Peruvian food is a cuisine of opposites: hot and cold on the same plate, acidic tastes melding with the starchy, and often robust and delicate at the same time. This balance occurs because Peruvian food is deeply entrenched in spices and bold flavors. They range from the crisp and clean to the heavy and deep. Each flavor counters or tames another in Peruvian cuisine. While many people visualize Peru as a land of just cloud-topped mountains and ruins of ancient civilizations, Peru’s true treasure is its rich culinary heritage. Flavors and cooking techniques from Africa, Europe, and East Asia come together in a delightful melange that is utterly unique the world over. Here are the top 10 Peruvian food dishes you absolutely must try:
Note: each dish is given a vegetarian-friendly ranking, a calorie level, and a spice level. We recommend ignoring the calorie level and just indulging!
Vegetarian Friendly: Only for pesco/ovo/lacto vegetarians (fish,eggs,milk)
High Calorie: No, low calorie and low carb without the starches
Spice: Medium to hot spicy, depending on preparation
As cachapas are to Venezuela, so ceviche is to Peru. As the national dish, it is well known for causing instant obsession for nearly everyone who tries it. Other nations have their own variations, but this cooked fish served cold traditionally includes sea bass (corvina) marinated for a few minutes in lime juice, onion, salt, and hot chilies (aji). To balanced the spicy protein, ceviche also often includes a side of starchy boiled corn (choclo) and sweet potatoes (camote). For an additional texture, dry roasted corn kernels (cancha) are scattered around to add a delicious crunchiness. As for beverage pairings, there is a longstanding tradition of taking the leftover marinade of salt, lime, and chilis, mixing them with Pisco (a Peruvian brandy) and drinking it as a shooter.
Lomo Saltado (Stir-Fry Beef)
Vegetarian Friendly: Nope.
High Calorie: Moderate calorie count
Spicy: Medium spicy, depending on preparation
Second only to ceviche in popularity, this is a melding of Chinese stir-fry and classic Peruvian cuisine. Tender strips of beef are marinated in soy sauce (occasionally you will find it made with alpaca meat), onions, tomatoes, aji chilies, and other spices are stir-fried all together until the beef is the right level of cooked and the tomatoes and onions start to meld into a gravy-like consistency. Add to that an East-meets-West combo of two starches: french fries (potatoes are a staple of the Peruvian diet) and a mound of steaming white rice. As for what to drink with lomo saltado, give Inca Kola a try. It is the most popular soft drink in Peru, and tastes like a less sugary Mountain Dew. Check your local international grocery store to see if they carry it.
3. Aji de Gallina (Creamy Chicken)
Vegetarian Friendly: No
High Calorie: Yes, it is full of delicious fats and carbohydrates
Imagine a shredded chicken prepared curry-style in a thick sauce made with cream, ground walnuts, cheese, and aji amarillo. It’s a mild but flavorful sauce, with just a hint of the aji’s heat tempered by the creamy, nutty sauce, giving it a warm, satisfying feel. A true Peruvian sauce dish thickened up with bread, cream, chilis, cheese which is then added to the meat and vegetables and cooked together, or poured over the finished product. The chicken, vegetables, and sauce are often served on a bed of rice, boiled potatoes, and black olives, giving it a rich, chowder-like consistency when everything is plated. This dish pairs best with a dry white wine to counter the sweetness of the sauce.
4. Papas a la Huancaína (potatoes in spicy cheese sauce)
Vegetarian Friendly: All you have to leave out is the eggs
High Calorie: Yeah, but it tastes like hopes and dreams
Spicy: If you make it spicy, but generally no.
Another example of Peruvian cuisine involving protein or starches being smothered in creamy sauce. This dish includes sliced golden potatoes drowning in a puree of queso fresco, aji amarillo, garlic, evaporated milk, lime juice, and the piece de resistance: saltine crackers. It may look a bit like like a yellow soupy mass topped with chopped soft-boiled egg, but don’t let that fool you: this glorious golden ambrosia has a subtle, creeping spice burn that is a perfect balance of tangy lime, sharp queso fresco, earthy potatoes, and the chill of boiled egg. Often served as a side to the main course, this dish also makes a mean appetizer when prepared with boiled little purple potatoes steeped in sauce and seasoned with olives, eggs, and a sprinkling of more crackers. As for what beverage pairs best, I’d recommend a hoppy, slightly bitter pale ale or a dry apple cider.
Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Vegetarian: Definitely a no.
High Calorie: Nope, lean protein with just the right amount of fat.
Spicy: Depends on if you eat it with the aji sauce or not
The second most popular source of meat in the Andes (alpaca being the first), the idea of eating a rodent that is usually kept as a pet may make some people squeamish. Picture if you will, though, a melt-in-your-mouth tender dark meat imbued with the taste of wood smoke, all beneath crisped golden skin. If it helps, you can pretend it is a single-serving roast suckling pig. Traditionally, cuy is stuffed with local herbs and slow-roasted over an open wood fire, which is then served up with potatoes. Try it with a splash of aji sauce and eat it with your hands like a piece of fried chicken. Try pairing it with a dark porter or stout beer to draw out the lighter flavors and counter the saltiness with the sweet.
Causa (Potato Casserole)
Vegetarian Friendly: If prepared with a protein substitute
High Calorie: No
This native Quechan dish can be found all over Peru in countless variations based on European cuisine. It can be served as a cake roll, a casserole, a terrine, or even in bright and colorful individual portions. No matter how you make it, it’s all about the mash: yellow Peruvian potatoes combined with oil, lime, and spicy aji amarillo sauce. For protein, most chefs use shredded tuna, chicken or salmon blended in with mayonnaise. Then they add layers upon layer of hardboiled eggs, avocado, and olives. The top layer is always more of the base mash. Causa is always served cold, usually as a side or salad with a meal.
Rocoto Relleno (Stuffed Spicy Peppers)
Vegetarian: If made with a vegetarian protein substitute.
High Calorie: Nope, lean and delicious
Spicy: Very, very spicy.
To prepare this dish, you begin with red aji rocoto chilies, core and hollow them out, and then stuff them with ground beef, garlic, onions, raisins, olives, herbs, and spices. Next, you top it all off with queso fresco and bake it in an egg-and-milk custard. Before you take your bite though you need to be aware of some facts: this is not an Italian stuffed pepper. Rocoto peppers are about the size of large plums, and about ten times hotter than a jalapeno pepper. If you can withstand the burn of that first bite though, the savory-yet-sweet filling will take the edge off nicely.
Anticuchos de Corazón (Grilled Heart)
Vegetarian Friendly: Not even close.
High Calorie: No, exceptionally lean meal
As with the cuy from earlier, don’t be deterred by the cut of the meat. Heart is leaner than filet mignon, possesses a bolder, beefier flavor than ribeye, and is delicious when seared by open flame. Chefs usually cut the heart into two inch cubes, then marinate the alpaca or beef cubes in vinegar, cumin aji, and garlic before grilling it over charcoal to a medium rare temperature. Like kebabs in Mediterranean culture, the cubes are often skewered along with slices of onion and potato, then drizzled with lime. Pair a dry red wine with this meal to draw out the savory notes and the full flavor of the beef.
Arroz con Pato (rice with duck)
Vegetarian Friendly: Not if you make it with duck
High Calorie: Yes
On the surface, this appears to be a simple Spanish Criollo recipe. In Peru, however, this is a signature dish with many variations. Typically, the rice is combined with cilantro paste, herbs, and dark beer to lend it a hearty, earthier flavor. Topped with a leg or thigh of roast duck (or crisp-seared duck confit in fancier varieties), this dish is served up on many household dinner tables all over Peru. Pair with pinot noir or an older burgundy wine to draw out the gamey, earthy flavor of the duck.
10. Pollo a la Brasa (Roasted Chicken)
Vegetarian Friendly: Not unless you hold the chicken
High Calorie: Nope, mostly protein
As the best known Peruvian food in the US due to the popularity of the many order-out Peruvian Rotisserie places scattered around the country, this is Peruano soul food. Chefs marinate a whole chicken in a potent combination of garlic, herbs and spices, then spit roast it over hardwood to give it its heavenly crisped skin and exotically earthy flavor. It is almost always served with a green huacatay (black mint) sauce. Pair with a golden lager or light ale to really maximize the flavor profile. For readers from the US who want to marinate their own chicken (pollo a la brasa style) check out this 100% Peruvian sauce which you can order online. It’s designed specifically for Peruvian Rotisserie chickens.
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