I feel sorry for the Colombians. They only have three types of peppers.
— A pepperista — surrounded by 40 different pepper varieties at the Mistura Peruvian food festival — sheds unintended humorous light on one of the many advantages of Peruvian cuisine.
Peruvian cuisine has attained a certain hipness over the last decade. So when we put out a call to our network for Peruvian food suggestions prior to our visit to Lima, we were surprised when the net response amounted to “ceviche and pisco sours.”
For sure those are requisite tastes, but the Peruvian food scene offers so much more.
Influenced from the mountains, from the jungle, from the coast, and from abroad (Europe, Japan and China), Peruvian cuisine — tart, rich, spicy, and international — stands distinct in Latin America.
Peruvian food is accessible: you don't need to spend a fortune to eat well. Peruvians are understandably proud of their food, too. During our visit, we often developed a rapport with fellow diners. As a result, our conversations moved to family, politics, economics and life. Once again, good food opened the doors to a culture.
But before we enter a culinary philosophical vortex from which we can never return, let's dig in.
Traditional Peruvian ceviche features raw fish that is citrus-cooked by marinating in Peruvian lime juice, raw onions, and chili. It is usually accompanied by some corn (on or off the cob) and a slice of sweet potato whose sweet starch provides almost perfect balance to the acidity of the leche de tigre, the ceviche marinade. For greater variety, try ceviche mixto which throws in octopus, shrimp and other shellfish. You will also likely be served an appetizer or side of canchas, large toasted, salted corn kernels.
Where to get it: For some of Lima's highest value ceviche, pop on into Lima's Surquillo market on Saturday at midday. Find the seafood aisle and chat with the seafood woman who will tell you that the fish most often used in ceviche is the ojo de uva. A few meters away at this popular place, locals will be downing large plates of ceviche mixtos (including fish and shellfish) for 12 soles ($4.50). Share a table, eat beautiful ceviche and — if you put yourself out there — enjoy some conversations about Peruvian history and life in Lima.
Similar to ceviche, but more subtle and refined, hinting at some Japanese influence. The primary difference between ceviche and tiradito? No onions. In place of onions, tiradito marinades often feature ginger and aji (Peruvian hot pepper). You can also find tiradito served (as in the photo below) with creamy aji amarillo (yellow hot pepper) or rocoto (hot red bell-like pepper) sauces.
Bright yellow mashed potatoes seasoned with lime and aji, filled with tuna, shrimp, or crab and topped with avocado and a creamy cocktail sauce. The ultimate comfort food in the Peruvian kitchen. Just as decadent as it sounds — and looks in the photo at the top of this post.
Conchitas a la Parmesana (parmesan gratinated scallops)
Rich and buttery. Scallops topped with grated parmesan and baked just brown. Our favorite appetizer.
Seafood Stuffed Tequenos
Taking a culinary cue from Asia, Peruvians give us tequenos, the Peruvian spring roll. Thinly rolled, filled with chicken or seafood, fried and served with various dips.
Where to get these dishes: Although we sampled seafood fare at several restaurants, we found the best quality and value at El Muelle, a restaurant/cafe located in Lima's Barranco neighborhood. Location: At the corner of San Martin and Alfonso Ugarate Streets (one block away from Metro Supermarket).
A creamy chili-seasoned stew-like soup chock full of fish, shrimp, crab and whatever else the chef wants to throw in.
Fish fillet topped with a creamy aji-rocoto pepper and shellfish sauce.
Peruvian Chinese fried rice turned with ginger and spices. Particularly in Lima, you'll find it chock full of shellfish (squid, mussels, and shrimp).
Think Peruvian style bouillabaisse. Tomato-based seafood soup spiced with hot pepper.
We know, we know. Sushi is not Peruvian. Lima's Japanese influence and position on the Pacific coast makes it home to some decent sushi, however. Where to Get It: From the moment we walked through the door at Edo, we enjoyed the atmosphere and pace. A line of Japanese sushi chefs behind a well-supplied counter dish out inventive rolls and healthy cuts of sashimi. Address: Berlin 601, Miraflores, Lima.
Meat and Potatoes
The Peruvian stuffed hot pepper. Stuffing can include just about anything it seems, but the norm is some combination of chunked or ground beef, cheese, hard-boiled egg, onions, garlic, herbs, spices and raisins, all in a hot cream pepper sauce. Originally a specialty of Arequipa, rocoto relleno is popular and available throughout Peru.
Slices of beef stir fried with onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and soy sauce.
Marinated and spiced beef hearts, skewer-roasted. Very rich and tasty, but more than one might just leave your heart beating a bit faster than normal.
Aji de Gallina
Chicken — pulled or on the bone — served in a creamy aji sauce. While we loved the concept of this dish, we found most versions to be lacking the oomph one might expect from a pepper sauce. Having said that, the sauce in the aji de langostina from Trattoria dei Prati at the Mistura festival was subtle, earthy, rich and delicious.
Boiled, sliced potatoes lathered in sauce blended from milk and dissolved saltines, aji panca amarilla chili pepper, walnuts and huatacay (a regional herb sometimes referred to as Amazon black mint).
Think of it as a simpler version of ocopa. Boiled potato slices served in an ocopa sauce, roughly minus the nuts and herbs.
Deep-fried mashed potato logs stuffed with various fillings including seasoned ground meat, spices, and olives.
An Afro-Peruvian dish. A seasoned mixture of beans and rice formed into a tortilla/turnover and fried. Often served with an egg and a slab of fried beef or chicken.
The classic Peruvian grill: meat, potatoes, corn, lima beans, humitas (sweet tamales) all cooked in a pit lined with heated stones.
Drinks and Desserts
The cocktail that grows on you. Get your fill of the traditional pisco sour, a cocktail made with Peruvian pisco liquor and lime juice with a layer of beaten egg whites on top. After having done that, try some other flavors, including the one made with maracuya (passion fruit). When well-made, it's incredible.
Where to get it: Huaringas in Miraflores, Lima. We sampled several pisco sours. If you want a serious, top-quality cocktail, this is the place.
Alcohol-free drink made of purple corn (or black maize, if you like), boiled fruit juice (pineapple, quince or other citrus) and spices like cinnamon and clove. Recipes and quality vary widely. Surprisingly good with ceviche. Where to get it: Lots of places serve it, but our favorite: the cevicheria at the Surquillo market.
A donut/fritter made with sweet potato dough and served with a sweet honey and fig syrup. This snack is a Peruvian favorite and drew the longest of all lines at the Mistura Peruvian food festival.
Two buttery shortbread cookies with a healthy layer of manjar blanco (or dulce de leche) in between. The center is sweet, but when served with a proper shortbread cookie (not overly sweet), the result is terrific.
A baked custard made of evaporated milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Where to get it: You can find leche asada, alfajores and a whole array of other desserts at La Tapa cafe on the corner of the San Martin Avenue and Domeyer Street in Lima's Barranco neighborhood.
Not quite a Peruvian specialty per se, but a slice of moist, rich chocolate cake at a bargain price of $0.75 is worthy of a mention. We thank Felipe, the owner of our guest house in Lima, for pointing out that the Chinese-run shop on the corner of Avenida Grau and Miraflores Street dishes the best chocolate cake around for thousands of miles. It almost competes with Audrey's homemade version.
Lima is worth a stop on your Andean itinerary, if only to sample the food. If you go, however, you must make an effort to beyond Lima's tourist ghetto, Miraflores. Consider this: the “Best Ceviche” award at the Mistura Peruvian food festival was given to a cevicheria in San Juan de Miraflores, considered to be one of Lima's poorest neighborhoods.
Therein lies the key to Peruvian food.