Before we came to Peru the only things I knew about the food here was that they ate guinea pigs and alpaca. It came as a lovely surprise that Peru has delicious food that is as diverse as its geography. From hearty soups and potato dishes in the mountains to fresh ceviche on the coast, with a splash of Chinese and Japanese influence, you can eat well in any part of the country. Because of this I have been inspired to start writing about food again and I warn you now, Peru has given me lots to write about. Lets start with potatoes
The humble potato originated in Peru and they have over two thousand different varieties so it’s no wonder that most meals will contain a potato in some form. My favourite version is in a starter called causa. The best way to describe this dish is a potato terrine. Using yellow mashed potatoes, a filling is added, whether tuna, crab meat, vegetables or chicken, then it is sliced up and served cold, often with a salsa. The one I tried in Ulrike’s Café in Pisac came with a gorgeous purple olive paste and tomato salsa.
Another starter that is popular here is papa a la huancaina, boiled potatoes in a spicy, creamy, bright yellow sauce, served with an olive salad. The sauce tastes completely different to how it looks, with a subtle flavour and a texture slightly lighter than a béchamel.
One thing that I knew I wanted to try but couldn’t find for ages is the papa rellena (stuffed potato). This is a simple dish, very naughty but brilliant comfort food. A filling of minced meat with various spices and vegetables is covered in mashed potato and then fried in breadcrumbs. The result is a bit like a bite-sized, compact version of a cottage pie. I finally tracked it down in a little ‘greasy spoon’ comedor in Trujillo and was not disappointed. Mine even came with some little surprises inside with an olive and a boiled egg thrown in for good measure.
Chips are also served with almost all main courses and come as nice surprise with lomo saltado, one of the most common dishes in Peru. If you travel around this country you will find yourself eating it a lot. <em style="mso-bidi-font-style:
normal;">Lomo is the name of the cut of meat used which is tenderloin beef, we actually had it first with alpaca meat in La Paccha in the San Blas area of Cusco, it also comes as a vegetarian option or with chicken, and strangely with spaghetti in some restaurants. Lomo saltado is a good example of Peruvian/Chinese fusion as it is essentially a stir-fry, served with rice and chips (or half and half as Steve pointed out). The meat is stir-fried with strips of red onion, tomato and carrot with a soy-based gravy. The best part about the completely unnecessary addition of chips is that they get covered in sauce, giving a chips ‘n’ gravy effect. Meat
Peru does not have a lot of street food compared with say, Central America or Asia, the only experience we had of it was street stands selling grilled meat. I don’t know the name for this so we called it meat on a stick. For two soles you can get grilled, marinated beef or chicken, with an unnamed green sauce and a potato plonked on the end. When you’ve had a few pisco sours these go down
We only tried alpaca once and it is very similar to tender beef, I didn’t have the nerve to try cuy, especially after seeing the cute little guinea pigs in their hutches next to the open oven where their friends are being spit-roasted. It’s here that I get a bit squeamish as I’m not so keen on eating a rodent that still has its head and feet on. If someone would serve it to me as a fillet I would probably give it a go. I’m told it tastes like rabbit.
Steves favourite thing in Peru was the chicharron. I did not eat a lot of this due to health concerns as at first I thought it was deep-fried belly pork. I have since been told that it is more complex than that and the pork is cooked using its own fat after being boiled so you get tender pork with crispy crackling. I have to admit it is delicious but not good for my figure or anyones health. One thing that has surprised me everywhere in Peru is the presentation. Even chunks of fried pork in cheap food stands will be
served on a bed of corn with a garnish of red onion and coriander. Fish
As Peru has 3000km of coastline, it’s no surprise that seafood features heavily on its menus. Even further inland you will find trucha or river trout in most restaurants. Fish tends to be served fried when it is cooked which I find a little disappointing. This changes when you get to the coast with ceviche, which originated in Peru, and the Japanese influenced tiraditos. The carvings excavated on the walls of the ancient city of Chan Chan in the desert shows the peoples reliance on fish as a food source. Ceviche
I had tried ceviche before in Central America and had always found it a bit too acidic. The Peruvians I spoke to take it as a huge offence that you would even dare to eat it outside of Peru. This is their dish.
On the beach in Huanchaco, whilst watching the fishermen come in on their surf-board style boats made entirely of reeds, we had a delicious and refreshing pescado ceviche. This dish won me over and I
am now converted. The fish is not cooked using heat, but marinated in lime juice, coriander and chilli. The length of marinating time will dictate if it is sashimi style or not. Again the presentation is always spot on, with a slice of sweet potato, corn on the cob and red onion garnish. I prefer this dish with fish but it also comes as a mixta, with squid, prawns, octopus and anything else from that days catch. If you want to go for something a bit more like sushi then the tiraditos are lovely, strips of sashimi in a spicy fish sauce. Mmm…
One of our best meals of our trip so far was an unassuming little family run comedor on the beach in Paracas, with the owners’ children running around tormenting a tiny kitten. We had been told that it was a good place to get cheap food so weren’t expecting much but knew that as Paracas has huge fishing ports to the north and south we should be able to get some fresh seafood. We made the mistake of ordering a dish each. The first dish to come out was a
heaped plate of arroz con mariscos. The literal translation of this is rice with seafood but that does not do it justice. Like a paella without the meat, I have never seen so much seafood on one plate. It contained tender pieces of fish, huge prawns, scallops, octopus and the best squid I have ever eaten. When the soup we had ordered arrived we knew we were doomed. It had an entire crab in it, a giant scallop, mussels and a whole fillet of fish. All of this with a couple of beers came to just under $15 and we were completely stuffed. Rellena
Speaking of being stuffed, Peruvians do like to stuff things. Apart from the papa rellena mentioned above, there is pollo rellena - stuffed chicken, palta rellena - stuffed avocado and rocotto rellena - stuffed peppers. It is not only the seafood that comes in huge portions here, every time we try to go out for just a little bite to eat we end up biting off more than we can chew. This was true when we went to Sumac in Cusco and ordered the
stuffed peppers. I thought this would be a starter sized portion so we had this with the stuffed chicken and shared, only both portions were huge. Steves chicken was stuffed with spinach, cheese and vegetables, and mine were not only stuffed but had a covering of batter that I can only describe as Yorkshire pudding and a huge side of chips. So much for me trying to be healthy but it did all go down surprisingly well with a bottle of red wine. Be careful with this one as the peppers are surprisingly spicy. Drinks
My new favourite drink is the pisco sour. Pisco is a grape brandy that dates back to the Spanish colonies in Ica who brewed it on the haciendas and sold it to sailors who stopped off at the ports. Nowadays it is served as a cocktail blended with lime juice, egg whites and sugar. It has a similar effect to drinking tequila in that it makes you giggly but with a less intense hangover.
Corn is also used to make drinks here, the purple corn to make a soft drink called chicha morada, which looks like beetroot juice
and has an indescribable taste. It does taste better than Inka Cola which is offered with every meal and has a nuclear yellow colour and tastes like bubblegum. Corn is also used to make a homebrew beer called chicha. When we visited Ollantaytambo we were wandering around the ancient cobblestone streets when we remembered that if someone has a red flag outside their house it means that they sell chicha. There were quite a few in this town so we decided to join the local old drunks in someones front yard for a pint that is similar to rough English cider but without the strong alcohol content. Steve attempted to speak drunk old man Spanish whilst I got beaten at a game of throwing plastic disks on the ground by a five year old girl. Coca tea
Coca tea was our lifesaver in Cusco. We made the mistake of flying there directly from sea-level so suffered a bit from the altitude. I have to mention here how good the staff of La Boheme hostel were as they would make us tea at any time to ensure that we didn’t get sick. Coca leaves are
illegal in the rest of the world as it is the plant that cocaine comes from. Coca tea does not have a narcotic effect and is only as effective as normal tea in waking you up. It does however work for altitude sickness and is quite refreshing. The porters along the Inca trail swear by chewing the leaves and this might explain their energy levels. We were told that the porters have a race along the trail and the best time recorded was 3 hours 45 minutes. Bear in mind that it takes most people 4-5 days.
If I came to Peru again I would try to book into one of the amazing restaurants in Lima which do modern takes on Peruvian food. Gaston Acurio’s restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, has been voted one of the worlds top restaurants and has a waiting list to rival any in London or Paris but without the expensive bill at the end. I was also surprised by the Chinese food here. Chinese food has had a big influence on Peruvian cuisine, any restaurant will almost always have a chaufa or Chinese fried rice but the Chinese restaurants themselves are
a great place to get super fresh veg dishes.
All in all Peru has surprised and inspired me, lets hope the rest of South America lives up to it.
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