The food of Peru: 15 Peruvian dishes you have to try

Centred on spice and big on flavour, Peruvian cooking is a joy to discover, bringing a skilful balance of delicate and robust tastes. The bite of red chili comes perfectly complemented by the freshest seafood and dashings of lime, though hearty stews and grilled meats are also ubiquitous for when only comfort cuisine will do. Peruvian food traditions have been shaped by diverse forces, ancient Incan traditions being the baseline of cuisine influenced heavily by Spanish conquistadors and immigrant aspirations from across Asia, West Africa and Europe. Beyond food and an obligatory pisco sour, discover the best attractions on the road from Lima to Machu Picchu with our ultimate Perú itinerary.

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Machu Picchu | Photo: Victor Rodriguez

Peruvian cuisine

Spanish influence in Peruvian cuisine dates back to the Spanish conquest of Incan King Atahualpa in the 1500s, when colonists brought over recipes for European stews, sauces and casseroles. Centuries later, Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province brought wok-style cooking to the region, inspiring the fusion cuisine of ‘chifa’ (coming from the Chinese phrase ‘to eat rice’). Today, Peruvian food continues to adapt, presenting a new style called ‘nueva comida’ that has been led by local contemporary chefs such as Gaston Acurio and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.

‘Nikkei’ cuisine is another fusion label to describe Peruvian-Japanese dishes, a style dating back to the late 19th century when 800 Japanese migrants arrived in Peru looking for work on sugar plantations. In the years after, Japanese workers became a significant part of the local community, opening businesses and restaurants in great number.

A range of climates, from high to low altitudes, makes for a diverse national pantry, including 3,800 kinds of potatoes alone! Traditional Peruvian food staples include potatoes, soup, rice, corn and seafood, with preferred meats being Peruvian chicken, alpaca and guinea pig. At many a Peruvian restaurant, you’ll commonly be served a traditional soup or stew to start, often containing quinoa, corn and meat. Roasted corn kernels in spicy sauce also feature as an alternative to soup. The main course usually includes rice and potato alongside meat or seafood, followed by a small Peruvian dessert.

Cuzco | Photo: Jose Ayala

Peruvian drinks

Move over tequila, there’s a new kid in town and he goes by the name pisco, the national drink of Peru and your new favourite alcoholic beverage. A low-alcohol alternative for Peruvian drinks is chicha de jora, a fermented beverage made from yellow corn (jora) in the style of European beer, though usually only between 1-3% alcohol.

For something pre-5 o’clock, Peru also has a couple of choice soft drinks to sip on. The first – more traditional – option is the chicha morada, a cold purple drink made from purple corn, cinnamon, green apples, pineapple and brown sugar. The second, less natural choice is Inca Kola, Peru’s most popular soft drink, similar to bubblegum in flavour and packed with sugar.

Mate de coca provides even more of a boost, otherwise known as coca tea or Peruvian coffee and made from coca leaves. Somewhat controversially, coca leaves contain low quantities of cocaine (0.5-1% cocaine alkaloid) meaning travellers hoping to pass a drug test after their travels may wish to avoid it. If travelling onwards to Asia, don’t buy coca leaves as a souvenir, as some countries such as Singapore will treat this as smuggling! Regardless of international judgement, mate de coca has a long heritage within Peru, said to have given Incan workers the energy to build Machu Picchu, using the leaves to overcome hunger and high-altitude sickness.

Machu Picchu

Photo: Ray Berry

Pisco | Photo: Lorena Samponi

1. Ceviche

Peru’s national dish, ceviche is becoming more and more popular around the globe and is a must-try when in Peru. The word ceviche comes from the Quechuan (the indigenous language of Peru) word ‘siwichi’ meaning ‘fresh fish’, but the type of fish differs depending on the region and chef. Healthy and zesty, the raw fish is marinated in lemon juice then mixed with aji pepper, red onion and salt to serve. Boiled or dry-roasted corn (cancha) can also be added for a nice crunch. Ceviche is best eaten by the coast to ensure the freshness of the fish, with Lima home to a great many variations at all price points, from fine dining to street food.

‘Leche de tigre’ (or tiger’s milk) is a sauce similar to ceviche marinade but made with fish stock. Peruvians believe this juice to have restorative properties (and aphrodisiac ones). As well as being a seafood sauce, is often drunk as a shot alone or mixed with pisco when it is rebranded ‘leche de pantera’ (panther’s milk).

Photo: Pirata Studio Film

2. Causa Rellena

A hundred years ago in the war between Peru and Chile, the nation underwent trying times and it is said that the only crop left was the potato. Peruvian wives worked their magic on this basic staple to create ‘causa’ (‘for the cause’), a cold potato dish layered with eggs, celery, olives and chilli, all jazzed up with a zesty dressing. Fast forward a century and causa has become a classic of Peruvian cuisine, served as the traditional causa rellena (with corn, cabbage and other vegetables) or in variations such as causa limeña (with added tuna, avocado and tomato), best tasted at one of the homely looking ‘restaurantes en Lima’.

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Bringing meaty fusion to the table, lomo saltado is a Chinese-Peruvian beef stir-fry almost as popular as ceviche for its ease of preparation and juicy flavour

3. Lomo Saltado

Bringing meaty fusion to the table, lomo saltado is a Chinese-Peruvian beef stir-fry almost as popular as ceviche for its ease of preparation and juicy flavour. For lomo saltado, strips of beef (or sometimes alpaca) are marinated in soy sauce, tossed into a wok and flambéed with onions, tomatoes, aji chilies and spices, before being served beside a bounty of carbs, often rice and Peruvian potatoes to please both Eastern and Western tastes.

Lomo saltado | Photo: Comunicaciones Mpgi

4. Ají de Gallina

Every Peruvian grandmother’s speciality, ají de gallina is a chicken stew commonly served alongside white rice eggs and potatoes. Book a homestay in Lima to try this dish at its best, savouring the hearty mix of shredded chicken in a mild yet creamy sauce of yellow chilis, walnuts, garlic, cheese, bread and various spices. Ají de gallina’s flavour profile traces back to the African slave trade of the 16th century, when African’s arrived in Peru in large numbers and served to influence the food of Peru until today.

5. Tiradito

A prime example of nikkei cuisine (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) is a dish called tiradito. Despite being similar to ceviche, tiradito takes a slightly more delicate approach, serving thin cuts of raw fish with the accompaniment of leche de tigre sauce, as opposed to a prior marinade. This way, the fish retains more of its light flavour and the sauce can be added as preferred.

Tiradito | Photo: Yasmina Rodríguez

Photo: Silvia Trigo

6. Pollo a la Brasa

A spot of Peruvian rotisserie chicken can be enjoyed across Peru and internationally, seen on local menus as pollo a la brasa. For this dish, a whole chicken is marinated in a combination of garlic, herbs and spices before being spit-roasted to a crispy finish and served with Peruvian black mint sauce (green huacatay). Though the secret to this sauce is closely guarded, simply put, it is mayonnaise mixed with cilantro, garlic and chilli. Pollo a la brasa is such a popular food in Peru, every 16th of July is dedicated as ‘Dia del pollo a la brasa’.

7. Anticuchos de Corazon

Another dish with Afro-Peruvian roots, anticuchos de corazon comes as the result of the ingenuity of African slaves when given offal to eat. Spanish colonisers would take the best part of the cow for themselves and give the offcuts to their slaves. To make the meat as flavourful as possible, the Africans would marinate the meat in spices, vinegar and smoky chilies and skewer them with potatoes and onion for roasting in a charcoal oven. Though anglicised as ‘beef heart skewers’, today, anticuchos de corazon is often enjoyed with lean cuts of meat rather than organs, cooked medium rare as late-night street food or as an entrée in upscale restaurants.

Anticuchos | Photo: Victoria Shes

Photo: Joe Green

8. Tacu Tacu

A hearty home-cooked favourite, tacu tacu can be likened to a Peruvian version of bubble and squeak, or a rice and beans dumpling depending on your frame of reference. The dish uses up leftover Peru traditional foods, namely day-old canary beans, mashing them down into patties with chili, vegetables, hass avocados and sometimes mango before pan-frying and serving alongside steak and a fried egg.

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When you don’t want raw seafood, jalea de mariscos is the fried dish to go for, a Peruvian take on the Italian favourite of ‘fritto misto’

9. Jalea de Mariscos

When you don’t want raw seafood, jalea de mariscos is the fried dish to go for, a Peruvian take on the Italian favourite of ‘fritto misto’. For the Peruvian version, bite-size chunks of seafood are dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with salsa criolla, a dip that cuts perfectly through the oil with a zesty mix of tomatoes, onion, cilantro, lime and Peruvian chilis.

As a warming seafood alternative, chupe de camarones is a Peruvian prawn chowder originating from Arequipa but adopted across the country owing to the dish’s objective deliciousness. The creamy sauce of chupe de camarones is made using onions, garlic, cream, corn, tomatoes, broad beans and spices, often served with other meats or vegetables instead of the traditional prawns.

Photo: Aldana Malpartida

10. Conchitas a la Parmesana

Travellers missing European flavours can try conchitas a la parmesana for a little taste of home. Derived from Italian styles, this dish is prepared by briefly pan-frying fresh scallops in Worcestershire sauce, lime, butter and salt, before topping with parmesan and broiling for a few minutes. Serve with an essential squeeze of lime and you’ve got yourself the ultimate protein-laden appetiser.

11. Papa a la Huancaina

If you’ve got room for another appetiser, make it the papa a la huancaina, a cheesy potato speciality from Lima. For this dish, potatoes are boiled and served in a spicy huancaina sauce, a yellow goo made from aji amarillo chilis, garlic and cheese. Though papa a la huancaina may not look the most appetising dish, don’t be fooled, as the complex spice, zesty garnish and saltine cracker addition all work to make this one a real crowd-pleaser, as a side or entrée.

Huancaina | Photo: Pirata Studio Film

12. Rocoto Relleno

Peru’s second largest city is Arequipa and it certainly has the food culture to match. Rocoto relleno originated from here but is now served across Peru, as one of the nation’s spicier favourites. Here the fiery red bell pepper known as capsicum pubescens takes centre stage, sometimes boiled to reduce the spice and stuffed with sauteed ground beef and hard-boiled egg. The dish is then topped with cheese and baked before being served whole to happy spice-loving diners.

13. Cuy

Like frog legs to France or chicken feet to China, cuy is Peru’s national delicacy. Cuy is guinea pig meat and a staple in rural Peru, chiefly in Andean towns and villages. Guinea pig is so central to rural Peruvian cooking that it’s even depicted as the centrepiece in a replica of The Last Supper that hangs in a Cusco cathedral.

If you’re looking to try cuy, be aware that the meat is quite bony, often spit-roasted and served whole (complete with the head!) Rather than attempting to eat it with a knife and fork, go ahead and use your fingers like the locals to tear apart the meat, which tastes similar to chicken. The dish also comes in fried and barbecued variations, served with salad and potatoes.

Cuzco | Photo: Jose Ayala

14. Alpaca

While you might know it for the expensive wool in your favourite sweater, alpaca to Peruvians is known foremost as meat for cooking, particularly in the Andean highlands. A must-try food in Machu Picchu and Cusco restaurants (for non-vegetarians that is), alpaca is said to taste similar to other grass-fed meats such as buffalo, gamier than beef but very lean. As a camelid (a smaller cousin of the llama), alpaca has a low fat content perfect for making into jerky, which, coincidentally, is also a native culinary creation, the word ‘jerky’ coming from the Quechua word ‘charqui’ which means ‘to burn’.

15. Suspiro a la Limeña

Saving room for Peruvian desserts, we finish up with suspiro a la limeña, which takes the gorgeously smooth taste of dulce de leche (or caramelised sugar) and combines it with meringue to create the ‘sigh of the lady’. It is said that Peruvian poet Jose Galvez named this dish in honour of his wife who first made it for him, since becoming one of the nation’s favourite desserts, especially in Lima. The dish is a good palette cleanser after a seafood main, best enjoyed with a glass of Peruvian tea or a shot of pisco.

Photo: Davis Vargas

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Rainbow Mountain, Peru | Photo: Mckayla Crump

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