Just like most people, I have tried (and love) ceviche and lomo saltado. However, Peruvian cuisine goes way beyond those two dishes. In my latest visit to Peru, I tried as many local dishes as I possibly could, and also did my best to understand the history and know why Peruvian cuisine is so unique.
Peruvian food: the beginnings
You may have heard of the Japanese influence in Peru, resulting in the widely famous Nikkei food. It's basically Peruvian ingredients shaped by Japanese techniques. Soon enough after setting foot in Lima, and chatting with friends and locals, I realized that Peruvian cuisine encompasses much more. It has evolved through the years and it's a fusion of indigenous Peruvian cultures, after the Spanish colonization, therefore also Arab/Moorish influences since they had occupied Spain and North Africa, the arrival of slaves from Africa, and last but not least, the Japanese and Chinese immigrants.
As you can see, there's a lot of influence from all parts of the world. The result? Fusion. Lots of it. Therefore, the use of the top ingredients and techniques from each of the different cultures. No wonder Peruvian gastronomy has been recognized as one of the world's leading culinary cuisines!
Without further ado, I will list the foods I tried for the first time (please, no judgement!), and a brief explanation of the dish.
Back in the ancient times, this corn drink was considered much more than a thirst-quencher. History tells us that indigenous people boiled the cobs to make medicine and use it in their rituals. Eventually, chicha ended up becoming a popular drink. But how is it purple if the corn is yellow? In Peru, colored corn is very common, as they have 13 different kinds of corn. They range from white, yellow, purple, black and mixed colors. How is chicha morada made? Well, you have to boil purple-black corn with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and cloves for about an hour. After it cools, add lime juice and sugar, and you have a delicious drink to enjoy in a hot summer day.
Ají de gallina
A simple yet delicious dish, the Ají de Gallina is a crowd's favorite. Resulted by the coexistence of Inca and Hispanic ingredients and techniques. It consists of shredded chicken with a mildly spicy and creamy sauce, and a side of white rice. Most times accompanied by half a hard egg on top. According to historians, the Ají de Gallina originated from a Spanish dish called Manjar Blanco (blancmange), and locals adapted it by adding local ingredients such as ají amarillo (yellow pepper) and chicken (or hen, as it was originally made).
This sandwich has stood the test of time and here's why. The word butifarra is the Catalan name of a sausage. While Peru was a Spanish colony, eating Spanish sausage became part of the Peruvian culture. At the same time, Italian immigrants were known for preparing artisan smoked ham. They eventually created a ham which they called jamón del país (country ham), the place they now call home. This sandwich was born out of a mix of both. The ham being the key ingredient for the butifarras, and round bread called roseta. Through the years some ingredients have been removed and others added, such as salsa criolla, radishes, lettuce and chili. Nevertheless, do yourself a favor and stop by a sanguchería and try a delicious butifarra. You won't be disappointed.
Ceviche de conchas negras
Meaning black conch ceviche, it's a dark (almost black) ceviche variation made mostly with black clams. This dish is popular throughout the Northern and Southern coasts of the country, and in big cities such as Lima. Don't judge on its looks, judge by the flavor! This was one of my favorite dishes I tried while in Peru.
This is your typical leftover dish. Originated centuries ago, as a fusion between Peruvian cuisine and the food eaten by African slaves in the coastal farms, in the valleys of Chincha and Cañete. Since slaves would normally only eat leftovers from their masters, they made the most of it. The dish is a mixture of cooked rice, a stew (usually any type of beans), and a sauce based on ají amarillo, mixed up and prepared in a pan to form a homogenous mass. There's two versions of where the name Tacu Tacu comes from. One says that it comes from Quechua meaning crushed. The other version says it's an adapted way of saying the Swahili word "taka" which means food, since expressions like this were prohibited by the inquisition.
Conchitas a la parmesana
Peruvian cuisine is clearly influenced by many different cuisines around the world, and the Conchitas a la Parmesana is proof of the Italian influence. It consists of broiled scallops topped with grated parmesan cheese.
Loved by most Peruvians, this dish can be enjoyed no matter the setting. Wether at a fancy restaurant or bought at a food stand in the middle of the street. Anticuchos are made with cow heart. I know, it sounds gross and with high potential of tasting terrible, but believe me when I tell you I was surprised by the rich taste. It became one of my favorite dishes I tried in Peru. If you wonder why do people eat cow heart and how did it become so popular? Turns out this custom comes from way back in the day, during the Viceroyalty period, when slaves would eat whatever leftovers they could find. Throughout the years, the dish was transformed into the way we know it today: big pieces of cow heart inserted in a skewer and cooked in a grill.
This dessert based around manjar blanco (which is very similar to how dulce de leche is made) is a clear sign of the Spanish influence in Peru. The other key ingredient of this delicious and very sweet dessert is meringue, also brought by the Spaniards. While the flavor may be too sweet for some, I do recommend at least trying a spoonful. It's very delicious!
Made with local squash called macre and sweet potatoes (among other ingredients), this doughnut looking dessert tastes incredible! Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos because they were too expensive to make. If you ask me what's the key to a great picaron? I would 100% say it's the syrup. It's usually made fresh with papelón (depending on the country it's also called chancaca or panela) and poured all over the picarones. You can find picaronería carts in plazas around the city.
Macerados are very popular in Latin speaking countries, and Peru is not behind. Macerado is simply a liquor infusion. They have a wide range of flavors. Mostly featuring a blend of fruits and herbs like strawberry, coconut, orange, coca leaves and ginger. I got the chance to try oranges macerado in Pisco, and another time I tried plum macerado in pisco. Let me tell you, I would not. be able to choose just one. They are so delicious in their own way. But be careful! The percentage of alcohol is so high (around 40%) that you're only meant to serve a tiny amount and sip on it. After the third or fourth glass, some may start seeing double.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my Peruvian culinary experience! Even though it's not as exciting reading as eating the food, I hope it has helped prepared you for your next Peruvian experience. Whether at home visiting a Peruvian restaurant, or during your next visit to Peru.