Stretching along the Western coast of South America, Peru was home to the Inca Empire, the largest state in pre-Columbian America, prior to being conquered by the Spanish. Today, due to its pre-colonial, colonial and international influences, Peru stands at the nexus of New World food and its cuisine is considered one of the most delicious and diverse in the world.
Peru has a large variety of Aji (hot peppers), varying in sizes, colors, shapes and flavors. The most common are aji amarillo, aji mirasol, aji panca or aji colorado, and rocoto. Aji has been known to be used in Peru for several thousand years, since Pre-Incan times, and every region has a different type of Aji.
Herbs are a key component of Peruvian cooking, and while we use many, there are four main ones – huacatay, green onions, cilantro and basil. Huacatay, or black mint, is one of the most common herbs used in Peruvian cuisine, used in everything from dips, mixed with aji, to the most well-known dish from the city of Arequipa, Ocopa, a creamy cold sauce made of cheese, dried aji pepper and toasted peanuts served on boiled potatoes. Green onions or cebolla is mainly used for Chifa, the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian flavors, and is also added to soups and dips. Cilantro or culantro is used in a variety of dishes such Arroz con Pollo, rice cooked with chicken, onions, garlic and seasoned with spices such as paprika, anatto and cilantro. Also, stews such as Seco de Carnero (lamb stew) and Seco de carnie (beef stew) get their flavor and color from cilantro. Basil or albahaca, with its strong aroma and taste is perfect for Italian-influenced dishes such Tallarines Verdes (pasta in pesto sauce), and Sopa Menestron, Minestrone Soup, Peruvian Style.
The Regions of Peru
The cuisine of my country is as varied as its geography, which ranges from a coastline running over 1,500 miles to the soaring peaks of the Andes to the rainforest beyond, hugging the border with Brazil and Colombia. Each area has developed its own cooking styles based on local ingredients and pre-colonial and colonial influences.
Peru’s lengthy Pacific Ocean coastline gives the country a large, unique and varied marine life that’s a rich resource for the country’s cuisine. One of the main dishes found throughout the coast is Ceviche, a fish (or fish and shellfish) preparation with lime juice, onions, sweet potatoes, seaweed and corn, which is considered the national dish of Peru and one of the few Peruvian dishes known across the world.
Lima, Peru’s capital, and other cities of the North and Central Coast, are like a wide channel fed by many tributaries: pre-Incan and Incan, European (Spanish, Italian, French) and African, not to mention Polynesian, Chinese and Japanese. Thanks to international immigration as well as migration from Andean cities, there has been a fusion of cuisines, yielding a large variety of delicious dishes. One of my favorite cooking styles is Chifa, a term that is used to define a fusion of the Creole food of Lima with the cuisine brought by Chinese immigrants over 150 years ago. Another of my favorites is Carapulcra, a dried potato stew, slowly cooked and seasoned with red dried aji pepper and meats such chicken and pork, which dates back to the Inca Empire. Other important dishes from the area are Anticuchos, skewered pieces of grilled cow heart, the most common street food in Peru; Causa, cold mashed potatoes seasoned with yellow aji pepper and lime that can be filled with either chicken, shrimp, crab, even fish; Lomo Saltado, beef stir fried with onion and tomatoes, toped with French fries; Chupe de Camarones, a Shrimp Soup cooked with different types of vegetables, including carrots and potatoes, milk and beaten eggs; Shambar, the most traditional meal in Trujillo, a city in Northern Peru made of different kinds of grains and beans, and three different kinds of proteins such as chicken, pork and beef; Seco de Cabrito, a cilantro and chicha de jora (corn beer) scented braised lamb or goat; Cau-Cau, a stew traditionally made of tripe, various spices and mint, it can also be made with chicken or seafood; and Escabeche, typically fried fish topped with onions and pickled in red dried aji and vinegar.
The mountains of Peru have three main staples: corn, potatoes and chilis. With over 4,000 varieties of potatoes found in Peru, they are one of the basic ingredients in many dishes, especially soups and stews. Common proteins here include guinea pigs (cuy, a delicacy in Peru), alpaca and beef. The main freshwater fish found in the mountains is trout.
Much of the area’s cuisine is directly connected to the earth and the Andean people are very conscious of this connection. Pachamanca, one of the most important dishes in the region, is a great example of this – it uses a variety of meats including pork and beef, herbs and vegetables such as potatoes and corn, that are slowly cooked underground on a bed of heated stones. Another native ingredient is the Quinoa grain, which was sacred for the Incas, and of great nutritional importance due to its very high protein content.
Other dishes from the mountain region include Oluuquito con Charqui made with Olluco (a tuber from the pre-Inca populations) cooked with a cured meat called Charqui, Cuy Chactado (fried guinea pig) and Rocoto Relleno, a very hot, spicy chili filled with beef or pork, olives, eggs and topped with cheese.
The Cuisine of the Amazon Region primarily consists of local products from the jungle. Paiche, one of the largest tropical freshwater fish in the world and the main fish eaten in the region, is a key ingredient in a variety of dishes such as Patarashca, where it is wrapped in herbs and grilled. Other varieties of fish common to the area include Boquichico, Bagre, Sabalo and Tucunare.
One of the main dishes here is Juanes, which is in high demand during the festivities of San Juan every June 24. It consists of a rice dough stuffed with hen, hard boiled eggs and olives then wrapped in banana or bijao leaves (a palm tree with a distinct aroma) and steamed for about 1 ½ hours. Another dish is Timbuche, a rich fish broth made with the Boquichico fish, a white flesh fish that is abundant and well known in the Amazon for its nutritional benefits.
The area is also rich in fruits, with one of the most well known being the camu-camu, which is extremely high in Vitamin C. Pineapple, mango and an abundance of plantains also grow here.
Traditional pastry and baking in Peru started in colonial times during the Peruvian Viceroyalty, when sugarcane was introduced to the country. Originally, what we today consider classic Peruvian desserts were made by nuns in convents in and around Lima, who had brought a European influence to the city. Some of them are Mazamorra Morada, a sweet purple corn porridge served with tiny diced apples and pineapples, Suspiro a la Limena, a Manjar Blanco (Dulce de Leche) dessert topped with egg whites and Port meringue, Picarones, yellow squash and sweet potatoes beignets, served with a syrup made of molasses and fig leaves and Turron de Dona Pepa, a nougat said to be invented by an Africa Slave called Josefa, made of anise and molasses syrup, topped with sprinkles and other candy, mostly eaten in October for the procession of the Senor de Los Milagros or the “Lord of Miracles,” a tradition in Peru since the 19th century.
The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, made with Pisco, a distilled brandy made only from Quebranta grapes (a grape without aroma) and simple syrup, ice and egg whites. Chicha de Jora is an alcoholic drink mostly consumed in the Andes region made with fermented maze (corn) and various aromatic herbs. The most popular non alcoholic drink is Chicha Morada, a beverage made from Peruvian purple corn. It can be drunk year round, but is especially delicious in summertime.