Peruvian cuisine is rated among the best in the world and is currently experiencing a period of flourishing self-confidence and great popularity overseas. The country’s chefs are adept at creating innovative new fusions with its fantastic wealth of food products, most of which are indigenous.
As with almost every activity, the style and pattern of eating and drinking varies considerably between the three main regions of Peru. The food in each area, though it varies depending on the availability of different regional ingredients, is essentially a mestizo creation, combining indigenous cooking with four hundred years of European – mostly Spanish – influence.
Guinea pig (cuy) is the traditional dish most associated with Peru, and you can find it in many parts of the country, especially in the mountain regions, where it is likely to be roasted in an oven and served with chips. It’s likely however, that you may encounter more burgers and pizza than guinea pig, given that fast food has spread quickly in Peru over the past two decades.
All over Peru, but particularly in the large towns and cities, you’ll find a wide variety of traditional fast foods and snacks such as salchipapas (chips with sliced sausage covered in various sauces), anticuchos (a shish kebab made from marinated lamb or beef heart) and empanadas (meat- or cheese-filled pies). These are all sold on street corners until late at night. Even in Peru’s villages you’ll find cafés and restaurants that double as bars, staying open all day and serving anything from coffee and bread to steak and chips, or even lobster. The most popular sweets in Peru are made from either manjar blanco (sweetened condensed milk) or fresh fruits.
In general, the market is always a good place to stock up – you can buy food ready to eat on the spot or to take away and prepare – and the range and prices are better than in any shop. Most food prices are fixed, but the vendor may throw in an orange, a bit of garlic or some coriander leaves for good measure. Smoked meat, which can be sliced up and used like salami, is normally a good buy.
All larger towns in Peru have a fair choice of restaurants, most of which offer a varied menu. Among them there are usually a few Chinese (chifa) places, and nowadays a fair number of vegetarian restaurants too. Most establishments in larger towns stay open daily from around 11am until 11pm, though in smaller settlements they may close one day a week, usually Sunday. Often they will offer a set menu, from morning through to lunchtime, and another in the evening. Ranging in price from S/6 to S/25, these most commonly consist of three or four courses: soup or other starter, a main dish (usually hot and with rice or salad), a small sweet or fruit-based third plate, plus tea or coffee to follow. Every town, too, seems now to have at least one restaurant that specializes in pollos a la brasa – spit-roasted chickens.
Along the coast, not surprisingly, seafood is the speciality; the Humboldt Current keeps the Pacific Ocean off Peru extremely rich in plankton and other microscopic life forms, which attract a wide variety of fish. Ceviche is the classic Peruvian seafood dish and has been eaten by locals for over two thousand years. It consists of fish, shrimp, scallops or squid, or a mixture of all four, marinated in lime juice and chilli peppers, then served “raw” with corn, sweet potato and onions. Ceviche de lenguado (sole) and ceviche de corvina (sea bass) are among the most common, but there are plenty of other fish and a wide range of seafood is utilized on most menus. You can find ceviche, along with fried fish and fish soups, in most restaurants along the coast from S/15–25.
Escabeche is another tasty fish-based appetizer, this time incorporating peppers and finely chopped onions. The coast is also an excellent place for eating scallops – known here as conchitas – which grow particularly well close to the Peruvian shoreline; conchitas negras (black scallops) are a delicacy in the northern tip of Peru. Excellent salads are also widely available, such as huevos a la rusa (egg salad), palta rellena (stuffed avocado), or a straight tomato salad, while papas a la Huancaina (a cold appetizer of potatoes covered in a spicy, light cheese sauce) is great too.
Mountain food is fairly basic – a staple of potatoes and rice with the meat stretched as far as it will go. Lomo saltado, or diced prime beef sautéed with onions and peppers, is served anywhere at any time, accompanied by rice and a few French fries. A delicious snack from street vendors and cafés is papa rellena, a potato stuffed with vegetables and fried. Trout is also widely available, as are cheese, ham and egg sandwiches. Chicha, a corn beer drunk throughout the sierra region and on the coast in rural areas, is very cheap with a pleasantly tangy taste. Another Peruvian speciality is the pachamanca, a roast prepared mainly in the mountains but also on the coast by digging a large hole, filling it with stones and lighting a fire over them, then using the hot stones to cook a wide variety of tasty meats and vegetables.
Jungle food is quite different to the rest of the country. Bananas and plantains figure highly, along with yuca (a manioc rather like a yam), rice and plenty of fish. There is meat as well – mostly chicken supplemented occasionally by game (deer, wild pig or even monkey). Every settlement big enough to get on the map has its own bar or café, but in remote areas it’s a matter of eating what’s available and drinking coffee or bottled drinks if you don’t relish the home-made masato (cassava beer).
Beer, wines and spirits are served in almost every bar, café or restaurant at any time, but there is a deposit on taking beer bottles away from a shop (canned beer is one of the worst inventions to hit Peru this century – some of the finest beaches are littered with empty cans).
Soft drinks range from mineral water, through the ubiquitous Coca-Cola and Fanta, to home-produced favourites like the gold-coloured Inka Cola, with rather a home-made taste, and the very sweet Cola Inglesa. Fruit juices (jugos), most commonly papaya or orange, are delicious and prepared fresh in most places (the best selection and cheapest prices are generally available in a town’s main market), and you can get coffee and a wide variety of herb and leaf teas almost anywhere. Surprisingly, for a good coffee-growing country, the coffee in cafés outside of Lima, Cusco and Arequipa leaves much to be desired, commonly prepared from either café pasado (previously percolated coffee mixed with hot water to serve) or simple powdered Nescafé. Increasingly it’s possible to find great coffee in larger towns where certain cafés prepare good fresh espresso, cappuccino or filtered coffee. Starbucks (complete with wi-fi) has arrived in several of Peru’s cities and is everywhere you turn in Lima.
Most Peruvian beer – except for cerveza malta (black malt beer) – is bottled lager almost exclusively brewed to five percent alcohol content, and extremely good. Traditional Peruvian beers include Cristal, Pilsen and Cusqueña (the latter, originating from Cusco, is generally preferred, and has even reached some UK supermarkets in recent years). In Trujillo on the north coast, they drink Trujillana beer, again quite similar; and in Arequipa they tend to drink Arequipeña beer. There are several new lager beers now on the market, including the Brazilian brand Brahma. Peru has been producing wine (vino) for over four hundred years, but with one or two exceptions it is not that good. Among the better ones are Vista Alegre (the Tipo Familiar label is generally OK) – not entirely reliable but only around S/8 a bottle – and, much better, Tabernero or Tacama Gran Vino Reserva (white or red) from about S/25–45 a bottle. A good Argentinian or Chilean wine will cost from $10 upwards.
As for spirits, Peru’s main claim to fame is pisco. This is a white-grape brandy with a unique, powerful and very palatable flavour – the closest equivalent elsewhere is probably tequila. Almost anything else is available as an import – Scotch whisky is cheaper here than in the UK, but beware of the really cheap whisky imitations or blends bottled outside of Scotland which can remove the roof of your mouth with ease. The jungle regions produce a sugar-cane rum, cashassa (basically the Peruvian equivalent of Brazilian cachaça), also called aguardiente, which has a distinctive taste and is occasionally mixed with different herbs, some medicinal. While it goes down easily, it’s incredibly strong stuff and is sure to leave you with a hangover the next morning if you drink too much.
In budget or average restaurants tipping is normal, though not obligatory and you should rarely expect to give more than about ten percent. In fancier places you may well find a service charge of at least ten percent as well as a tax of nineteen percent (IGV) added to the bill. In restaurants and peñas where there’s live music or performances a cover charge is generally also applied and can be as high as $5 a head. Even without a performance, additional cover charges of around $1 are sometimes levied in the flashier restaurants in major town centres.