Peru: THE NEXT GREAT WORLD CUISINE?
With Thai food now as common as fish'n'chips in Britain and the rest of Europe, Moroccan food in Marks and Spencer and sushi already coming out of our ears, many are tipping Peruvian cuisine to be the next big thing in the US and Europe. Obviously food can play a big part in your holiday in Peru, and we don't think you'll be disappointed - for our money it's easily the best in South America and could well be just about to step up to the world stage. Mind you, we would say that wouldn't we? See what you think, or check out our recipes to have a go yourself.
The best ingredients
All great food starts with great ingredients and Peruvian cuisine is no different. Even cheap corner restaurants rely on good, fresh ingredients every day and you can quite simply taste the results! Some of the basic ingredients which you'll see throughout your holiday in Peru include:
- Aji - similar to chilli peppers, they are usually yellow, orange or red and are often served in a dipping sauce. They're about the same heat as a decent birdseye chili in the UK.
- Rocoto - the same size as a normal red or green pepper in the UK (capsicum for US readers) but with just a bit of chili heat. Delicious stuffed.
- Limon - Peruvian lemons. They look more like our limes and are kind of in-between a lemon and a lime and twice as delicious. Used in everything from cocktails to salad dressings.
- Papa amarillo - Yellow Potato. Peru is, of course, the home of the potato, with over 5000 registered types! You get potatoes with every meal, usually chipped or boiled but sometimes stuffed or mashed.
- Arroz - Rice! Usually just boiled with garlic and salt, you'll get this with every meal as well (yes, we know - why do you have to have both? Just trust us - you do.) but it's also often served like a pilau, with saffron, other spices and vegetables.
Regional cuisine in Peru
Each 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. There are also a few favourites that get repeated wherever you go and which are usually pretty dependable. Here's our quick guide to what you should eat, and where. If you fancy trying some of these before you go then you probably want to have a quick look at our recipes page!
As you'd expect, seafood plays a large part in coastal menus and the coast is home to Peru's national dish: ceviche. This is a dish either of white fish or a mixture of fish and other seafood, marinaded in Peruvian lemon, coriander, aji and garlic. It's not often that you describe a meal as refreshing but that's what it is - an absolute must-eat! We recommend you try it in Pisco.
Chinese and Japanese influences are also more obvious on the coast (Chinese food, or chifa, is excellent here as well). This is brought to the fore in the criollo classic of lomo saltado: strips of beef, flash-fried with tomato, garlic, aji, red onion, red pepper and perhaps a dash of red wine. Gorgeous! You'll find good chinese restaurants everywhere but those in Lima are probably the best!
There's just too much to mention here but we'll finish off with a quick mention of aji de gallina. It's a creamy, chicken-based dish cooked with walnuts and parmesan that's kind of similar to a good korma and is an absolute classic.
In 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 huge variety of andean cheeses. For fish dishes, it's hard to beat Lake Titicaca for taste and freshness.
Specialities of the region include alpaca. The alpaca is a smaller, cuter version of a llama but please don't let that stop you - it has a wonderful, kind of venison-y, porky, beefy taste and if you can find it in a French-style white wine sauce then you're in heaven (we can probably help you out!). Oh, and we did we mention it only has 1% fat?
The other mountain classic, although it can be hard to find, is a real pre-Inca speciality called pachamanca. This consists of a variety of meats which are wrapped up (usually in tin-foil these days) and placed in a hole in the ground together with hot stones. This has the effect of steaming the meat in its own juices!
Also worth a mention, particularly in Arequipa, 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 - a primitive grain that's been used in Peru for thousands of years - but they can make a good vegetarian alternative as well.
In the jungle
Without being unfair to rainforest-based chefs, the jungle is known more for its ingredients than its haute cuisine. Food here 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!
As far as dishes to try in the jungle go, then a good tip is the Inkicapi - a spicy chicken soup/casserole (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!
Desserts and Puddings
One word: sweet. Peruvians love their dulces, or 'sweet things' and their desserts are often incredibly sweet to europeans. If you get the menú in a restaurant you will always get a little dessert - it may just be jelly, it may be a flan - a kind of set custard - or it may be a little grander. Whatever it is, you can be sure it will be very, very sweet!
Another word: churros. In our eyes, all the other Peruvian desserts and treats fall by the wayside when compared to the awesome churros. Mainly available in Lima, imagine a doughnut shaped like a head of corn. Now fill it with caramel. Then coat in in sugar. Then deep-fry it. Now coat it in sugar again. Ready? Now deep-fry it again. Then coat it in sugar once more, just to be sure, and serve warm: preferably in a brown paper bag on the street for you to eat on the way to the dentists! Oh boy, it's good...
Aside from the regional specialities, there are a number of dishes that you can find pretty much everywhere and which are very unlikely to let you down. Foremost among these is the classic 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.
You'll also find common ways of preparing food such as chicharrones - crispy, battered pieces of chicken, turkey or fish - and milanesa - chicken, turkey or fish, pressed flat and fried in breadcrumbs. These are both usually served with rice, potatoes and the standard Peruvian salad of raw red onion, chopped tomato and lettuce, with a lemony dressing.
Vegetarian food in Peru
It has to be said that Peruvians love their meat and most of their traditional dishes are based around either fish or meat 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. It's also worth remembering that the Peruvian take on chinese and italian food is very good and rice or noodle-based traditional dishes like arroz con pollo and tallarin saltado can easily be made (and ordered!) with vegetables instead of meat. Just let us know before you travel and we'll make sure you go equipped!
And that's without starting on the drinks! Peru boasts several good lagers: particularly cuzqueña and arequipeña. Although originating from Cuzco, 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 although unless you're a seasoned guiness drinker you might find more than a few sit a little heavy! You can actually get Cuzqueña in some branches of Tesco these days...
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. Where Peru does excel is in the production of Pisco - the traditional Peruvian brandy. This is a clear brandy that is drunk neat, with mixers and in cocktails like the famous Pisco Sour - see our recipe page for instructions!
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... Draw your own conclusions!
We don't see the point in going on holiday in Peru if you only get to see the main sights and the inside of your hotel, so we only use hotels in the best possible locations, usually just off the main square so you don't have far to go when you want to get out and explore!
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