Editor’s note: Another incredible post from Kathryn’s South American adventures. Read the rest of her articles here!
Centuries before fusion food was a culinary trend, the Peruvians had been combining flavours and ingredients to create a unique local cuisine. Even today, Lima, the country’s capital city, boasts an outstanding reputation for innovative cuisine with two of the world’s top ten restaurants located there. Locals eat out all the time and delicious food of all flavours is easily available.
Why is the food in Peru so unique, and so good? Well, it’s largely because Peru’s geography and history combine to create a unique cultural heritage – primarily expressed in its food. Grains grow abundantly in the foothills of the Andes mountains, and fruit and vegetables thrive in the tropical climates further north. The cool temperatures and low salinity of the Pacific’s Humboldt Current is an ideal environment for plankton to thrive in, which in turn attracts marine life all the way up the food chain. Peruvians are spoilt for choice when it comes to seafood.
As for the history, indigenous cultures provided local ingredients to European and North African culinary traditions when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, and the resulting Peruvian cuisine was in turn co-opted by the thousands of east Asian (especially Chinese) immigrants in the late 19th / early 20th centuries.
That’s why two of the best, most interesting and most typically Peruvian foods that you must try during your visit to Lima are ceviche and chifa.
Ceviche – Peruvian Sushi
Ceviche (also spelled cebiche) is so deeply ingrained in Peru’s culinary heritage that the government even has a designated day to celebrate it – June 28 is National Ceviche Day. A simple dish of raw fish, marinated in lime juice, red onion, and chili, it is fresh, light, and packed with flavour – my go-to midday meal in Lima.
Ceviche is basically the national dish of Peru!
The acid in the juice denatures the proteins in the fish, “cooking” it – the flesh becomes opaque, and the exterior firmer and chewier, while the inside remains juicy and tender. It’s typically served accompanied by some cooked sweet potato and corn and still marinating in the juice (known as “leche de tigre” or “tiger’s milk”). Much like pizza in New York City, you’re unlikely to get a bad one, but some are truly spectacular.
Ceviche mixto is (as the name suggests) mixed seafood, varying depending on what has been caught that morning. You can expect to be served fish, shellfish, or even octopus. If you’re not a fan of shellfish, simply opt for a “classic” (fish-only) ceviche instead or even the increasingly popular vegetarian version.
If you’re a serious seafood aficionado, head to Fisherman’s Wharf at Chorillos or the port of Callao for the catch of the day, straight off the boat and prepared for the fishermen’s lunches. It’s as fresh a meal as you’ll get.
In the historic heart of downtown Lima, just off Plaza des Armes, you’ll find El Cordano, one of the city’s last surviving traditional bar/restaurants, with checked tablecloths and wooden fittings dating from the 1950s. Right next to the Presidential palace, its back wall proudly displays a selection of photographs of the eminent Peruvian politicians who have popped in over the years for a bite to eat between meetings. The ceviche was piled high, containing the plumpest and juiciest scallops I’ve ever eaten, and the leche de tigre packed a ferociously spicy punch. I found it to be a great option for lunch between sightseeing stops.
Miraflores is a neighbourhood known for shopping, dining, and drinking options, and so it’s a safe bet for a decent ceviche lunch. La Rosa Nautica is an ideal location for a special meal with a special person – it features linen napkins, red roses, and amazing sunset views over the ocean. El Porto Azul has a formidable reputation as one of the best places for Peruvian food, including ceviche, in Miraflores and it’s consistently packed out with tourists and locals alike. The ceviche I most enjoyed in Miraflores was at La Mar. The food was delicious, the portions generous, and the service was great. The restaurant itself is on the smart side – with a good number of suited, booted, corporate types in there for business lunches – but don’t let that put you off. After one of my shoes broke on the journey over, I walked in barefoot and nobody batted an eyelid.
A quick note on timing: ceviche is traditionally eaten in the middle of the day for maximum freshness, as fish can spoil quickly in the South American heat. In any decent restaurant it will have been refrigerated properly though, so don’t be shy of having it for dinner instead if it takes your fancy.
Chifa – Chinese Food with a Peruvian Flavour
Thousands of Chinese immigrants settled in Peru in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly as labourers to build the nation’s nascent railway network. They brought the culinary traditions of their homeland with them whilst improvising with local ingredients, and the resulting fusion cuisine is known as “chifa”: Chinese food with a Peruvian twist. The name comes from the Cantonese expression meaning “to cook rice,” just as “chaufa” is “fried rice” in Cantonese. You won’t have to look very far to find it either, as Lima boasts over 6,000 chifa restaurants.
A traditional chifa meal
One of the best-known chifa dishes is lomo saltado, marinated sirloin stir-fried with onions, tomatoes and peppers, and served with rice or French fries. “Saltado” doesn’t mean salted or cured, as you might expect, though. It actually means “jumping,” and it derives its name not only from the way the ingredients “jump” about in the wok during cooking, but that it has “jumped” cultures and is now regarded as a typically Peruvian dish. You will find it on most restaurant menus. The best ones I had were at Panchita in Miraflores and at Isolina in Barranco, a restaurant focusing on traditional Peruvian cooking, served family-style. The portions are huge, so if you go, make sure you arrive hungry.
Tallarin saltado is the Cantonese-Peruvian version of chow mein; arroz chaufa is fried rice, although in some places you may find the rice replaced with Andean grains such as quinoa or pearled wheat. Oh, and the locals always eat chifa with an ice-cold can of Inca Kola to wash it down.
Beyond these staples, some other typically Peruvian delicacies you may encounter include escabeche – thinly sliced fish, or octopus, or other seafood, served cold in a creamy sauce, often as a starter or appetizer; causa – a kind of savoury cake made of mashed potato, seafood and avocado; and asado – steak, roasted in a red sauce, usually served with a pure de papas (smooth, creamy mashed potatoes flavoured with garlic). Culinary adventurers might be interested in sampling anticuchos (grilled beef heart) or cuy (guinea pig). The latter is a common choice on Peruvian menus, either chactado (deep-fried) or roasted and served with fries.
The food in Peru is truly unique and truly delicious. Creative cuisine with locally sourced ingredients? It’s just how they do things around here. If you go to Lima, make sure you plan to do as the locals do and eat out regularly.
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