Aside from Machu Picchu, which is in a league of its own, the number one highlight of my ten-week trip through South America has to be the Peruvian food that I just couldn’t get enough of. I can’t believe it took me this long to discover how much I love it. Italian food has always been my favorite with Mexican a close second. I now have a new number one – move over you two.
In a recent online article, NPR.org wrote, Gaston Acurio, one of the country's top chefs, says in a 2012 Facebook post, "You go to Brazil, it's soccer. If you go to Colombia, it's music. But in Peru, the most important source of pride is food." The article goes on to state, in Peru, food is exalted, and chefs are celebrities. When they comment on politics and current events, people listen. A visit from Acurio would be like getting pulled onstage by Oprah.
One of the hottest things in the culinary world, in my opinion, is to fuse flavors from different regions or cultures. Sometimes, food from one region can get boring. Blending the flavors from different regions creates new flavors. I love how Peruvian food fuses products and cooking styles from the Andean (Incan) region (potatoes, corn and many types of chilis) with those imported by the Spanish (rice, wheat and meats), the Amazon rainforest region, the Chinese and the Japanese.
Here are some of the dishes that I enjoyed listed in order of my preference:
Causa is a lasagna-like dish with a mixture of avocado, tomato, mayonnaise (possibly a hard boiled egg, beets and/or corn) along with a ground fish or seafood (e.g. trout or langostinos) or chicken and then sandwiched between two layers of mashed yellow potatoes blended with lime juice and the chili aji amarillo. It’s normally served chilled as an appetizer. It’s refreshing to eat on a warm, summer day. Sometimes, restaurants serve several small portions each one garnished with a different type of fish or seafood. At Astrid y Gaston in Santiago, I had four small servings each topped with a different seafood – king crab, octopus, Chilean abalone and trout. It was mouth-watering delicious.
Rocoto relleno is a spicy pepper stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and usually red onion, garlic, raisins, peanuts, hard-boiled egg, parsley, cumin, black olives and a few spices and oil. It’s topped with pepper jack cheese and baked. It originates from the Arequipa region in southwest Peru. The rocoto pepper competes with some of the hot peppers from Mexico; however, cooking it “cools it down” a little. The rocoto relleno from Mojsa Restaurant in Puno has just the right amount of heat in my opinion. I loved it!
Aji de gallina is made with shredded chicken in a creamy yellow chili sauce, made from aji amarillo peppers, with chopped walnuts and Parmesan cheese. It’s traditionally served over white rice and yellow potatoes. I loved the aji de gallina that I had on a couple of occasions at Pacha Papa Restaurant in Cusco.
Ceviche is fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices. At El Mercado Restaurant in Lima, I had ceviche de lenguado (sole), which is simply cooked in lime juice and red chili “tiger milk” (the citrus based marinade) with red onion and cilantro added. Iceberg lettuce, sweet potato and corn accompanied it. I’ve been told that ceviche should only be eaten at lunch when it can be served fresh.
Chifa refers to a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese products and cooked in a Cantonese style. Chifa is also the name given to a restaurant serving this type of food. The food was delicious at Madam Tusan in Lima. I had two types of dim sum - juanechis (Chinese rice tamales stuffed with chicken and mushrooms with an Amazon touch) and boli kao (steamed meatballs in northern chifa juice). In addition, I had tacos tusan (stir fried chicken, Chinese sausage, vegetable, mushrooms and Chinese chestnuts with lettuce tacos) and Tusan chicken wings glazed in a chifa BBQ, Aji panca and Aji limo. Yum!
Lomo saltado is a stir-fry with marinated sirloin beef strips sautéed with red onions, native chili peppers, tomatoes and a sprinkling of Chinese onions. At Saqra Restaurant in Lima it was accompanied with rice mixed with corn and yellow potato French fries. This dish started as part of the chifa tradition but then made its way into the Peruvian mainstream due to its popularity. As a result, you can find it in most Peruvian restaurants.
Pollo a la brasa is rotisserie chicken and one of the locals' favorite dishes. It’s seasoned with various spices (including cumin, paprika, oregano, chili powder), soy sauce and garlic. I have two Peruvian friends who each told me they would have pollo a la brasa at home with their family every Sunday night. One of the best places to find this in Lima is at Pardos at Larcomar in Miraflores.
Cuy (otherwise known as guinea pig) is a Peruvian delicacy. Many times it is cooked and served with the whole body intact. I tried it at Huaca Pucllana Restaurant in Lima as an appetizer. It was deep fried (called chicharron), sliced into thin strips and served with fried plantains and criolla sauce. It was a little chewy; however, very tasty.
Anticuchos can be different types of meat that are skewered and grilled. Primarily though, anticuchos are marinated beef hearts. The ones I had at Mangos Restaurant in Miraflores were very tasty. In Cusco, I had “anticucho de alpaca” (marinated alpaca brochettes).
Peruvian soups are just simply delicious. Some of the ones that I had were:
Crema de papa amarilla (as it’s called at Pacha Papa in Cusco) – yellow potato creamy soup
Hen Inchicapi (Amaz Restaurant in Miraflores) – classic creamy soup made with hen, fresh peanuts, potato, wild cilantro and tumeric
Crema casera de zapallo y papa amarilla (as it’s called at Mojsa Restaurant in Puno) – homemade cream of pumpkin and yellow potato soup
Sopa de quinoa (La Casona Restaurant in Puno) – typical soup with quinoa and vegetables, flavored with milk, Andean cheese and Huacatay
Some of the other excellent dishes that I enjoyed during my time in Peru are:
Pulpo a la parrilla (El Mercado Restaurant in Lima) is grilled octopus with smoky flavors, parsley, aiolli, kalamata olives cream served with native potatoes and mushrooms
Churos pishpirones (Amaz Restaurant in Miraflores) is wild, giant, Amazonian snails stewed with chorizo and spicy chili peppers
Salmon trout with tomatoes, onions and chili served with a spicy sauce (Indio Feliz in Aguas Calientes)
Tallarin saltado de pollo (Pacha Papa Restaurant in Cusco) is stir fried spaghetti with chicken, chili, onions and tomatoes. It's a different twist on spaghetti and is delicious.
I need to search out Peruvian restaurants in the U.S. They’re definitely not as plentiful as Italian or Mexican restaurants. However, my 20-year friend from Lima tells me that Peruvian dishes in the USA do not compare to the real thing back home. I guess I’ll just have to find a reason for another trip to Peru. It just might be for Mistura – the largest food festival in South America, which takes place in Lima each September.
Try some of these dishes at a Peruvian restaurant near you. I don't think you'll be disappointed.