Peruvian cuisine is among the finest and most diverse cuisines found in Latin America and, indeed, the world. It is one of the most important contributors to the wave of Pan-Latino restaurants gaining popularity across the globe. As knowledge of Peruvian food spreads, more and more travelers are even making focused gastronomic pilgrimages to Peru -- for many travelers, the cuisine will rank among the highlights of their visit.
Peruvian cooking differs significantly by region, and subcategories mirror exactly the country's geographical variety: coastal, highlands, and tropical. The common denominator among them is a blend of indigenous and Spanish (or broader European) influences, which has evolved over the past 4 centuries. Traditional Peruvian coastal cooking is often referred to as comida criolla, and it's found across Peru. The other main types of cuisine are andino, or Andean (highlands), and novo andino (creative or haute twists on and updates of traditional highlander cooking). Several celebrity chefs, including Gastón Acurio and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, are leading the charge of contemporary Peruvian cuisine, often offering their creative takes on traditional dishes.
Coastal preparations concentrate on seafood and shellfish, as might be expected. The star dish, and the most exported example of Peruvian cuisine, is ceviche, a classic preparation of raw fish and shellfish marinated (not cooked) in lime or lemon juice and hot chili peppers, served with raw onion, sweet potato, and toasted corn. Ceviche has been around since the time of some of Peru's earliest civilizations, although a traditional Andean argument over whether Peruvians or Ecuadorians should be credited with creating it persists. Cevicherías, traditionally open only for lunch, usually serve several types of ceviche as well as a good roster of other seafood. Tiradito is finely sliced fish marinated with lime juice and ají peppers, essentially Peruvian sashimi or carpaccio. Other coastal favorites include escabeche (a tasty fish concoction served with peppers, eggs, olives, onions, and prawns), conchitas (scallops), and corvina (sea bass). Land-based favorites are cabrito (roast kid) and ají de gallina (a tangy creamed chicken and chili dish).
Highlanders favor a more substantial style of cooking. Corn and potatoes were staples of the Incas and other mountain civilizations before them. Meat, served with rice and potatoes, is a mainstay of the diet, as is trout (trucha). Lomo saltado, strips of beef mixed with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and french-fried potatoes and served with rice, seems to be on every menu. Rocoto relleno, a hot bell pepper stuffed with vegetables and meat, and papa rellena, a potato stuffed with veggies and then fried, are just as common (but are occasionally extremely spicy). Soups are excellent.
In the countryside, you might see people in the fields digging small cooking holes in the ground. They are preparing pachamanca, a roast cooked over stones. It's the Peruvian version of a picnic; on weekends, you'll often see families outside Cusco and other places stirring smoking fires in the ground while the kids play soccer nearby. Cuy (guinea pig) is considered a delicacy in many parts of Peru, including the sierra, but its elevated status was never much apparent to me. It comes roasted or fried, with head and feet upturned on the plate.
In the Amazon jungle regions, most people fish for their food, and their diets consist almost entirely of fish such as river trout and paiche (a huge river fish). Restaurants feature both of these, with accompaniments including yuca (a root), palmitos (palm hearts) and chonta (palm-heart salad), bananas and plantains, and rice tamales known as juanes. Common menu items such as chicken and game are complemented by exotic fare such as caiman, wild boar, turtle, monkey, and piranha fish.
In addition to Peruvian cooking, visitors will find plenty of international restaurants, including a particularly Peruvian variation, chifas (restaurants serving Peruvian-influenced Chinese food, developed by the large immigrant Chinese population), a mainstay among many non-Chinese Peruvians. Chifas are nearly as common as restaurants serving pollo a la brasa (spit-roasted chicken), which are everywhere in Peru.
Drinking is less of an event in Peru. While Peruvian wines from the coastal desert south and local beers are improving, they still can't really compare with superior examples found elsewhere on the continent (Chile and Argentina, predominantly). Most wines in better restaurants come from these three countries, along with Spain. Yet one indigenous drink stands out: pisco, a powerful white-grape brandy. The pisco sour (a cocktail mixed with pisco, egg whites, lemon juice, sugar, and bitters) is effectively Peru's margarita: tasty, refreshing, and ubiquitous. New takes on the pisco sour have sprung up at sophisticated mixology bars: maracuyá (passion fruit) sours, coca sours (made with macerated coca leaves), and other sours highlighting indigenous tropical fruits, such as lúcuma. Pisco is also taken straight.
Peruvians everywhere (but especially in the highlands) drink chicha, a tangy, fermented brew made from maize and inherited from the Incas. Often served warm in huge glasses, it is unlikely to please the palates of most foreign visitors, although it's certainly worth a try if you come upon a small, informal place with the chicha flag flying in a rural village (it means something akin to "fresh chicha available inside"). Chicha morada, on the other hand, is nothing to be afraid of. It is a delicious nonalcoholic beverage, deep purple in color, prepared with blue corn and served chilled, the perfect accompaniment to ceviche. Masato is a beer made from yuca, typical of the Amazon region.
Among the more interesting dining customs -- beyond the eating of guinea pig -- is the lovely habit of offering a sip of beer or chicha before the meal to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Many Peruvians still ritualistically thank the earth for its bounty, and they show their appreciation by spilling just a bit before raising the drink to their own mouths.
Restaurants range from the rustic and incredibly inexpensive to polished places with impeccable service and international menus. Set three-course meals are referred to by a variety of terms: menu del día, menu económico, menu ejecutivo, menu de la casa, and menu turístico. They are all essentially the same thing and can sometimes be had for as little as S/10. In general, you should ask about the preparation of many Peruvian dishes because many are quite spicy. Informal eateries serving Peruvian cooking are frequently called picanterías and chicherías.
Fixed-price lunch deals are referred to as menus del día (or simply menu). The majority of restaurants include taxes and services in their prices, and your bill will reflect the menu prices. Others (including some upscale restaurants), however, separate taxes and services, and the bill can get pretty byzantine, especially when it comes to imported wine. You might see a subtotal, followed by a 10% service charge, a 20% "selectivo" wine tax, and a 19% IGV (general sales tax). It's crazy. Fortunately, the restaurants that do this are rare.
Note: Some upscale restaurants will place a couple of small plates of cheese, sausage, olives, or other tidbits on your table to nibble on as you wait for your meal. In almost all cases, you will be charged for these items, called a cubierto, or cover. Usually, it'll add S/5 to S/15 to your bill. If you don't touch the stuff, in theory you shouldn't have to pay for it because you didn't order it, but many restaurants automatically tack on the charge -- and few are the customers who don't consider the cubierto part of the cost of eating out.
Dining hours are not much different from typical mealtimes in cities in North America or Great Britain, except that dinner (cena) is generally eaten after 8pm in restaurants. Peruvians do not eat nearly as late as Spaniards. Although lunch (almuerzo) is the main meal of the day, for most visitors, it generally is not the grand midday affair it is in Spain, unless you are dining at an outdoor quinta, where most locals linger over lunch for a couple hours.
If you invite a Peruvian to have a drink or to dine with you, it is expected that you will pay (the Spanish verb invitar literally connotes this as an invitation). Do not suggest that a Peruvian acquaintance join you in what will certainly be an expensive restaurant or cafe for him or her, and then pony up only half the tab.
Peruvian Cooking Sites
For additional information on Peruvian cooking, check out www.yanuq.com, which features a history of Peruvian cuisine, a glossary, recipes, and a guide to restaurants in Peru. A good food blog dedicated to Peruvian restaurants and cooking is www.perudelights.com.
Beef/steak -- Lomo
Bread -- Pan
Chicken -- Pollo
Dessert -- Postre
Eggs -- Huevos
Fish -- Pescado
Fruit -- Fruta
Lamb -- Cordero
Meat -- Carne
Pork -- Cerdo/puerco
Potatoes -- Papas
French fries -- Papas fritas
Rice -- Arroz
Roast -- Asado
Salad -- Ensalada
Seafood -- Mariscos
Shrimp -- Camarones
Soup -- Sopa (chupe)
Sweet potato -- Camote
Vegetables -- Verduras
Adobo -- Meat dish in a spicy chili sauce
Alpaca -- Alpaca steak
Anticuchos -- Shish kebab
Cabrito -- Goat
Carne de res -- Beef
Chicharrones -- Fried pork skins
Conejo -- Rabbit
Cordero -- Lamb
Empanada -- Pastry turnover filled with meat, vegetables, fruit, manjar blanco, or sometimes nothing at all
Estofado -- Stew
Lomo asado -- Roast beef
Parrillada -- Grilled meats
Pato -- Duck
Pollo a la brasa -- Spit-roasted chicken
Venado -- Venison
Corvina -- Sea bass
Langosta -- Lobster
Langostinos -- Prawns
Lenguado -- Sole
Mero -- Mediterranean grouper
Paiche -- Large Amazon fish
Tollo -- Spotted dogfish
Beer -- Cerveza
Mixed fruit juice -- Refresco
Juice -- Jugo
Milk -- Leche
Soft drink -- Gaseosa
Water -- Agua
carbonated -- con gas
still -- sin gas
Wine -- Vino
Cocktail -- Cóctel/trago
Fixed-price menu -- El menu
Spicy -- Picante
Hot (temperature) -- Caliente
Cold (temperature) -- Frío
Raw -- Crudo
Cooked -- Cocido
Fried -- Frito
Vegetarian -- Vegetariano
Ají de gallina -- Spicy/creamy chicken
Anticuchos -- Beef-heart brochettes
Causa -- Mashed potatoes with avocado, stuffed with chicken or tuna
Ceviche -- Marinated raw fish
Chaufa -- Chinese fried rice
Chicha -- Fermented maize beer
Chicha morada -- Blue-corn nonalcoholic beverage
Chifa -- Peruvian-Chinese food
Chupe -- soup or chowder (chupe de camarones, prawn chowder, is the most common)
Choclo -- Maize (large-kernel corn)
Cuy -- Guinea pig
Flan -- Caramel custard
Lomo saltado -- Strips of beef with fried potatoes, onions, and tomatoes over rice
Manjar blanco -- Sweetened condensed milk
Pachamanca -- Roast meat and potatoes, prepared underground
Paiche -- Amazon river fish
Palta -- Avocado
Palta rellena (or palta a la Reina) -- Stuffed avocado (with chicken or tuna salad)
Panqueque -- Crepe
Papa a la huancaína -- Boiled potatoes in a creamy and spicy cheese sauce
Papa rellena -- Stuffed and fried potato
Quinua -- Andean grain (quinoa), often in soup (sopa de quinua)
Rocoto relleno -- Stuffed hot pepper
Sopa a la criolla -- Creole soup (noodles or grain, often quinoa, vegetables, and meat)
Tamal -- Ground corn cooked and stuffed with chicken or pork, wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks, and then steamed
Tiradito -- Cevichelike strips of raw fish, marinated with ají peppers and lime but without sweet potatoes or onions, akin to Peruvian sashimi or carpaccio
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.