Peruvian Cuisine, by John Roberts
Peruvian cuisine is renowned throughout the culinary world, and is known to be one of the best in the world; in fact, the famous French culinary institute Cordon Bleu has one of their prestigious schools located in Lima, Peru. I lived in Lima for two years and have many great memories visiting friends and eating Peruvian food. Situated in the central Pacific coast of South America, its cuisine is a conglomeration of historical influences from cultures including ancient Andean, Spanish (and Moorish who controlled Spain for hundreds of years), African – who were brought as slaves by the Spaniards, Chinese – who came as laborers, and Japanese. Peruvian cooking is also unique in that it combines food from geographical regions as diverse as the pacific coast, the Andes Mountains (the 2nd highest mountain range in the world), and the largest jungle in the world, the Amazon, which provides an abundance of fresh fruit (to the left is a tropical Peruvian fruit called lucuma). Peruvian dining combines healthy food within a family oriented environment which makes eating a wonderful experience.
Peruvian food is healthy because it consists of a balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and fruits and vegetables. Peruvians don’t smother food with butter, unhealthy creamy sauces and cheese, or with salt and pepper. More importantly, their approach to eating is family oriented. Eating is a social experience where friends and family gather together and help prepare the meal. Peruvians don’t rush when eating, like all Latin-American cultures, preparing and eating the food is a social event; similarly, they make visitors feel as if they were part of the family by welcoming them into their homes. The ingredients such as the meat, fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables are often purchased fresh daily at the neighborhood farmer’s market or grocery store. Peruvians rarely eat processed foods or “fast food.” If they eat “fast food” it usually isn’t “fast food” as we know it, but is typically healthy such as a turkey sandwich with onions (sliced and grilled in front of you), or antecuchos which are barbecued beef heart skewers offered with aji (spicy salsa). Breakfast in Peru is usually a light meal consisting of either pan con queso (bread with fresh cheese), oatmeal, or a piece of fresh fruit with a drink such as freshly squeezed juice, or a cup of coffee or tea.
Lunch or dinner are my favorite meals and frequently start with a small appetizer. Common appetizers, and also served as main dishes, are causa (a layered cake of yellow potato) and papa a la huancaina. The latter dish is prepared as either thin slices of potatoes or boiled and mashed and combined with a small amount of beaten oil to hold it together. Next the potatoes are topped with fresh cheese and spicy aji sauce mixed with diced red pepper and wedges of hard boiled egg (Peruvian food has a diversity of potato dishes since more varieties of potatoes, nearly 3,000, are grown in Peru than any other country. The potato has been cultivated in Peru for roughly 7,000 years and has been a main staple in many of the important civilizations throughout its history. The Andes mountains and the altiplano, high plains, are ideal growing conditions for potatoes).
Cancha – lightly salted and toasted corn kernels – is an appetizer that's great to nibble on while waiting for your meal. This is accompanied with a drink such as chicha morada, a purple fruity tasting drink with a hint of cinnamon made from purple corn simmered in water, Inka Kola ( similar to a yellow mountain dew), or any common beverage ordered in the United States. In the U.S. food portions are typically too large, and appetizers are frequently not only unhealthy but they usually satisfy my hunger before I’ve eaten my meal. In Peru appetizers are small, and in combination with a drink leave enough room for your meal.
There are many main dishes and they’re usually made from beef, chicken or seafood (vegetarian food is available also). Chicken dishes are popular and one of the more popular is called aji de gallina. It’s made from mashed potatoes topped with moist chicken in a lightly creamy savory sauce of nuts, chilies, and onions. Peruvian tamales consist of corn dough steamed in banana leaves filled with chicken (or the meat of your choice), olives, nuts, red onions, lime juice, green salsa, and herbs and spices. Peruvian style chicken is slowly roasted over a charcoal fire and has a mouth-watering crispy skin made of wonderful spices (the best roasted chicken I’ve had). It’s served with a platter of delicious vegetables, beats and carrots, which have been pre-cooked and cooled. Pollo saltado is chicken sautéed with onions and tomatoes served with rice or potatoes and vegetables. One of my favorite Peruvian dishes is arroz con pollo or pato, which is chicken or duck with green rice combined with garlic, onions, cilantro and peas. My favorite soup is caldo de gallina (home-raised chicken soup). A meal in itself, it consists of long noodles in chicken broth with a slice of lime.
Beef dishes include such delicacies as seco de cordero made with delicious chunks of fresh veal simmered in a veal stock of spices, herbs, garlic, onions, and aji. Chicharron de chancho is lightly fried pork ribs with a coating of aji spices. Lomo saltado is a juicy plate of thinly sliced beef sautéed with onions and tomatoes. A thinly breaded fried steak served with rice or potatoes with a side of salsa and vegetables is known as bistec apanado. Peruvian beef stews are excellent and one of my favorites is estofado de carne. Acodero con frijoles y arroz is a stew made of lamb with beans and rice. Cau cau is traditional creole stew prepared with beef tripe, potatoes and carrots. Also, arroz chifa (fried rice) with beef or chicken are rice dishes with a small amount of meat.
Peru is famous for its fabulous seafood. If you visit Peru you have to try their famous ceviche. It’s made of small cubes of fresh white fish marinated in lime juice, onions, aji and cilantro. The lime juice breaks the protein bonds and “cooks” the fish while it marinates actually changing the texture of the fish. There are many types of ceviche such as ceviche a la concha consisting of scallops marinated in lime juice and spices. Ceviche is often served with a slice of sweet potato or a side of corn. Mussels on the half shell, shrimp fried rice, and trout are other popular seafood dishes. Jalea de pescado is deep fried fish and squid topped with onions marinated in lime juice. Sudado de filete de pescado is a marvelous steamed fish plate combined with onions and tomatoes. Similar to Spanish paella, I had a habit of eating arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) on Sunday's. It was a special treat and is a wonderful mixture of sautéed fish, squid, mussels, clams, and scallops mixed with rice and a variety of herbs and spices.
Cuy, or guinea pig, is a traditional dish that was eaten by the Incas and domesticated over 5,000 years ago. Cuy was easy to domesticate for ancient Andean cultures. It has a mild taste similar to rabbit, and it’s healthy since it contains more protein and less fat than chicken, pork, or beef. Click on the link to see a short video by Andrew Zimmern (in Ecuador) from the program Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel on eating cuy. It’s prepared in different ways throughout Peru. For instance, in the Northern provinces it’s frequently stewed and is scrumptious.
Peruvians have delightful desserts such as lucuma (a tropical fruit native to Peru) ice cream and arroz con leche – a rice pudding with raisins. Flan is light custard topped with carmel sauce, and alfajores are a type of dessert originating from Moorish traditions. It consists of two cookies filled with a dulce de leche (sweetened milk) filling and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Common Peruvian alcoholic drinks are pisco sour, a Peruvian cocktail of lime, egg white, and pisco which is a type of brandy made from Quebranta grapes. Cuzquena, Cristal, and Pilsen Callao are the most popular beers in Peru. They are light and refreshing with a subtle hoppy flavor. Peruvian wines are not as well known as their Chilean and Argentinan neighbors; nonetheless, they have excellent wine in Peru. The wine region is located near Ica, several hours south of Lima and home to several bodegas (wineries) such as Bodega Tacama and Bodega Ocucaje. They are located near the Nasca lines, a famous tourist destination. After visiting the Nasca lines, either winery is a great place to visit with friends and family to enjoy a fabulous dinner and share a bottle of wine. Both are known for their outstanding Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc wines and also offer wonderful winery tours.
Peruvian dining is extraordinary for many reasons. It is low in fat, butter, cream, and oil, and uses fresh products rather than processed foods. Preparing and eating meals is a time that brings family and friends together. Eating is a reflection of Latin-American culture in that Peruvians enjoy socializing and spending time together, gathering outdoors, walking in the park and visiting friends. In general, they live a less sedentary lifestyle and combine that with rich culinary traditions. Peruvians are able to obtain the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals in their meals by balancing proportions of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Peruvian cuisine is famous throughout the culinary world and is spectacular because it uses fresh ingredients while fusing eastern and western styles with traditional and modern recipes that results in exciting and healthy cuisine.