Known for the Amazon Rainforest, the mysterious Nazca Lines, and Machu Picchu, Peru is a varied landscape with even more diverse cuisine. From the coast to the mountainous highlands, each region has contributed to creating some of the dishes Peru is known for. Additionally, the combination of local produce, indigenous recipes, Spanish colonial influences, and innovative twists from immigrant populations have created a unique experience for your taste buds.
In particular, Lima has become known on the international culinary stage for having several critically acclaimed, high-end restaurants that serve mouth-watering dishes inspired by local ingredients. Whether you choose to stop in Lima or travel throughout Peru, here are some of the best local dishes to keep on your radar.
Even those who don’t know much about Peruvian cuisine are familiar with ceviche. The popular raw fish “salad” from the Peruvian coast has found its way onto menus outside of the country. Yet, a dish is best when tried in the country where it originated, especially when a Peruvian-grown lime is concerned.
Contrary to popular belief, ceviche is not cooked over a flame. Its cooked appearance comes from the interaction between the fish and lemon-lime marinade.
The raw fish — usually a white flesh fish like sea bass or flounder — is cut into small pieces, tossed with diced red onion, aji peppers, and a marinade. The tangy and spicy flavors of this appetizer are paired well with sweet potatoes, corn, or crackers, although it’s just as delicious on its own. This local dish is best enjoyed along the coast of Peru, where fresh seafood is abundant.
2. Lomo Saltado
If there’s only one dish to know before visiting a restaurant in Peru, it’s lomo saltado. Traditionally, the dish consists of meat strips (either beef or alpaca), rice, and fried potatoes.
Although it might be surprising to have both rice and potatoes on one plate, lomo saltado is a Peruvian-Chinese fusion dish that was created over 150 years ago when thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru. Having to earn money and adapt to a new culture, they opened restaurants and added their own spin on Peruvian dishes, which led to this modern-day Peruvian classic. Lomo saltado consists of a beautiful blending of Peruvian ingredients with Chinese-style stir fry.
The stir-fry melds the flavors of onions, tomatoes, spicy chilies (aji chilies are abundantly found in Peru) and spices. You can find this dish in almost any area in Peru. It’s hearty, flavorful, and filling, perfect fuel for a full day of exploring.
3. Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Although this dish might garner some shocked reactions, guinea pig — known as cuy (pronounced kwee) in Peru — is a national delicacy.
Cuy have been eaten by the Incas for centuries, but this tradition has now spread to the rest of Peru, beyond the Incan’s descendants and Andean farmers. Although guinea pigs in the United States are kept as pets, their meat is a great, low-fat source of protein for Peruvians. Although there are no updated numbers, in 2004 it was estimated that over 65 million guinea pigs were consumed in Peru.
Depending on how cuy is cooked, it might not look appealing. Many restaurants bake or roast guinea pigs whole and serve them in this manner, with the head, claws, and buck teeth included! When cooked, cuy don’t retain their pudgy appearance. Instead, they are quite boney under all the fur. Visual aesthetic aside, cuy tastes similarly to deliciously seasoned chicken wings or wildfowl. It’s usually served with potatoes, salsa, and a side of vegetables.
To continue with our theme of not-typically-consumed-in-the-U.S. meat dishes, adventurous eaters may want to try Peru’s native alpaca.
Peru has an abundance of alpacas that roam its highland regions. They’re an invaluable resource to the local people, mainly for their thick wool that’s spun into socks, scarves, and sweaters. In addition to extremely warm clothing, alpacas are used for their meat. As part of the camelid family, alpaca meat is extremely lean, somewhat gamey, and high in protein.
Alpaca meat is consumed outside of Peru, but the way it’s prepared is the key differentiator. Alpaca can be found on many menus in Peru and cooked in various ways. You can try alpaca as a burger, a stir fry (in lomo saltado), or roasted on its own.
Some people are wary of eating from street carts, but sometimes it’s their vendors who cook the best snacks. This includes anticuchos: marinated beef hearts. Why hearts? Because it was one of the organs that Spaniards wouldn’t eat and left for their slaves. The hearts were skewered (a preparation inspired by the Incas) and grilled over an open fire.
Today, anticuchos are considered a national treat. The meat is usually marinated in a garlicky sauce that contains spices, including a spicy red pepper (aji panca). After soaking in the juices, the meat is skewered with a wooden stick and grilled. Corn or potatoes are usually a great addition to the smoky meat kebab.
If you prefer not to walk on the wild side with street vendors, some higher-end restaurants have started to include anticuchos as an appetizer on their menus.
6. Aji De Gallina
This pastel yellow sauce is unlike most other Peruvian dishes, yet its ingredients are Peruvian through and through. In fact, the sauce’s yellow color comes from the pepper aji amarillo, and in 2014, Michelin-star chef Virgilio Martinez told The Telegraph that “the DNA of Peruvian cuisine is yellow chili, the aji amarillo.”
The hot pepper has a certain sweetness that creates a flavorful and complex taste that shines in this dish. The aji amarillo is prepared with cheese, cream, and nuts into a curry-style sauce in which shredded chicken is cooked. Thickened with softened bread, the sauce is usually served over a carb, such as potatoes or rice, to soak in all the flavor.
Garnished with a cut egg and a few olives, it’s a perfect dish to order at the restaurant on a winter day in Peru.
Amongst all the savory Peruvian food, a sweet dish is in order. Picarones are likened by some to doughnuts. The concept is the same: deep-fried dough in the shape of a ring, but there are some differences as well.
Picarones are made from mashing sweet potato and squash and combining them with a mixture of flour, sugar, and yeast — no eggs required. The other difference is that these fried pieces of goodness are drizzled with syrup made from unrefined cane sugar.
In the evenings, when you’re walking “home” after dinner, you’ll smell a picarones stand before you see it. Don’t pass up the opportunity to get freshly cooked picarones from a street vendor — it’s a sticky sweet treat that you need to try at least once in your life.
8. Pisco Sours
Raise a glass to experiencing the best food Peru has to offer. Salud! Although technically not a dish, pisco sours are just as important when it comes to having an authentic Peruvian culinary experience. This drink will compliment almost any meal you order in Peru. It even has a national holiday named after it; the first Saturday in February is Dia Nacional del Pisco Sour (National Pisco Sour Day)!
Considered a brandy, pisco is made from a sweet grape varietal that is distilled only once. Ranging between 38 to 38 proof, once distilled, the alcohol has a transparent look to it, much like vodka. You can even visit a distillery in Ica to try pisco right from the source.
Although there are many cocktails that can be made from pisco (or it can be sipped on its own), pisco sours are popular for their sweet-and-sour flavor. Your drink will contain a shot of pisco mixed with simple syrup and lime juice and be topped with fluffy egg whites and bitters.
Going to Lima (and beyond)? Read up on these nine things to know about Peru’s incredible culture, and don’t miss these six hidden gems in Peru.