is hugely popular. It's been estimated that around 70% of Peruvians on the coast have some Chinese ancestry and this is reflected in the ubiquity of these fusion restaurants which couple Chinese techniques with Peruvian ingredients.
The signature Peruvian dish is undoubtedly the famous ceviche, and it's this dish above all others that has come to signify Peruvian food's elevation to the top table of world cuisine. It's an exquisite dish of fish (and/or seafood), cured in Peruvian lemon juice (actually closer to lime juice) with fresh coriander, aji (Peruvian chilli) and garlic. It's an absolute taste sensation and you simply have to try it at some point in Peru, but we'd say it's at its absolute best in Lima.
Another classic dish, which showcases the Chinese influences on Peruvian food, is lomo saltado. This criollo classic features strips of beef, flash-fried with tomato, garlic, aji, red onion, red pepper and perhaps a dash of sweet red wine. Gorgeous! Again this dish is possibly best on the coast, although we've eaten some pretty good ones in Arequipa as well. If you fancy having a go at either of these two classic Peruvian dishes yourself, you can check out our Peru Recipes page, which will show you how to cook a full three-course Peruvian meal.
A couple of staples which it's worth being aware of are chicharron and milanesa. Both are ways of preparing food and can be used with whatever local ingredients are best. Chicharrones are small pieces of chicken, pork, vegetables or fish fried in crispy batter (a bit like a pakora), while a milanesa is a a fillet of (usually) chicken or fish, flattened and fried in breadcrumbs. Either is usually served with an ensalada criolla - another Peruvian classic which is a side salad of chopped red onion and tomatoes, marinated in Peruvian lemon juice.
Every region's cuisine is not just subtly different - it's a whole new ball game. From the rich and sweet delights of the coast to the spicy treats and creamy cheeses of the highlands, there's a wealth of variation in Peruvian cooking that ensures there's always something new to try. It means that at every step on your holiday in Peru there is a new delicacy to check out.
Also known as criollo cuisine, food in Peru's coastal areas tends to have rich and strong flavours, with fish and seafood playing a large part in menus in places like Lima and Trujillo. The coast is home to Peru's national dish of ceviche, as well as other classics such as lomo saltado.
You also should really try Papas a la Huancaina, which is Peruvian yellow potatoes and olives in a spicy cheese sauce, and causa limeña, which is a dish of mashed yellow potatoes with avocado and tuna. We do realise that when you list the ingredients they don't sound like anything special but both dishes highlight the superb quality of ingredientes available to Peruvian chefs and you'll be genuinely knocked out by both.
Once you're up into the Andes, the food employs more vegetables and tends more towards the 'fresh and spicy' than the rich sauces of the coastal dishes. The seafood is usually not as good as in Lima although trout and the other freshwater fish to be found in the lakes and rivers of the region are excellent, as are the variety of Andean cheeses. For fish dishes, it's hard to beat Lake Titicaca for taste and freshness.
Particularly good in Arequipa and Cusco is rocoto relleno - stuffed spicy Andean peppers. It's similar to how you might find stuffed peppers in the UK but because the peppers are slightly spicy it gives it a bit of a kick. They are usually stuffed with minced beef and quinua but they can make a good vegetarian alternative as well.
If you do eat meat then we'd hugely recommend trying some alpaca. If you're not familiar with it, the alpaca is a smaller, cuter version of a llama but please don't let that stop you - it has a wonderful, kind of pork-but-richer taste and if you can find it in a French-style white wine sauce then you'll be in heaven. Oh, and we did we mention it only has 1% fat?
A little harder to find, but worth tracking down is a real pre-Inca speciality called pachamanca. This is traditionally cuts of lamb which are wrapped up (usually in tin-foil these days but historically in corn husks) and placed in a hole in the ground together with hot stones. This has the effect of slowly steaming the meat in its own juices, and it's absolutely fabulous.
Food in Peru's jungle regions tends to be simply cooked, but its strength lies in the incredible diversity of ingredients. You can eat a different fish or fruit every day - each more delicious than the last. Of particular note among the fruits is the chirimoya which you can find in shops up and down Peru. It looks kind of like an avocado but (and please believe us) it tastes like strawberry-and-cream sweets! And it's good for you too...
One jungle speciality that's definitely worth trying is Inkicapi - a spicy chicken soup/casserole (the consistency varies depending on where you are) cooked with peanuts, coriander and yucca. Hot soup might not sound like the kind of thing to be eating in the middle of the jungle but trust us - it's surprisingly refreshing on a hot day.
Vegetarian Food in Peru
It has to be said that many traditional Peruvian food is focused on meat and fish but that doesn't mean you can't eat well if you don't like eating dead things... Most restaurants are used to serving vegetarian customers and can provide vegetarian alternatives, it just means that you may have to eat a more 'international' cuisine rather than trying all the Peruvian specialities. Just let us know before you travel and we'll make sure you go equipped!
Particular dishes which work well for vegetarians in Peru are things like rocoto relleno, which are stuffed peppers where the minced meat can easily be substituted for vegetables, and rice or noodle-based dishes like tallarin saltado which can easily be made (and ordered!) with vegetables instead of meat.
We'd also point out that the Peruvian take on Italian and Chinese food is pretty good and many of these dishes won't cause vegetarians any problems.
As well as looking at particular dishes, we're pleased to say that there is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Peru and we maintain an up-to-date list of exactly where to go if you're looking for vegetarian chefs who really know how to get the best out of Peru's fantastic ingredients.
Drinks in Peru
Peru's national drink is a clear brandy called Pisco, which is drunk neat, with mixers and in cocktails like the famous Pisco Sour. Pisco is currently the subject of international arbitration between Peru and Chile as the dastardly chileans are claiming that they 'invented' both Pisco and Pisco sours. Without getting too involved, we'll just note that the area around Pisco was where the first vineyards in the New World were planted and that the brandy from this area has been known as 'Pisco' since the 17th century. By contrast, the Chileans renamed their main 'Pisco'-producing village of La Union to 'Pisco Elqui' in 1936 by government order, so you can probably draw your own conclusions...
If you're looking for something lighter, Peru boasts several good lagers: particularly Cuzqueña and Arequipeña. Although originating from Cusco, you can find Cuzqueña throughout the country and it is generally acknowledged as being the best in Peru. In our view, however, Arequipeña is actually slightly better, although outside Arequipa it can be hard to find. Cuzqueña and some other beers are also available in a 'malta' or 'dark' version and they are really tasty - similar to a brown ale but richer and more hoppy.
Peru produces good dessert wines, particularly in the area around Ica but they are usually a bit sweet to drink with a main course. There are a few dry reds (almost no whites) but you will find plenty of Argentinian or Chilean bottles if you'd rather stick to what you know, although these can be surprisingly expensive.
As well as alcoholic drinks, Peru has some fantastic fruit juices, particularly in the jungle. Throughout the country you'll also find chicha morada, which is a 'fruit' juice made from Peruvian purple corn - it's delicious and also very good for you, except for the large amount of sugar Peruvians tend to add...