There are good reasons Peru is one of the primary culinary destinations in South America. The geographic diversity (mountains, jungles, deserts, coastline and more) combines with centuries-long traditions from indigenous cultures and a capital city where creative chefs are constantly innovating. Taken together, this means the country is always producing exciting and delicious food.
Peru is the birthplace of the humble potato (there are over 4,000 types here), but don't overlook this simple ingredient. In Peru, you’ll find sizes, shapes and presentations of potatoes you have likely never seen or tasted. Similarly, there are hundreds of corn varieties, resulting in dishes and beverages (alcoholic and nonalcoholic) that are novel to many visitors. The country grows a staggering variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, which is largely due to the land’s geographic diversity. The Amazon jungle covers a large part of the country, and it produces an array of unusual and unique tropical fruits, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Like coffee and chocolate? Peru is a leading producer of both. Locals recognize this abundance of globally loved foods and cater to the demand with new establishments and products that allow visitors to taste the best the country has to offer.
As if that weren't enough, the sizable populations of Chinese and Japanese immigrants have had a unique influence on Peruvian food. This can be experienced, for example, in chifas—simple, inexpensive and tasty Chinese restaurants found all over the country. Wherever you go in Peru, from the fertile high-altitude Andes (home of quinoa, potatoes and corn) to the Amazon, with its exotic fruits, to the swanky, cosmopolitan restaurants in Lima, good food is never hard to find here.
The Dining Experience in Peru
In Peru, eating can be enjoyed in many different forms. Lima is known for its cutting-edge cuisine and trendy restaurants, and if you want to taste some of the continent’s most innovative food, try one of the many exciting options in the capital. In Cuzco, Arequipa, Puno and other tourist cities, all kinds of restaurants cater to visitors' tastes. While pizza, hamburgers and sandwiches can be found everywhere, ranging widely in quality, you can also try fantastic Neapolitan-style pizza, Middle Eastern falafel, sushi and authentic local restaurants in tourist-frequented areas. You’ll also find great food on the street, such as anticuchos (barbecued meat on a skewer), countless varieties of corn (on and off the cob), fruit juices and potatoes in many forms.
Many small restaurants in tourist areas offer a menu, particularly at lunchtime. This is usually a three-course meal (or more), and it’s often authentic, tasty and affordable. You’re also likely to come upon pollerias, simple roast chicken restaurants serving succulent birds with french fries and delicious dipping sauces. While attention should be paid to the hygiene of each specific eating establishment, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, feel free to explore as much as you want!
Typical Peruvian Dishes
No matter where you are, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Peruvian delicacies:
· Lomo Saltado
Possibly the country’s most well-known dish, it exemplifies the influence of Chinese cuisine on Peruvian food. It consists of tender chunks of beef stir-fried with onions, bell peppers and soy sauce, and it’s served with white rice and french fries. It can be found just about everywhere and always hits the spot!
Before it became a ubiquitous superfood found on menus and in supermarkets all over the world, quinoa was a staple food of Peruvians, particularly those from the mountainous areas, where it’s cultivated. Technically a seed but used more like a grain, quinoa is incorporated into countless dishes, including salads and soups. It’s also formed into patties and pancakes and used in baked goods.
Originating in Peru (the word comes from the indigenous Quechua word siwichi, meaning “fresh fish”), this dish can be found nearly everywhere, and it rarely disappoints. While the best versions are found in Lima and on the coast, it's just as delicious in the mountains, where it's made with delicate freshwater fish, such as trout. It's traditionally served on top of sliced sweet potatoes, corn or a mixture of both. This absorbs the lime and juices from the fish and adds depth of flavor to the meal.
Don't let the humble spud fool you. North Americans might be used to only a couple of different types of potato, but this vegetable is taken very seriously here. There are potatoes of practically any shape and color, and many visitors are surprised by how different the flavors are between varieties and applied cooking techniques.
It’s said that over 100 years ago, during the border war between Peru and Chile, all that was left was potato. The wives of the Peruvian soldiers made the best of this by serving a cold mash potato salad and other ingredients to accompany it. Referring to the simple dish, those wives were said to utter, "This is for the cause." Thus, causa was born. Today, it’s a classic Peruvian dish with potato, tuna, avocado and tomato.
· Aji de Gallina
It’s not unusual to hear multiple people vehemently claim their grandmothers make the best aji de gallina. It’s a chicken and chili dish that includes shredded chicken, yellow chilies, bread or crackers, parmesan, pecans, onion, garlic and a few other miscellaneous ingredients. The dish was created to mop up the leftovers from previously cooked chicken, and it’s served with rice and potatoes.
Backroads Pro Tip
Ceviche is a must in Peru. Find a reputable place, and dive in. The quality of the fish is unparalleled, and the subtle touches that are common here (slices of chili peppers, sweet potatoes and corn) are often new for visitors.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Because of Peru’s rich history, traditions and geographic diversity, many local touches exist in the food from each city and area. While certain national dishes, such as lomo saltado, ceviche and ubiquitous casual options (chifas and pollerias), can be found nearly everywhere, they will often have a local regional spin that offers a fresh take on these famous delights.
Generally speaking, though, food in Lima is more influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as innovative chefs who incorporate Peruvian ingredients into these more globalized culinary flavors. Its location on the coast means fresh, high-quality seafood is readily available, and products from all over the country can be found in its markets. That said, outside of the tourist areas, which largely cater to Western tastes, the everyday food here is largely centered on the relatively unexciting combination of chicken and potatoes.
On the other hand, in Cuzco and the mountainous areas of the Andes (where many travelers visit on the way to Machu Picchu and several Incan sites), the food is quite different and reflects more indigenous influences and methods. Locals in these areas make use of ingredients and dishes that have been eaten for hundreds of years—some since pre-Incan times. The everyday food is simple, healthy and delicious, and it utilizes the incredibly fresh produce grown in these fertile areas. Fresh salads, nourishing soups and savory stews (perfect for combatting the chilly mountain air!) often include potatoes, quinoa, yams, avocados, Swiss chard and many other vegetables, which make the food healthy and quite filling.
A couple of local specialties from each region include the following:
Related to the llama, alpacas live in high-altitude areas and are prized for their soft fur and tasty meat. Lean, tender and versatile, alpaca meat is most often found ground in burgers, but don't be afraid to try other versions too!
To the surprise of Americans who only think of guinea pigs as pets, these animals are a Peruvian delicacy, and for many poor residents of the rural mountains, they're the only source of animal protein in their diets. Often fried or roasted whole, guinea pig is largely found on the table for special occasions and public events. The flavor is surprisingly mild.
· Chupe de Camarones
This prawn chowder has its origins in Arequipa (a city in southern Peru) but has been adopted by Limeños (residents of Lima) as one of their own. It features a rich mix of prawns, cream, cumin, tomatoes, broad beans, onions, garlic and various other ingredients, and it’s served with a poached egg. It’s a hearty stew-like seafood soup that easily competes with any great bouillabaisse.
Peruvian Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Choclo: Regional word for “corn”
· Aji: Spicy chili peppers, although the term is also used for chili/spicy sauce
· Kiwicha: Another seed used as a grain (very similar to quinoa)
· Anticucho: Grilled skewer of meat, most often beef hearts
· Chica: A corn-based beverage that’s sometimes alcoholic and sometimes more like a juice
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Peruvian people (especially in touristy areas) speak some English, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Here are some to get you started at the restaurant:
· Could I have the bill, please?: La cuenta, por favor.
· I’m a vegetarian: Soy vegetariano.
· Thank you: Gracias
· Waiter: Mesero (male) or Mesera (female)
· Water: Agua
· Restroom: Baño
· Bon appetit!: Buen provecho!
Tipping is not expected or required in Peru. However, leaving 10 percent for good service or rounding up your bill is appreciated and common, especially in touristy areas. That being said, tipping is generally more common and expected in upscale restaurants; tourists shouldn’t feel obligated in bars or casual eateries.
Peruvian dining hours and etiquette are similar to what you’d find in North America. While street food is common and fast, casual options, such as roast chicken and sandwich shops, are readily found, customs and hours of sit-down restaurants are much like those in the United States.
The waitstaff will often not want to disturb you while you’re eating and enjoying the dining experience, so you might have to flag down your server to ask for the bill if it’s not offered up.