With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, a beginner’s guide to Peruvian food with recipes for recreating iconic dishes at home.
Peru is a culinary jewel of South America. With its abundant raw ingredients, dizzying variety of elevations, and clever chefs and home cooks who celebrate their history while perpetually innovating a cuisine that is as varied as its landscape, it’s a cuisine everyone should experience. But if you can’t travel and don’t have any Peruvian restaurants nearby, you can (and should) bring Peruvian cuisine into your own kitchen.
The renowned chef Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, Peru, who you may have seen on “Chef’s Table” (he also earned a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List for 2019), has built his entire menu around the vast elevational differences that exist in his country. Cuisine from the lush Amazon, the soaring Andes Mountains, and the meandering coastline all find a place at the table at Central. Elevation is a primary reason why the Peruvian culinary repertoire is so vast and robust.
Central by Virgilio Martinez, $44.49 from Amazon
It will be tough to exactly recreate the chef's dishes outside of Peru due to some hard-to-find regional ingredients, but his book is well worth buying even just to read (and drool over).
Another explanation for Peru’s multi-faceted recipes is attributed to its seemingly boundless variety of raw ingredients. In a nation boasting thousands of varieties of items such as potatoes, chiles, tomatoes, legumes, and spices, culinary traditions are bound to be ample.
Related Reading: You’ll Want to Put This Spicy Peruvian Sauce on Everything
The way Peruvians embrace their differences is another reason why its cuisine is so bounteous. Immigrant groups have long found refuge in Peru, bringing their cooking traditions with them. Instead of keeping their recipes separate, Peruvian home and restaurant cooks have long discovered new and exciting ways to blend ingredients and cooking techniques into a fusion style that is entirely Peruvian.
Here are some of the hallmarks of Peruvian cooking, plus recipes to try some of the country’s iconic dishes at home. Check out Peru Delights and Eat Peru for even more recipes and stories behind Peruvian food traditions.
Essential Peruvian Ingredients
- Chicken: Chicken is essential to Peruvian cuisine. It finds its ways into slow-simmering stews such as aji de gallina and onto the grill where it is doused in spicy marinade with a citrusy kick.
- Pork: Pork is a popular highland ingredient where it is transformed into crispy chicharron (fried pork skin), chorizo (spicy sausage), and cecina (cured pork).
- Guinea Pig: Cuy (guinea pig) is a traditional protein for the indigenous people of the Andes.
- Other Animal Proteins: Duck, beef, lamb, and goat are other essential Peruvian meat proteins.
- Fish and Shellfish: Fish and shellfish are mandatory ingredients in the coastal regions of Peru where it is estimated there are over 2,000 species. Ceviche makes the shoreline of the nation tick. Steamed fish along with fish and shellfish stews similar to Italian cioppino are other favorites.
- Potatoes: There are nearly 4,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru and the nation’s cuisine could not exist without them. Potatoes are served simply by boiling them or frying them but are also transformed into soups, sauces, and purees.
- Other Root Vegetables: Root vegetables such as yuca, sweet potatoes, and carrots are served boiled or fried as vegetable sides and incorporated into soups, sauces, and stews.
- Corn: Much like the potato, a wide variety of corn species flourish throughout Peru. In the Andean highlands, a large-kernelled variety known as “choclo” is served simply in a dish called “choclo con queso” that includes an ear or choclo alongside a thick slice of salty Andean cheese. “Cancha salada” is a beloved fried corn snack not dissimilar to Corn Nuts (but far better), made from another kind of kernel. “Chicha morada” is a non-alcoholic beverage made with purple Peruvian corn that is as flavorful as it is colorful.
Inca's Food Maiz Cancha, $8.36 from Amazon
Just one variety of corn enjoyed in Peru; this one is ideal for frying.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes form the foundation of many Peruvian sauces, soups, and salads.
- Red Onions: Red onions are more popular in Peru than their yellow or white counterparts. They sweeten a dish while also adding a subtle bite and pleasing crunch when served as a raw garnish.
- Chile Peppers: Much like its penchant for cultivating potatoes, Peru is also renowned for its chile peppers which elevate the flavors of countless dishes from ceviche to stir-fries. The Aji amarillo, a yellow-orange chile pepper with a mild flavor, is essential to the Peruvian culinary lexicon and easily considered the chile pepper king of this nation.
- Plantains: A wide variety of plantains are available in Peru. Sweet bananas are popular dessert favorites whereas starchier plantains are mashed or fried for inclusion in savory dishes.
- Herbs: Cilantro is a popular herb throughout Peru where it brightens salads and garnishes fish and shellfish dishes. A less well-known herb essential to many Peruvian dishes is huacatay, also known as Peruvian black mint. This intensely flavored herb is frequently transformed into a spicy yellow sauce that includes the aji chile.
- Legumes: Beans are popular ingredients in stews, soups, sauces, and salads in Peru. They provide a solid protein source when more expensive items such as chicken or beef are not readily available.
- Quinoa: Now globally popular, quinoa is an Andean grain essential to the diets of many indigenous groups in the region. It is available in a wide variety of colors and is a valuable source of both protein and flavor.
- Rice: Rice was brought to Peru in the sixteenth century and while it is not native to the country, it is a popular side dish to countless dishes.
- Evaporated milk: Evaporated milk is essential to many Peruvian dessert recipes such as “arroz con leche” or rice pudding but is also key to savory dishes like “aji de gallina,” a shredded chicken dish with a creamy walnut and cheese based sauce.
- Queso fresco: This easy to create farmer’s cheese is used as both a garnish and incorporated into sauces and salads.
- Cacao: Peruvian cacao is prized throughout the world. Varieties grow throughout most regions of the nation and its prized in both dessert and savory as well as beverage recipes throughout Peru. It is also used medicinally in some regions of the nation.
Basic Cooking Tips
- Low and Slow: Peruvian recipes are often cooked “low and slow” to intensify their flavor. This results in meat that is fork tender and sauces and gravies that are richly flavored.
- Resourcefulness: Peruvians might live in a nation of abundant food ingredients but this doesn’t always mean they have access to everything if they are limited by income or geography. This has created a spirit of resourcefulness in Peruvian cooks who have the ability to transform humble ingredients into feasts more reliant upon creativity than luxurious products.
- Fusion: Fusion is a foundational concept in Peruvian cuisine. The nation has long been a magnet for immigrant communities who not only contributed to the cultural history of the country but also to its culinary traditions. When cooking Peruvian cuisine, don’t hesitate to do things like add a classic Peruvian ingredient like sweet potatoes or corn to a Chinese-style stir-fry. Peruvians embrace their differences and find a way to bring it together in their cuisine.
- Layers: One of the reasons Peruvian cuisine is so richly flavored is because ingredients are layered patiently throughout a long cooking process. The flavors of key ingredients such as proteins and primary vegetables are intensified at different stages with ingredients such as spices, nuts, chiles, and herbs. Final flourishes such as cheeses, garnishes, and citrus further enhance a Peruvian dish’s flavor.
- Earth Oven: The pachamanca is loosely translated as an “earth oven.” It is essentially an Andean oven comprised of stones that are heated in order to cook proteins such as lamb, beef, guinea pig, and chicken, along with vegetables like potatoes and chiles. Once the stones and ingredients are layered, they are covered by elements to retain the heat such as grass, soil, or banana leaves and left to transform into a feast. Recreating a pachamanca at home is not as tricky as it might seem and is sure to leave your dinner guests with an indelible memory that will last a lifetime.
Essential Peruvian Recipes
Start things off with something to sip—that’s not a Pisco Sour (though we always welcome one of those as well). This refreshing, non-alcoholic drink is made from purple corn, pineapple rinds, and apples, spiced with cinnamon and clove, and spiked with lime juice. As striking as it is thirst-quenching, chicha morada is an iconic drink in Peru that should be as widely known as sangria outside of Spain (though this one can be enjoyed by all ages). Get the Chicha Morada recipe.
Quinoa is one of Peru’s most important food exports. It’s a staple in the cooking repertoire of the Andean Mountains, its high protein content providing the indigenous people of this region with the stamina required to work in mountainous elevations. This soup recipe is as comforting as it is flavorful and nutritious. It includes not only quinoa but also corn, tomatoes, and root vegetables, other Peruvian food staples essential to this nation’s culinary lexicon. Get the Peruvian Quinoa Soup recipe.
Ceviche could easily be considered the national dish of Peru, a nation of vast shorelines from which a bounty of fresh fish and shellfish is harvested. Choclo, a starchy boiled variety of corn, crunchy red raw onions, aji (hot chiles), and lime juice are essential Peruvian ceviche ingredients. Leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) is the marinade that remains after the ceviche is prepared. It is consumed as a shot, either alone or with a splash of Pisco, and is considered the ultimate hangover cure. This recipe also includes crunchy celery and evaporated milk for extra creaminess. It is garnished with sweet potatoes, another Peruvian staple. Get the Ceviche recipe.
Potato casserole is a quintessential Peruvian recipe. It’s an excellent way to incorporate a few of the nation’s estimated 4,000 varieties of potatoes into a dish that is as elegant as it is simple. This recipe includes chicken for additional substance along with chiles for heat and mayonnaise for a silky texture. Stacking it in layers gives it a wow factor belying the ease in which it comes together. Get the Causa (Potato Casserole) recipe.
Related Reading: The Best International Potato Recipes Show the Many Sides of Spuds
Steamed fish reflects the abundance of seafood thriving in the oceans that kiss the long Peruvian coastline. It’s a favorite Sunday staple for families who live in the low elevations of the nation, reflecting “criollo,” which is defined as the marriage of ingredients from the land and the sea. This recipe includes a slow-cooked fish stock along with sweet potatoes, peas, and a splash of white wine. Get the Sudado de Pescado (Peruvian Steamed Fish) recipe. (Chupa de camarones is another delicious Peruvian dish, and a strong contender for best international seafood soup.)
This vibrant aji verde (green sauce) includes Peru’s precious yellow aji amarillo for some spice, along with plenty of fresh oregano, cilantro, and jalapeño. Serve this with steak, fish, roasted veggies, or grilled chicken—or just add it to a store-bought rotisserie chicken for a quick and delicious dinner, perhaps with a quinoa salad on the side. Get the Aji Verde recipe.
Aji Amarillo Paste, $9.49 from Amazon
An authentic taste of Peru, perfect for adding a little kick to virtually any dish.
It doesn’t get more tempting than this creamy shredded chicken stew with a ground walnut and cheese base. It’s a noteworthy favorite in both restaurants and homes throughout the nation where its slow-cooking fills the room with an aroma so tempting guests will linger without hesitation until the golden-hued dish is brought to the table. Get the Aji de Gallina recipe.
This dish of beef strips marinated in soy sauce before they are stir-fried, is nearly as beloved as ceviche in Peru. It represents the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian flavors and cooking techniques known as “chifa.” The beef is cooked in a sauce comprised of tomatoes and onions that result in a rich gravy with intense flavor. It is served atop a bed of fluffy white rice and is sometimes accompanied by a side of French fries as a final nod to its fusion roots. Get the Lomo Saltado recipe.
The national dessert of Peru, this is essentially a deeply caramelized, ultra-silky butterscotch pudding topped with port-infused meringue and a dusting of cinnamon. The name translates to “sigh of the lady (of Lima)” and it is indeed that good. Read more about it and get a Suspiro de Limeña recipe.
Header image courtesy of Jhean Villajuan / EyeEm / Getty Images