With its varied regional cuisines and incredibly diverse array of platos típicos, Peru is a foodie’s paradise. El Comercio, the country’s chief newspaper, reports that nearly 40 percent of visitors to the South American nation come for the food alone, so that there’s no shortage of gastronomic festivals or tours for those hoping to sample this alimentary abundance. Best of all, all of Peru’s regional cuisines are easily available in Lima, making the capital a melting pot for culinary influences from coast, jungle, and highlands. Here’s a short primer for those unfamiliar with Peru’s great regional menu.
The Peruvian coast stretches some 1,900 miles—longer than the distance between Tijuana, Mexico and Vancouver, Canada. Most of it is desert, but due to the cold-water Humbolt current, its waters teem with fresh seafood, all of which is put to good use in Peru’s varied coastal cuisine.
The centerpiece, of course, of these coastal creations is ceviche, raw fish “cooked” in lime juice and served with corn, chili, onion, and sweet potato. Fleshy and succulent, at once spicy and subtle, the best ceviche is a gustatory revelation, and is best eaten during lunchtime. But if cold dishes aren’t your thing, have no fear: Peruvians are boundlessly inventive when it comes to the fruits of the sea. Arroz con mariscos, comprised of seasoned rice and shellfish, makes a fine accompaniment to any ceviche-based meal, while pescado a lo macho, a fried fish filet topped with a creamy, spicy sauce packed with calamari and shrimp, is a repast unto itself.
When you visit Lima, one of the best places to sample these delicacies is Canta Rana, located in the colorful bohemian district of Barranco. It’s a tad expensive and often busy, owing to its (deserved) reputation, but the location—just minutes from the sea—is unbeatable for ensuring the freshness of the ingredients, and the traditional interior is decked out with football shirts hanging alongside photos of some of the game’s most famous players. Other good options here include pescado al ajo, fish in a creamy garlic sauce, and parihuela, a spicy shellfish stew.
For an even more varied take on Peru’s coastal riches, as well as a spectacular view of the Pacific itself, check out Mi Propiedad Privada, along the malecón (seawalk) in the quiet residential district of San Miguel. The menu here goes on for pages, with many dishes hard to find elsewhere in Peru. Try one of the seafood pastas, and whatever you do, do not, repeat, do not miss out on the grilled octopus in olive oil and rosemary. No more delectable appetizer exists south of paradise.
Pasaje Génova 101 (Barranco)
Mi Propiedad Privada
Av. Costanera 110 (San Miguel)
The potato is Peru’s greatest gift to the world, and the Andes were the cradle where this now-universal tuber got its start, with over 3,000 varieties growing on the terraced slopes that dot the highlands. Animals, too, abound, with rodents (including guinea pigs, which Peruvians call cuyes) and large herd mammals, such as vicuna and alpacas, all part of the regional menu.
Sounds exotic? It is, and the richness of this cuisine stems in part from a lack of human interference. After the fall of the Inca Empire, many areas in the Peruvian sierra remained undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadores. This was in no small part due to the high altitude and mountainous terrain, which made the area difficult to negotiate for the Iberians. Eventually, though, these regions were roped into the Spanish colonies, and their gastronomic treasures became part of what makes Peruvian food so memorable today.
Not that it’s necessary to go trekking in the highlands to enjoy Andean delicacies. Gastón Acurio, Peru’s culinary superstar, is an influential champion of Andean food right in Lima, and his Astrid y Gastón, which just moved to an elegant new mansion in the San Isidro district, is considered by many to be the best restaurant in South America. This elegant bistro serves cocina novoandina, a fusion of pre-Columbian customs and cooking techniques with modern European accents. Try the cuy apolítico, roasted guinea pig, or the asado de tira, beef short ribs in a rich glaze.
If you’re more tradition-minded, Huancahuasi, a cozy Andean hideout tucked away in the La Victoria district, provides a more down-home version of highland cooking. Standouts here include causas (sushi-like rolls of mashed potatoes filled with different ingredients, such as quinoa or trout) and a scrumptious lomo saltado made with alpaca. The restaurant is open only for lunch, so plan accordingly.
Astrid y Gastón
Av. Paz Soldán 290 (San Isidro)
Av. Javier Prado Este 1405, Urbanización Santa Catalina (La Victoria)
Although technically part of the Pacific coast, the northern region of Peru around the cities of Trujillo and Chiclayo has a warmer, more tropical climate than the desert beaches further south. The area also shows stronger links to pre-Inca indigenous civilizations than the rest of Peru, so that the menu here has its own northern accent.
One area where la diferencia norteña is especially visible is in the region’s seafood, which includes a ceviche made using conchas negras (black shellfish) in place of the white fish that normally comprises the dish’s base. However, norteño cuisine isn’t just about fish: seco de cabrito, one of the most famous regional specialties, is a spicy stew made from roasted goat and yucca, while arroz con pato a la Chiclayana, a dish typical of the northern town of Chiclayo, consists of duck, rice, and vegetables in a spicy sauce.
In Lima, authentic restaurantes norteños aren’t as common as those from other regions, but those who seek them out are amply rewarded. Probably the best—and one of the least known—is Don Fernando, in Jesús María. As yet undiscovered by tourists, it’s jealously guarded by locals as a limeño secret. The setting is charming, a quiet inner courtyard in a converted townhouse, but the kitchen is open for lunch only, so call ahead for reservations. Equally popular among the city’s gourmets is the highly regarded Restaurante Moche, in the San Borja district. Try the tamalito verde, accompanied by the ceviche mixto.
Av. Garzón 1788 (Jesús María)
Av. San Luis 2203
Most people fail to realize the sheer size of the Peruvian Amazon: sprawled out over some 300,000 square miles, it makes up more than 60 percent of the country’s land mass. Not surprisingly, this vast, dense rainforest, through which the winding Amazon River meanders, is home to a rich array of nutritious ingredients, with exotic fruits and fish in abundant supply. If you’re looking for something truly offbeat, this is it.
The best-known jungle dishes in Peru are tacacho and cecina. The former consists of roasted plantains mixed with pork fat and served in small balls resembling the stuffing Americans eat at Thanksgiving, while the latter is salted pork, usually prepared on a hot, smoky grill—think spare ribs, but wilder and more flavorful. In most restaurantes selváticos, you can wash down these specialties with a variety of fruit juices—not all of them sweet—prepared from jungle fruits like cocona and aguaje.
For top-end diners in Lima, Malabar, in the San Isidro district, is probably the principal proponent of Amazonian food. The restaurant is headed up by internationally renowned chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffano and offers one of the most elegant dining experiences in all of Peru. If you’re looking, however, for something more homey, but no less inventive, try El Encanto Amazónico in the upper-middle-class district of Surco. Here you can try imaginative fusion dishes prepared with Amazonian ingredients, such as chaufa Amazónica (Chinese-style fried rice with jungle vegetables and pork) and fettuccini con cecina. Highly recommended.
Av. Camino Real 101 (San Isidro)
El Encanto Amazónico
Av. Benavides 4001 (Surco)
(Editor’s Note: Mike Gasparovic also contributed to this article.)
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Andreas is a freelance writer from England. He lives in Peru and enjoys travelling to other parts of South America. He covers a variety of topics including travel, wildlife and sports.