By Paige R Penland
You may be anticipating your stint in Lima, Peru, for its stunning Spanish Colonial historic center, founded by Francisco Pizarro himself in 1535. Perhaps you want to explore the scores of fascinating museums, in particular Museo Larco. Or see some of the forty pre-Columbian pyramids (called huacas) within Lima’s city limits, including Huaca Pucllana, with its famous restaurant in the ruins.
The food is excellent, and view over the millennia-old adobe outcroppings outstanding. But Huaca Pucllana is just a brief introduction to Peru’s richest cultural heritage. And we’re not talking about Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines.
Peru is one of the world’s leading culinary destinations (usually rounding out the top five along with France, Italy, Thailand, and Japan), and boasts one of the most complex and refined cuisines ever developed. Lima is at the epicenter of all this delicious dining, and even celebrates each September with Mistura, “the most important gastronomical festival in Latin America.”
Half a million fans of Peruvian cuisine attended Mistura in 2015.
But why is Peruvian cuisine so incredible? Order some of Lima’s spectacular ceviche, even fresher and tastier than the delicious Mexican version, and we’ll explain.
What Makes Peruvian Food So Good?
The symphony of flavors and textures begins with Peru’s unrivalled topography. From achingly dry deserts and cool, misty beaches to 6000-meter (20,000-foot) Andean peaks and the steaming Amazon basin, Peru is home to 80% of the earth’s recognized ecosystems, and 28 (out of 32) climate zones. You can grow almost anything here.
This enormous variety of growing conditions is connected by 40,000km (25,000 miles) of pre-Columbian roads, built a millennium before the Spanish arrived. A million hectares (39,000 square miles) of terraced farmland, irrigated by a complex system of cisterns and aqueducts, fed the Inca Empire at its height. Harvests from across Peru were cultivated, carefully bred over the centuries, transported to urban centers like Cuzco, and there transformed into ridiculously tasty recipes by acclaimed chefs.
Photo Courtesy of McCay Savage and Wikimedia Commons
Terraced Andean landscapes like Moray, in the Sacred Valley, were probably experimental agricultural nurseries, with different microclimates allowing very different crops thrive next to each other.
The abundance of ingredients known to the Incas include amaranth, quinoa, maca, some 55 types of corn (choclo), dozens of chiles and beans (including the eponymous lima bean, here called pallares), 4000 species of potato, and hundreds of fruits, some of which will seem alien even to the most sophisticated travelers. Be sure to try anything made with lúcuma, a creamy, golden subtropical fruit, at one of Lima’s extraordinary pastry shops.
When the Spanish arrived in 1532, they brought with them death, disease, and the entire Old World larder: wheat, rice, sugarcane, wine, milk, cheese, apples, stone fruits, citrus, and an abundance of domesticated animals like cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, and so much more. Many of Peru’s signature dishes—empanadas, chicharones, and pollo a la brasa (roast chicken)—among many, many others, would not exist without these ingredients.
Because of its abundant mineral wealth and strategic importance, Peru became the first genuine melting pot of the Americas. Italians right behind the Spanish, and fifty were among the European founders of Lima. They introduced that Peruvian staple, pasta, to the young nation, as well as gnocchi, lasagna, stews and tarts that remain national favorites.
Africans were brought as slaves to Lima almost immediately thereafter, and are credited with creating such dishes as cau cau, a savory tripe soup, and anticuchos, Arabic-influenced kebabs of skewered beef hearts. Other West African recipes were probably appropriated without credit by free Peruvians, and there may be a PhD waiting for the culinary historian who can parse it all out.
In the 1850s, the Peruvian government, eager to populate its interior, invited Europeans to settle in the country. A new influx of Italian cuisine came with them, along with a plethora of French, Mediterranean, and Eastern European dishes. Most notably, thousands of German immigrants settled the coffee-growing regions of Oxapampa and Pozuzo, where you can still enjoy Oktoberfest.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Come for the café and beirgartens.
Finally, in the late 1800s, a massive wave of Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province arrived in Lima, along with a smaller group of Japanese workers. The rumor going around in East Asia was that Peru was paved with gold, brimming with opportunity, and home to excellent, healthy cuisine. Only the last was true, and both communities eagerly added their own recipes, from sushi to pork buns.
Chinese-Peruvian fusion is called Chifa, a corruption of the Cantonese word “饎飯,” “to eat rice.” Chinese techniques—noodles, stir fries, fried rice (arroz chaufa), wontons, soups, sweet-and-sour dishes—were recreated using Peruvian ingredients at restaurants all over Lima by the 1920s. The aristocracy fell in love, and the poor could actually afford it. Chifa was a hit, and is now recognized as a cuisine in its own right, available at specialty restaurants around South America and the world.
This article from Smithsonian magazine posits that Lima’s cuisine finally came into its own almost by accident, during the 1980s. An ongoing civil war raging in the countryside drove displaced people to the capital, where they struggled to tame their homesickness with the recreated cuisines of the misty coasts, vast deserts, thick jungles, and barren mountains for their huddled diaspora communities. Street stalls, then restaurants, opened across the city.
And when peace once again fell over Peru, these cooks had gained reputations for their excellent cuisine, and everyone wanted to try it.
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons
Today, lines form in upscale Miraflores at spots like Anticuchos de la Tia Grimanesa, serving suburban youth what was once an Afro-Peruvian family specialty.
And that was just the beginning.
“The old Peruvians, they ate raw fish with salt and chilies and that was it,” writes Gastón Acuario, Lima’s favorite celebrity chef and author of Peru: The Cookbook. Then, limes and red onions arrived from Spain.
“In every dish, sometimes you will find a smile of Africa and China and Spain at the same time. But when you taste it, you will recognize it is something different — this is Peruvian.”
Finding Your New Favorite Food
When chefs Gastón Acurio and Astrid Gutsche returned to Peru in 1994, after years of formal training in Paris, they founded their iconic eatery with a classic French menu and solid citywide reputation. Once they began adding Peru’s plethora of exotic ingredients and cuisines into the mix, the entire world began to take notice.
Today, Acuario is at the forefront of an international explosion in Peruvian fine dining, opening dozens of upscale restaurants serving their creative cuisine all over the Americas and Europe, as well as working with affordable Peruvian chain restaurants, such as La Mar, a cevichería; La Pollada, specializing in roasted chicken, and Pasquale, a popular sandwich (sánguche) franchise.
Now, it’s well worth splurging on a gourmet tasting menu in Lima. We recommend it. But in the end, you may find that your favorite dishes are available at any market stall for just a few soles.
Photo Courtesy Dtarazona and Wikimedia Commons
No matter where you dine, start with cancha, a toasted maize appetizer rather like perfectly unpopped popcorn kernels.
It’s hard to pin down a single, iconic Peruvian dish. You’ve probably heard, perhaps with some horror, of cuy, or roast guinea pig. In reality, you’ll need to look around to find cuy on a menu. They’re not bad, but you’ll probably prefer alpaca meat, served as steaks and many other ways.
Peruvian cuisine’s signature ingredient is arguably ají, a mild yellow chili. Experience it in all its glory as ají de gallina, a rich chicken stew. There’s also causa, a staple layered potato salad with almost infinite variations. It’s available almost anywhere, but try Mi Causa in Miraflores to enjoy its most extravagant incarnations.
Pachamanca is a classic Inca feast prepared in an earthen oven. Ingredients vary, but usually consist of marinated meats, herbs, potatoes, lima beans, sweet potatoes, corn, and chiles. It’s also unlikely to appear on a menu, so if you’re lucky enough offered a plate while you’re here, take a seat.
If you’re more of a meat and potatoes person, lomo saltado is a popular Chifa dish of stir-fried beef, usually flavored with ají, and often served with French fries.
Potatoes are served a mind-boggling number of ways; don’t miss papa a la huancaina, boiled potatoes with cheese sauce, or papas rellenas, deep-fried balls of mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and vegetables.
Ocopa is my personal favorite, a deceptively simple dish of potatoes and hard-boiled eggs covered in a creamy sauce that’s flavored with the herb huacatay. You’ll find it at the market or street stalls, every morning.
The list goes on and on—this is just the beginning of your culinary tour. And we haven’t even touched on Peru’s competing national beverages, the pisco sour—grape brandy, egg whites, sugar, bitters, and lime, best served frothy and strong while you take in the foggy Lima coastline—and Inka Cola, the local soda pop that took on Coca Cola, and won.
What will your favorite be?
We don’t know. That’s why Hot Desk International will help arrange market tours, restaurant recommendations, and even cooking classes during our five weeks in here Lima. So you’ll have plenty of help figuring it all out.