Peru is one of the world's most geographically varied countries; mix in its history, and it's no surprise that Peruvian food reflects this dazzling diversity. Here's what you need to know...
Peru’s cresting culinary reputation is seeping past its shores. Coastal Lima is the main attraction, so get in quick and ride the mainly (seafood) wave while hip Peruvian food is still that.
Tell me more… Peru has more than 2,000 varieties of potato and virtually all the tropical fruits and vegetables you could wish for, imagine and then eat. The classic coastal dish is ceviche, raw fish marinated in lemon juice with onions and red peppers.
Lunch is the main meal of the day (served any time between 12-5pm). Peruvians particularly love their aji (chili pepper) and ajo (garlic) but each region boasts its own specialities. International culinary influences include Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani flavours and more.
The country’s long Pacific coastline is fed by the Humboldt current, providing rich fishing grounds and a stupendous array of seafood. Its rugged Andean mountains are the perfect nurseries for grazing animals. Llamas and alpacas are lovely to look at and taste great too! On menus they nestle alongside fine pork meats (suckling pig is popular, called lechon), beef, goat and the festival favourite cuy (guinea pig).
Vegetarians are incredibly well catered for in Peru’s main cities these days. Chefs combine the flavours of the freshest fruits, herbs and spices from the verdant Amazon and valleys with rice, potatoes, eggs and more to create innovative dishes. Peppers (recoto relleno) are stuffed with a boggling array of foods: a definite must-try.
If you want to try the more day-to-day Peruvian cuisine, the empanadas are delicious and (my personal favourite for a quick meal) roast chicken cafes with Inka Kola are ubiquitous. The locals love it, and so will you!
The growing number of top end restaurants has meant prices have risen too; you can easily pay USD 50 for one dish in some establishments. The cheapest Menu del Día I saw last year was two soles (about 80 cents/65p) for starters, main, pudding and water. Take care in cheap places though, and only eat where it’s packed with locals.
You will still see traditional pachamanca being made in many parts of Peru. Pachamanca is cooked in the ground using hot stones, and comprises meat (chicken/guinea pig/beef/lamb), potatoes, beans and spices. Delicious.
The classic: You sit above the crashing waves of the Pacific ocean, while the efficient staff serve you arguably Peru’s top ceviche. There are ceviche and Pisco sour making classes during the day, too, which are great, but the main attraction is the seafood which is perfectly served.
You have to book ahead – weeks, maybe months – and the best advice is to reserve a place as soon as you book your flight tickets. THE hot plate in Peruvian cuisine, expensive too, but worth it. The Diners Club has this year put Astrid at number 14 in its Top 50 Restaurants in the world.
Innovative chefs give you a taste of almost every part of Peru. Again, you need to book ahead, and be prepared to try new combinations as they often serve unusual dishes. Each is fantastically prepared and, of course, delicious.
4. Malabar (Address: Calle Camino Real 101, San Isidro, Lima)
You'll taste a touch of the Amazon with the dishes here, many of which the friendly waiters will most likely need to explain as the fusions are as varied as they are daring. The portions can be small, though, so take that into account when ordering.
5. Madam Tusan (Address: Av. Santa Cruz 859, Miraflores)
One of the new breed of confident restaurants in Lima, serving a Chinese/Peruvian mix, and what a mighty fine dragon to talk about too. Chinese restaurants have the reputation for providing cheap and plentiful dishes but not much taste. Tusan is, successfully, changing that idea.
6. Edo Sushi Bar (Address: Calle José Cossio 292, Magdalena, Lima)
Japan and Peruvian cuisine blend perfectly and at Edo the blend is giddying. Not the prettiest place in the world, but tell that to your taste buds. The sushi here is often rated better than some Japanese restaurants, the quality is that high, but do expect it to be busy if you arrive from 18.00 onwards.
If you want a quick bite to eat and also try something very Peruvian, then Empandas Paulistas is the one. Locals flock to grab a tasty empanada – like a pasty with a variety of meat/seafood/vegetarian fillings. The main problem will be picking which one to choose from the large menu, which includes empanada versions of classic Peruvian dishes such as anticucho and tamal.
Loved the food? Want to buy some for yourself? Or just see it in all its market glory?
1. Mercado Municipal de Magdalena, Lima
Address: Jr. Leoncio Prado s/n, Magdalena, Lima 17, Peru
See where it all comes from. There are organised tours available and they are well worth considering if you don’t speak Spanish. If you do or don’t have the lingo, don’t worry, the stallholders are generally friendly and open to conversations and letting you taste things. Shops tend to have specialities and you will no doubt see and try some wonderful and odd delights.
2. Arequipa Mercado San Camilo
Large, airy and at first sight not much to look at, but once you get into the market and start to see what is available, you’ll hang about for hours. I like watching the butchers go about their work... Those looking to sit back, can relax with one of the market's famed juices, made before your eyes.
3. Mercado Vinocanchon, San Jeronimo, near Cusco
Cusco’s main produce market, near the edge of town, stocks all sorts of supplies for every type of Peruvian feast. Produce is trucked here from small producers at every altitude level from Amazonia (as low as 200 metres) to the Altiplano (3,800m+), and the variety being unloaded hourly is incredible. Try the bread with fried cheese washed down with hot chocolate.
Huaraz gets serious about its food. This is the market for those that like to nibble as they explore. Set away from the traditional centre, the meats here are second to none, coupled with an excellent wine list with sturdy Peruvian, Chilean and Argentinian reds here. The grill is its strong point and the portions are very generous to match the taste.
There's a bit of everything here, and all of it delicious, be it international or Andean. It’s nestled away and has a lovely ambience, perfectly complemented by the unpretentious food and service which, combined, still makes me wonder how they make food so good for such a reasonable price. Good wines too.
Tom Shearman lives in Barcelona, Spain, and has worked for ten years at Andean Trails, South America Tailor Made and Adventure Holiday specialists who offer Peru fine dining tours