Nestled snugly along the curving western coast of South America, Peru is a country rich in culture, history, art – and ingredients, thanks to its lengthy Pacific shoreline, lush green valleys and rain-drenched mountains.
With so many fresh products and delicious traditional dishes on offer – plus a few oddities thrown in for good measure – any visiting foodies will have a field day! So here are my top ten tips for unmissable tastes in Peru.
One of the country’s simplest and best-loved staples, ceviche has been around for decades, making the most of classic regional flavours and the unrivalled seafood available along Peru’s Pacific coast.
It’s made up of fresh fish or seafood, diced up and cured in a citrus-based marinade known as leche de tigre – which includes the fish juices, plenty of lemon or lime juice, very finely diced onion, chilli, and seasoning. The result is lip-smackingly tangy chunks of juicy fish with a teasing hint of heat; delicious, refreshing and hugely healthy!
Fresh choclo (large corn) kernels and a segment of boiled sweet potato often serve as garnishes.
2. GUINEA PIG
This is one that will make some people squeamish, since many countries consider them more pets than snacks – but guinea pigs, or cuy in Spanish, are a traditional and still common source of meat in Peru.
The issue with eating these little critters is that they are very bony – but if you can get past that, the meat itself is quite tasty: gamey and rich, rather like rabbit.
Nowadays, the rising stars of the Peruvian culinary scene are finding new and exciting ways to serve traditional dishes. At La Gloria, Oscar Velarde’s iconic Lima restaurant, the guinea pig is served confit, in little drumsticks (see picture). At Cusco’s exclusive five-star hotel Inkaterra La Casona, the bones are removed and the meat rolled up to make a neat, easily consumable parcel.
Or you can just go old-school, and head to one of the myriad traditional restaurants where they skin, skewer and spit-roast the guinea pig, serving it up as a sort of cuy kebab.
Pisco is the pride of Peru: a clear grape brandy distilled in copper, according to strict national guidelines.
It’s perhaps most famous internationally for the pisco sour cocktail, which sees lemon juice, sugar and egg white shaken up with the celebrated spirit to create a deliciously fluffy yellow concoction.
Today, with more producers competing to produce a better quality of pisco, drinkers are starting to appreciate its subtle flavours and variations – and increasingly, not just the old but the young as well are enjoying pisco in the traditional fashion: straight up.
We were lucky enough to meet with high-profile Peruvian chef-restaurateur Christian Bravo (pictured), who – over an incredible tasting menu at his Lima venue Bravo Restobar – talked us through several of his favourite piscos. We followed that up with a trip to the Museo del Pisco in Cusco, where the tasting flights are explained with admirable clarity by the helpful manager Sergio.
If you’re anywhere along the Peruvian coast, you will find yourself utterly spoilt by incredibly fresh seafood, courtesy of the Pacific’s cool depths.
One of the regional delicacies is octopus – which I know is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t eat it very often myself. All too often it’s deep-fried, rubbery, greasy and about as pleasant as a battered elastic band.
But these leggy little monsters are brought directly from the fishing boats into the restaurants, where seafood-savvy chefs prepare them with the utmost care and respect. The result? Some of the most meltingly delicate octopus I’ve ever tasted, soft and slightly bouncy, still carrying the flavour of the sea. Just a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of chopped chilli and coriander, and you’re away.
5. PICARONES (PERUVIAN DONUTS)
There are a lot of savoury elements to Peruvian cuisine, but when they do sweets they do ‘em right!
These delicious, deep-fried sugary dough balls – very similar to donuts, and often served up from stalls by fast-working street vendors – are traditionally made from a batter of flour, eggs, a special type of local squash and sweet potato. After being quickly fried in corn oil, the golden goodies are offset with sweet, dark chancaca syrup made from boiled sugar cane. A warm, sticky and massively indulgent street treat!
6. CORN WITH CHEESE
In Peru, you can’t walk 100 metres without hearing the street vendor cry of ‘choclo con queso!’ This is a particularly Peruvian street snack, involving the ubiquitous giant-sized corn cob served on its husk, accompanied by a thick slice of the local cheese.
The corn is delicious; the kernels are huge and plump, slightly starchier and less sweet than the smaller variety we’re used to in the UK, but with a creamy, nutty flavour that’s very enjoyable.
The cheese is a strong white local variety, with a salty, slightly goaty flavour to it which I didn’t love. But eat it with the corn, and it works surprisingly well.
7. PAPAS A LA HUANCAINA
Peru has an astonishing 3000 plus varieties of potatoes, and is said to grow the best in the world. Certainly, they feature heavily in the local diet. In fact, certain remote communities living high in the mountains still count them as their main food source.
The revered tubers come in a whole range of colours and styles, from firm white-fleshed papa blanca (white potato) to the small, sweet papa coktel (cocktail potato), there is something to suite every spud-lover.
One of the most popular ways to serve potatoes is as papas a la huancaina: floury, crumbly yellow potatoes, boiled then cooled and sliced, served in a mildly spiced, creamy sauce using the local favourite ahi amarillo (yellow chilli).
8. THE ROCOTO PEPPER
I am a big fan of spicy food, and was looking forward to being in a country where so many chillis are grown. However I soon discovered that Peruvians tend not to go for too much heat in their dishes. Chilli is used carefully as an ingredient, adding subtle flavour and often colour to a dish, without much spice.
The exception is anything incorporating the rocoto pepper – being shown to us here by Lima restaurateur Oscar Velarde, at his restaurant in the arty, boutique Hotel B in upmarket Barranco – which, despite looking like an innocent bell pepper, is stingingly hot; earning 350,000 SHU on the heat-measuring Skoville Scale, putting it on a par with Scotch Bonnet and Habanero chillis.
Despite the potential for mouth burning, hand flapping and eye watering, when used cleverly this innocent-looking little red number can add a beautiful, spicy warmth and depth to meaty stews or simple rice dishes.
9. MATE DE COCA
Areas of Peru, including some of its most spectacular sights and trekking routes, are very high above sea level, so altitude sickness can be an issue.
This is an extremely irritating afflication, because it doesn’t matter about your age, your fitness or whether you’ve been fine at altitude before: it can strike anyone, at any time!
As such, if you are hitting the heights on a trek to some ruins, or even just visiting a lofty city – stunning Cusco sits at around 3400 metres – you need to make sure you drink plenty of fluids, eat lightly and avoid alcohol and exertion for the first couple of days.
The other trick is coca: a leaf that the Incans used to chew, and which is still used today to alleviate symptoms of soroche or mountain sickness. It’s most commonly taken today in tea form, with hot water poured over semi-dried coca leaves and left to stew. Some add sugar, but as it stands the drink has a not unpleasant flavour of slightly sweet greenery.
10. SALT FROM THE MARAS SALT PONDS
If you’re making that one-in-a-lifetime trip to see the ruins at Machu Picchu, make sure you also take time to explore the rest of the Sacred Valley area – which is packed full of Incan ruins, terraces, agricultural amphitheatres and other examples of the former inhabitants’ enormous skill in both farming and engineering.
One such site is the Maras Salt Ponds: hundreds of ancient pools, sprawling across a terraced hillside. Salt has been collected from this site since pre-Incan times. This is achieved by directing salty water from an underground stream into a system of channels, which in turn send the water flowing into the stacked ponds. The water is then evaporated, leaving salt crystals ready for collection.
Even today, the ponds are cared for and the salt harvested by the local community, who sell bags of the freshly harvested seasoning on site.