Peru is on the lips of every top chef in the world right now. With reason, its vibrancy, freshness, and diverse flavors leave us all mesmerized–and wanting more. Peruvian cuisine fused together to become its modern, regional-driven expression during five centuries of Spanish, West African, Japanese and Chinese immigration, along with the native Quechua culture. Due to a lack of ingredients from their home countries, immigrants to Peru modified their traditional cuisines by incorporating local foodstuffs, many of which are not found outside the country. Consider the country’s 84 microclimates, from the Pacific Ocean to Amazon, Desert, and Andes Mountains, and Altiplano, and you can imagine you’re going to have some amazing concoctions.
So what are the anchor ingredients of Peru? The country’s cuisine really relies on a gamut of humble ingredients easily procured in country. Just about everything grows somewhere in Peru: rice, coffee, cocoa beans, (for some seriously sinful dark chocolate!) quinoa, thousands of tubers, tropical fruit, organic vegetables, chilies, grapes for the brandy Pisco, and more. The cuisine’s key ingredients are the floral, piquant Chile called Ají Amarillo (yellow chili), perhaps the soul of Peruvian dishes, along with the tongue-tingling rocoto pepper slivered on ceviche . Think your tongue is made of steel? I dare you to try roasted rocoto stuffed with meat or cheese, typical of the Arequipa region. Traditional staples are corn, either as large kernels, or ground into a paste to make humitas, tamales. Locals eat a kazillion potatoes; with reason, there are over 3,000 varieties in Peru, where the tuber may have originated. There are also heirloom beans, and the Spanish introduced rice, wheat, and meat, all an integral part of the modern diet. Love seafood? You’re in the right neighborhood, the Humboldt Current brings frigid water from the Antarctic with plankton to nurture sea life and meshes with tropical currents coming down from Ecuador. The result? Dozens up dozens of fish, bi-valves ,and crustaceans. Seafood utopia.
However, what truly separates Peruvian food from its other Latin cousins, particularly in the capital of Lima, is the hefty Asian immigration that left a stamp on the country in the late 1800s. The immigrants brought their vision of cooking with stir-frying, dumplings, skewers, raw seafood dishes, sushi rolls with toppings, and fused them with the local ingredients on hand. Peruvian food is a seafood lover’s dream, often prepared raw or “cured” with high acid from key lime juice. For those unfamiliar with Peruvian food, this bridge in the form of the Japanese influence, makes it easy to start exploring. For example, many of the best-loved national dishes like tiraditos (slices of raw fish, dressed in sweet-and-sour sauces, sound like dressed up sashimi?) are reminiscent of Japanese dishes–with a twist. Remember, Nobu got all his ideas for his restaurant in Peru!
Overall though, Peru is a nation of foodies from humble huariques (joints) to ceviche stalls, top restaurants, and even celebrating with the deceased on Day of the Dead in cemeteries country-wide. They love food. They see it as a fundamental part of their national identity, regional pride, and a common denominator that all share. I want to share with you five dishes that you MUST try when you venture out into one of the local Peruvian restaurants opening across US cities from San Francisco to New York, Houston, Boston, Miami, and beyond. Be sure to order up a frothy, zippy Pisco Sour. I can tell you from experience, be careful, the effects don’t hit you until the end of the second one!
Written by Liz Caskey, guest blogger