Peru on a plate

The grand geographical diversity that has long drawn travellers is also responsible for Peru’s incredible cuisine – here’s how to explore the country’s foodie hotspots

8 mins

The women peered at me from behind the bottled snakes, gnarled maca root and dragon’s blood, their faces impassive under their fedoras. Long, black plaits hung down their backs as they gabbled to each other in Quechua. The air was bathed in the scent of palo santo wood, redolent of church incense.

Around the meat stalls, the metallic tang of fresh blood took over. Buckets of pigs’ trotters and cows’ noses sat next to platters of brains, hearts, livers and kidneys; tripe hung from hooks alongside unidentifiable innards and jars of intestinal juices. Nothing was going to waste.

There were stalls piled high with corn in every hue – yellow, orange, red, purple – and potatoes of every shape and size. There were tangles of herbs that I’d never seen before and gaudy coloured fruits that I didn’t know existed. I was handed slices of nutty-tasting lúcuma, pepina (a cross between melon and cucumber) and chirimoya – a mix of banana, peach and pineapple. In Cusco’s San Pedro Market, I was undeniably out of my culinary comfort zone.

Much of the produce we take for granted today – including potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and the Incan superfood, quinoa – is native to Peru. The country has been blessed with a geographical mix of mountains, rivers, coast and jungle plus a multitude of microclimates that have given its cuisine a diversity few other countries can match.

Add to that hundreds of years of immigration layered on top of pre-Hispanic cultures, and you get a variety of culinary influences and natural fusions. Pisco, Peru’s signature spirit, came from vines planted by the Spanish colonists; tacu-tacu (rice, beans and fried plantains) from the African sugar plantation slaves; lomo saltado (stir-fried strips of beef, tomatoes and chilli) from the Chinese, who helped build the railroads; and a new style of ceviche (raw fish ‘cooked’ in lime juice) from the Japanese agricultural workers.

While the lure of Machu Picchu, colonial Cusco, Lake Titicaca and the Amazon jungle once pushed dining way down the list of reasons to visit, today Peru is one of the world’s hottest food destinations.

Its gastronomic renaissance has been impressive. The cuisine has always been a source of national pride and identity but traditionally Peruvian cooking was enjoyed at home while high-end restaurants served Mediterranean-influenced fare. However, since the turn of the millennium, increasing numbers of native chefs have been sourcing esoteric local ingredients and reworking the nation’s classic dishes for international palates, while street food has transcended social classes.

World-renowned chef Gastón Acurio is at the vanguard of the trend. He’s taken Peruvian cuisine to another level, inspired a host of homegrown chefs and built a global empire in the process. Ceviche may have come to the fashionable faces in Soho but I wanted to explore this gastronomic melting pot first-hand.

Lima: capital cuisine

Lima is the country’s gastronomic hub. It’s home to Surquillo Market, famed for the variety of its produce, from the Andes to the Amazon – both only an hour’s flight away. It also has restaurants run by an increasing number of celebrity chefs in the upscale barrios of Miraflores and San Isidro.

“We Limeños love to eat and we like to take our time,” a Peruvian friend told me. “Eating is like making love – it shouldn’t be rushed. Lunch can easily take two, three, four hours.”

You’ll need at least four hours for the 30-course tasting menu at Astrid y Gastón, Acurio’s flagship establishment, which makes regular appearances on ‘world’s best restaurant’ lists. He’s known for his innovative use of traditional ingredients: he’s elevated the humble causa (cold mashed potato layered with avocado and seafood) to an art form, reconstructed ceviche, and recreated staples such as mazamorra morada (purple corn pudding) in gourmet form.

Rising star Virgilio Martínez worked at restaurants around the globe before returning home to open Central. His creative ten-course tasting menu combined the finest produce from around the country and it was a revelation: suckling pig came smoked over palo santo wood; desserts came infused with eucalyptus dry ice; herbs came from the restaurant’s mezzanine-floor garden, as well as high-altitude slopes.

But it isn’t all about haute cuisine. In the huariques – small, inexpensive traditional restaurants – you’ll find dishes such as papas a la Huancaína (slices of boiled potato in a spicy, cheesy sauce) and caldo de gallina (a chicken, noodle broth that’s a popular hangover cure).

At hole-in-the-wall sandwich joint, La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla, there’s always a queue for its traditional roast pork and crackling doorsteps.

I bought picarones – a kind of deep-fried doughnut made from squash and flavoured with cinnamon and anise – from a street stall and joined the crowd that gathers for the nightly arrival of Grimanesa Vargas and her grill-on-wheels. For more than 30 years she’s cooked her anticuchos – Peruvian kebabs, made with beef heart marinated in vinegar, garlic, cumin and smoky chilli – to perfection. They were worth the wait.

The coast: fine fish and fusion

Peruvians can afford to be choosy about their seafood. The icy Humboldt Current runs along their long Pacific coastline, giving them some of the most abundant fishing grounds in the world.

I’d met Toshiro Konishi at his restaurant Mesa 18 in Lima’s sophisticated Miraflores Park Hotel. The legendary Japanese chef came to Peru in the 1970s to work with his friend Nobu and is master of Nikkei, Peruvian-Japanese fusion, and tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche. Passionate about provenance, in 1976 he spent 78 days in a fishing boat studying what the locals caught, and how they cleaned and ate it.

I had a small taste of his experience in Ica’s Paracas National Reserve – part tropical desert (one of the driest places on earth), part marine reserve. There were only a few curious seagulls around to watch as I clambered inelegantly into Luis and Jose’s sea-coloured wooden boat. Not far from the shore, Luis donned a patched drysuit made from recycled inner tubes, strapped on a belt loaded with weights and slipped into the frigid water, using a hose attached to an air pump to breathe.

This stretch of coast is lined with scallop beds and, on a good day, an experienced fisherman can bring up 600kg from around 5m down. Luis soon reappeared, spilling his haul onto the deck, where the fan-shaped shells opened and clacked closed like cartoon scallops, revealing their cream and orange flesh.

Inland, Ica is famous for Peru’s national drink, the clear grape-spirit pisco. The Spanish conquistadors brought vines to Peru in 1553 intending to make wine; they first planted them in the Andes and then later, with more success, in the fertile soil near the coast. They stored the wine in the locals’ clay jars, inadvertently creating the brandy-like pisco in the process.

Despite becoming popular with Californian prospectors during the Gold Rush, pisco was subsequently consigned to oblivion, at best seen as a workers’ tipple. Now it’s undergoing its own resurgence with mixologists worldwide – though it remains most famous as the main ingredient (along with egg white, lime juice and sugar) in the ubiquitous pisco sour. I took a tour of Ica’s small artisanal distilleries, many of which still use traditional methods, and sampled the fiery spirit in all its forms – puro, acholado and mosto verde – as I went.

The Andes: not just potatoes

The fertile Andean valleys still produce the same ingredients as they did in pre-Inca times: tubers (there’s said to be as many as 4,000 varieties of potato), corn, grains, llama and alpaca meat, trout and guinea pig.

In Cusco’s 16th-century cathedral, an indigenous artist’s depiction of The Last Supper has guinea pig on the menu, washed down not with wine but with chicha morada, made from purple corn. But the former Inca capital’s cuisine is getting ever more cosmopolitan.

I met Martínez again at his restaurant, Senzo at Palacio Nazarenas. Following a meticulous four-year restoration involving architects, archaeologists and local artisans, the Inca stonework and cloistered courtyards of this 16th-century convent-turned-mansion have been seamlessly blended with a luxurious spa, an outdoor swimming pool and a restaurant serving cutting-edge cuisine.

Martínez only sources ingredients from within a 100km radius, grows his own crops in the Sacred Valley, encourages the local farmers to grow organic and takes age-old ingredients – black quinoa, tarwi beans – and gives them a contemporary twist. He taught me how to make an Andean ceviche, marinating trout in lime juice, coriander and yellow chilli for no more than five minutes, then adding tree tomato to the resulting tangy liquid known as tiger’s milk.

On a journey through the Sacred Valley, I stopped off at Urubamba’s colourful market. Here you can buy regional specialities such as pink salt from the Maras salt pans and potatoes resembling withered mushrooms that have been freeze-dried in snow.

The Inca economy was based on farming and Machu Picchu’s agricultural terraces and crop stores have revealed that produce was also central to their spiritual life. At the less-visited Inca site of Moray, three enormous amphitheatre-style pits have been carved out of the earth. The temperature between the bottom and the top can alter by more than 15°C and some researchers believe that it was a place for agricultural experiments.

In the bucolic setting of the Hotel Rio Sagrado, I indulged in a typical Inca barbecue, or pachamanca. A hole lined with hot stones was filled with several types of potatoes, yucca, herbs and various meats that were covered in earth and slow-cooked for hours. But it’s more than a way of cooking, it’s a centuries-old celebration of fertility and life.

The Amazon: jungle super foods

The faded jungle city of Iquitos was created by the 19th-century rubber boom, and is only accessible by air and water. It was here that I boarded the M/V Aria to sail west to the headwaters of the Amazon basin, where the Marañón and Ucayali rivers meet. The area is rich in wildlife but on this elegant, 16-suite vessel – built by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig with acres of wood and glass – gastronomy is also high on the agenda.

Each day we’d set out on motorised skiffs to explore the remote Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, where the Aria’s knowledgeable local guides spotted pink river-dolphins, sloth, monkeys, bats, caiman and an astonishing variety of birds.

Amazon kingfishers nose-dived for breakfast, prehistoric hoatzin perched in the trees like strange fruit, and we heard the strident horned screamer – which, according to our guides, “sounds like a donkey, walks like a duck and tastes like a chicken” – before we even saw it.

While much of the Amazon basin’s bounty is still untapped, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the Aria’s executive chef, has been dubbed the ‘Heston Blumenthal of South America’ for his use of unusual Amazonian ingredients at his Lima restaurants. Onboard, his delicious menus utilise as many local products as possible: chonta (heart of palm), paiche fish, cecina (dried, salted pork), minuscule freshwater shrimps and catfish (for kebabs).

At the ramshackle wooden market in Puerto Bellavista Nanay, men struggled to weigh still-jumping catfish, women sat on the floor peeling beans and the air was heavy with heat and smoke. Locals ate fish straight off the grill, washed down with a sweet mix of plantain, evaporated milk and sugar, or the even sweeter national institution, Inca Kola, a yellow soft-drink that smells and tastes like bubblegum.

The rainforest has its share of endemic super fruits – such as aguaje, rich in vitamin A. But it provides more than nourishment – it’s the world’s biggest pharmacy: 60% of medicines come from the Amazon.

On a rainforest walk we discovered that wild garlic can cure a fever, squashed termites make an effective mosquito repellent and suri grubs can help asthma – with the bonus of tasting like pork crackling when they’re fried.

Back on the Aria, I sipped on a jungle-style pisco sour, blended with cherry-sized camu-camu that, gramme for gramme, deliver 30 times as much vitamin C as oranges. It seemed even the cocktails in Peru are out of the ordinary.

The author travelled with Cox & Kings, which offers escorted group and tailormade tours to Peru, with group tours starting from £2,895pp.

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