My interest in Peru started first as an fascination with the Inca empire. As a kid I was prone to spending hours flipping through National Geographic magazines, and I have distinct memories of glossy photos of the brightly colored kipu knots and golden vestments of the Inca.
Years after I had last touched a National Geographic, I finally made a trip to Peru and saw firsthand the magnificence of the Incas at Macchu Picchu. But I also experienced the other national treasure of Peru, which some might argue is on par with Macchu Picchu – the food. For those new to South American cuisine, it can be easy to overlook the variety of culinary traditions and flavors among the different countries. But the food of Peru is completely unique, and truly in a league of its own. Lima is regularly rated among the best destinations in the world for food, and has multiple restaurants that are ranked along with Noma and Eleven Madison Park as the best restaurants in the world.
And I was luckier even than the already lucky people who visit Peru, because I had my own private guide during the trip. My boyfriend was raised in Peru and may be the only person I know who eats with as much gusto as I do. While in Peru I went wherever he told me to go and ate whatever he ordered.
I had barley started to absorb Lima’s chaotic traffic, full of wheezing and sputtering combis (combis can loosely be called buses, but more closely resemble the jeepneys of Manila), and heavy, dense humidity when we made our first stop. We had been in Lima all of one hour, but it was breakfast time. We were the first customers to arrive at the El Chinito, one of Lima’s most beloved sandwich shops, or sangucheria, and we had come to try one of Peru’s most beloved sandwiches, el chicharron.
Chicharron refers to the type of meat, typically pork that has been boiled and then fried, and is also the name of a sandwich. The chicharron sandwich is simple, but perfect. It is made with a few pieces of fatty chicharron, slices of boiled sweet potato, and salsa criolla, for a bit a spice, crunch, and acid.
Salsa criolla a critical condiment in Peruvian cuisine and served with most meals. Salsa criolla is made with thinly sliced red onions, lime juice, spicy pepper (typically rocoto), and cilantro. Many Peruvians put it on just about anything, and in large quantities.
Even people who are unfamiliar with Peruvian food know about ceviche. It appears in many fusion restaurants, often so dressed up that it no longer resembles anything a Peruvian would consider ceviche. The “real” ceviche has only five ingredients – fresh fish, lime juice, red onion, salt and hot pepper (rocoto is the most commonly used pepper). Acceptable additions also include cilantro, choclo, which is kind of large kernelled corn, sweet potato, and seaweed. “Unacceptable” additions at which Peruvians would sneer in disgust include tomatoes, tomato juice, and fruit of any kind.
I had my first real ceviche of the trip at La Picanteria, a casual restaurant in the neighborhood of Surquillo in Lima. The communal tables, woven roof, and colorful paper flags are intended to evoke the feeling of picanterias, small restaurants specializing spicy home cooking. I wouldn’t have guessed this restaurant is ranked as one of the top 50 in Latin America on its ambiance, which is casual, friendly, and during peak times, loud.
The emphasis is fish, which are typically served whole and can easily feed three or four people. But we didn’t let the fact that it was only two of us keep us from ordering a sudado de pescado and adding on an order of ceviche and lengua (tongue).
Sudado de pescado is a very traditional fish stew from the northern coastal area of Peru. A simple broth of onions, tomatoes, garlic, fish broth, and alcohol is made before a seasoned fish is added and cooked through. The traditional sudado also relies on one more critical ingredient – chicha, a fermented corn drink with origins that significantly pre-date the Incas. I have attempted to make sudado de pescado myself a few times, and realized then that I hadn’t come close to replicating the depth of flavors in the broth, or the tenderness of the fish.
Wanting to try something a little more adventurous, we ordered tongue, or lengua. I have had tongue on a few occasions before, and this was the most tender and flavorful yet. Tongue is very fatty, so it’s not hard to get it tender, and it absorbs flavors really well when cooked slowly.
While at Picanteria, I also had my first taste in Peru of real pisco. Pisco is a hard liquor somewhat similar to brandy made from fermented grapes. It comes from the wine making region of the same name in Peru, and is also made in Chile. If a Chilean and Peruvian are in the same room, one will inevitably start a conversation (read: argument) about whose country makes the better pisco. Though most people in the U.S. know of pisco through pisco sours, chilcanos are another very popular pisco-based drink in Peru. Chilcanos are simple, made with ginger ale and lime juice, and the perfect companion to strong Peruvian spices. The key to a good chilcano, besides good pisco, is high quality ginger ale. The chilcano at Picanteria was unusually good, and tasted like it was made with fresh ginger.
The unapologetic gluttony continued at Panchita, one of many restaurants from Gaston Acurio, chef and restaurant impresario beloved by Peruvians and credited with bringing Peruvian cuisine to international attention. Panchita is a popular mid-range restaurant that focuses on comida criollo, traditional Peruvian home-cooking.
Comida criollo is defined by its eclecticism, combining ancient Andean ingredients, such as quinoa and indigenous peppers, with those introduced by the Spanish and by African slaves. As large numbers of immigrants from China and Japan entered Peru in the 19th century, Eastern cooking techniques and ingredients were also adopted into Peruvian cooking. What today is considered traditional Peruvian home cooking is really a fusion, centuries in the making, of different cuisines from all over the world.
I had had many traditional Peruvian dishes before, such as aji de gallina, lomo saltado, and cau cau, but wanted to try them as made by the master, aka Gaston Acurio. We ordered a platter of what was essentially traditional Peruvian cuisine’s greatest hits – olluquito (Andean tubers cooked with jerky), rachi rachi (blood sausage similar to morcilla), cau cau (tripe stew criollo style), patita con mani (pork feet in peanut sauce) , carapapulcra (dehydrated Andean potatoes stewed with pork), chanfainita (beef lung stew), aji de gallina (shredded chicken in a spicy sauce), and frijoles (stewed beans).
While all dishes were enjoyable (except for maybe the lung – I loved the sauce but didn’t like the lung itself), aji de gallina deserves a bit more than a momentary mention. Aside from ceviche, this is the dish probably most beloved by Peruvians, and most associated with Peruvian cuisine. Aji means pepper and gallina means hen, referring to the two main ingredients. The aji amarillo (yellow pepper) is what gives the dish its characteristic color, as well as a strong, spicy flavor. Milk, softened bread, cheese, and crushed walnuts are used to create the thick, creamy sauce. A bizarre mix of ingredients and cooking methods perhaps, but the result is entirely unique and delicious.
As expected, the enormous platter was served with salsa criolla, and rice with choclo, a relative of corn that has much bigger, starchier kernels. This was the meal that made me see the necessity of salsa criolla. All the dishes were rich and filling; the bite of acid and crunch from the salsa criolla kept the meal from becoming overwhelming.
Only a day in Lima was necessary to highlight the sophistication and variety of Peruvian food. Luckily, I still had many more days in Peru to further explore its diverse cuisine. In upcoming posts I’ll spend more time on some of the finer dining establishments in Lima (and in the world) and on traditional Andean cuisine.
El Chinito – Jirón Chancay 894, Lima 15001. +51 1 423 2197
La Picanteria – Santa Rosa 388, Surquillo 15074, Peru. +51 1 241 6676
Panchita – Avenida Dos de Mayo 298, Miraflores 15074, Peru. +51 1 242 5957