With 2,414 kilometres of coastline and a landmass that incorporates tropical jungle and semi-arid highlands, Peru has a rich and varied cuisine that makes perfect use of the bounties of the sea and land. As these culinary traditions continue to gain recognition around the world, there’s no better place to sample some of Peru’s most famous dishes than in Peru itself and to get you started we’ve put together a guide on the best meals to seek out and drinks to accompany them.
Peru’s national dish is combination of raw fish cured with lime or lemon juice and marinated in chillies, chopped onions and sometimes coriander. Served with sweet potato and cob of corn, it’s particular popular along the coast though you’ll even find it served in highland cities like Cuzco where they fly in fresh fish from the capital. Sushi-lovers will enjoy the sashimi-like texture of the fish, shrimp, scallops or squid used in the preparation though it is a dish that divides diners – sometimes the thought of ‘raw’ fish is a little too much for others. Lima’s one of the best places in Peru to sample this classic dish with a great choice of cevicherias throughout the city.
Aji de Gallina
This creamy and mildly spicy dish is the closest thing you’ll find to a Peruvian curry. Shredded chicken is cooked in a sauce made from cream and ground walnuts, and flavoured with aji amarillo peppers that also give it its vibrant colour. It’s traditionally served with rice, boiled potatoes and corn, and topped with a boiled egg and olives. The exact origins of the dish are unclear though the most popular theory is that it came about during the late 18th century when French immigrants fleeing the revolution journeyed to South America looking for work. French chefs and cooks attempting to recreate chicken fricasee had to make do with the ingredients available to them and so the aji de gallina was born.
This traditional dish is a meat and carb combo that will satisfy even the most mammoth of appetites. Marinated strips of beef are stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and peppers and served with rice and fried potatoes. Like many of Peru’s dishes, lomo saltado was also inspired by an immigrant population, specifically the Chinese who brought the technique of stir-fry to Peru along with soy sauce, a key feature of the marinade used to cook the meat. This Peruvian-Chinese creation is one of the country’s most loved dishes and a staple on restaurant menus.
Eaten primarily as a festival food during Peru’s largest celebrations, chiriuchu brings together foods from across the different regions of the country on one plate. For the meat you have roasted guinea pig, roast chicken, cured jerky meat and a bit of sausage while dairy is covered with a slice of tangy farmer’s cheese. But that’s not all – the plate also features seaweed and fish algae from the coast, a deep-fried bread made from corn flour, and crunchy toasted corn kernels. Served cold and eaten with your hands, it’s a quintessential dining experience during the Corpus Christi celebrations held in June though you’ll also find upmarket versions of the dish in some restaurants, especially in Cuzco.
Whether it’s served as an 8 oz. steak, grilled and skewered or sandwiched between a bun, alpaca is a popular meat in Peru and usually has a whole page of the menu dedicated to it in restaurants, especially those catering to tourists who are tempted into trying this exotic meat. With little fat, high in protein and low in cholesterol, it’s a healthy meat that is wonderfully tender and succulent when cooked right with a mild flavour that takes on seasoning well. And it’s gaining recognition across the globe with alpaca meat available to buy from specialist butchers from New Zealand to the UK.
Likely to cause uneasiness among anyone who ever kept them as pets as a child, guinea pig, or cuy (pronounced “kwee”) in Spanish, is a traditional Andean entree and one you’ll find hard to avoid when travelling around Peru. Similar in taste to rabbit, cuy can be prepared in a variety of ways though the most popular seems to be roasted whole like a small suckling pig and seasoned with salt and garlic for a crispy skin. Travelling along the Sacred Valley you’ll pass vendors selling them on skewers, ready to be eaten.
Thanks to health food bloggers and the LA set, the humble pseudo-grain native to Peru, Bolivia and Chile, has taken the world by storm with its high nutrient content of protein, calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. Regardless of its fad status in the Western world, Peruvians have been eating quinoa for some 4,000 years. In the Andean region and around Lake Titicaca it’s a food staple, earning the same level of respect as the potato. Once cooked, the grains become fluffy with a soft crunch and mild nutty flavour and can be used in a similar way you would rice. In Peru you’ll find flavoursome quinoa soups and various ‘quinottos’, risotto-type dishes often served with thick, creamy sauces. It can also be made into a mashed potato-style offering that goes beautifully with an alpaca steak.
Made from purple maize with a deep colour that resembles Ribena, this refreshing drink is given bundles of flavour thanks to the sugar, cinnamon, pineapple, and clove that it is spiced with. Dating back as far as the time before the Inca empire, it’s particularly popular throughout the Sacred Valley and graces non-alcoholic drinks menus across the country.
Combining the brandy liquor of pisco with lime juice, egg whites, syrup and bitters served over ice, this is Peru’s national drink and a permanent fixture on any drinks menu. There’s some dispute between Peru and their neighbours in Chile as to where exactly the cocktail was first invented. Peru claims it was created on their soil in the early 1920s while Chile maintains that the drink was first created in the port city of Iquique in 1872. Peru’s claim holds the most weight but regardless of where or who gave birth to this much-contested beverage, you’ll want to give it a go at least once and there’s no better place to try it than at the Museo del Pisco in Cuzco or Arequipa where you can learn all about the history of the drink and try a few varieties. Keep in mind that altitude seems to amplify the effects of alcohol so that one Pisco sour soon feels like double!
If you have a favourite Peruvian dish not on this list, let us know in the comments section below, or if this has your mouth-watering, check out our range of Peru tours and get yourself over there to try these culinary delights for yourself.