I already had a passion for Peruvian cuisine long before I traveled to Peru on a recent culinary odyssey. I did not know, however, that food rates as religion for the Inca tribespeople who still populate the South American nation’s Andes mountains.
Well, that’s my interpretation in any case. It might be more accurate to say that the native people’s faith system is based on agriculture. Considered one of six cradles of civilization globally, Peru is also the breadbasket of South America. So crops come first, and in the Inca 15th century heyday, prayer to the gods and human sacrifice served the purpose of insuring food on the tables of Inca kings.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You have a hankering for guinea pig and raw fish.
- You love trying different cuisines and learning their cultural context.
- Great for foodies and adventurous palates.
The Staples: Corn, Potatoes, Seafood
I’m quite certain no persons gave their lives for my recent feast-fest, but my meals were absolutely fit for royalty. One of the hottest new cuisines to reach North America in recent years, Peruvian food has its roots in ancient times. Corn, potatoes, and seafood lay the foundation for food traditions that have survived the ages. Peru produces more than 3,000 varieties of corn and 2,000 types of potatoes – both of which show up at pretty much every meal in some form or another.
Seafood in its purest and most Peruvian incarnation stars in ceviche. This pan-Latin American favorite originated in Peru. Here the fish gets only lightly marinated, so that it retains its raw characteristics. At the Westin Lima Hotel in the capital city, chefs added a sweet potato slice and a few roasted kernels of oversized corn (think corn nuts) for a dish that successfully embodies Peruvian culinary icons.
At the Palacio del Inka in Cusco, once an important Inca capital, I could customize my ceviche with a choice of salmon, sea bass, and trout, plus the onions, lime juice, garlic sauce, cilantro, and aji peppers that traditionally flavor the dish. Here too I sampled a cheese and charcuterie line featuring Peruvian-made brie (silky beyond belief) and gouda cheese, cured ham, and elderberry preserves, plus imported Italian prosciutto and cheeses.
The success of Peruvian cuisine lies in its flexibility to fuse with other cuisines. Chinese fusion came first as a result of immigrant workers from Asia. “Chifa” cafes in every town sell rice-based Cantonese dishes that have taken on Peruvian qualities, like stir-fried lomo saltado made with beef.
Italian cuisine also figures importantly into the Peruvian diet, for whatever reason, and pasta is common on every restaurant menu. Pizza joints are about as plentiful as chifas.
Quinoa, the latest star of salads and healthy eating in the States, comes from South America. Peru gets quite creative with it, using it both in soaked and unsoaked forms. Soaked, it appears in risotto-like side dishes and tangy salads with corn and fava beans. Unsoaked, it crusts fish and gives texture to pancakes.
In the meat department, chicken, beef, and pork are common. They top a popular, hardy folk dish called tacu tacu, which you can find in local cafes. Also common in Peru, while uncommon to the North American palate, guinea pig and alpaca are emblematic of the Peruvian diet.
Please Pass the Guinea Pig
Known as cuy, the guinea pig tasted better grilled and pulled, as I had it at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, in the cradle of Incan culture. Quartered and roasted, as I tried it elsewhere, it gives up very little meat from the bones. Its flavor hovers at the crossroads of pork, chicken, and fish.
I did not have the opportunity to sample alpaca, but am told it tastes like a cross between various red meats, usually served as steaks or skewered.
Fruits of all varieties color the Peruvian diet in shades of melon, pineapple, passionfruit, and strawberry. In the Amazon region, where fare is rice-and-bean-based and hardy, I sampled a delicious compote of cocona fruit spiced with cloves, a tasty accomplice to my quinoa pancakes.
In the sweets department, picarones, a doughnut-like confection from the Spanish colonial period, contains sweet potatoes and squash. I favored the flan, and the version I tried at Inkaterra was probably the best, creamiest, most seductive I’ve ever sampled.
Cheers to Peru!
As for beverages, pisco sour, Peru’s national cocktail, comes first to mind. Made with the country’s grapes, the brandy-like pisco gets shaken with key lime juice, syrup, and an egg white, then finished with a drop of bitters. It is a sign of welcome at every event and bar.
The Peruvians also make a nonalcoholic beverage known as chichachicha morado from their purple corn. Bottled Inca Kola tastes like cream soda. Peru produces quality coffee and cocoa, but don’t pass up its teas, which are medicinal and light. Most famous, widely available coca tea comes from cocaine leaves and is prescribed for altitude sickness and to kick in an energy boost.
Incans call their most fertile terroir “Sacred Valley,” below the renowned ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s designated sacred specifically for its fecundity. You’ve got to love a culture that reveres its food source above all.