Peru is a land of contrasts. From its coastal deserts that receive almost no rainfall to the rugged snow-capped Andes and lush Amazonian rainforest Peru embodies the meaning of biodiversity. Once the cradle of advanced pre-Hispanic civilizations, today, Peru is a multiethnic composite of diverse peoples and cultures.
Cocina Criolla: A Culinary Melting Pot
Cocina Criolla is a melting pot of culinary traditions that transcends race and nationality. The cuisine is the result of hundreds of years of fusion between indigenous, European, African, and Asian cultures. Building upon a wealth of native ingredients, Peruvian cuisine relies heavily on products like corn, tubers, and hot peppers known as ajís. With one of the most diverse fisheries in the world, seafood of impeccable quality plays prominently in the Cocina Criolla. Ingredients like Dover sole, black clams, octopus, and jumbo-sized fresh water shrimp are just some of the ingredients used in the country’s iconic seafood dishes like cebiche, tiradito, causa, cau cau, and locro.
Birthplace of Cebiche
South America’s western coast is the “birthplace” of cebiche. A dish said to be of Incan origin, raw fish was left to marinate and cook in acidic Amazonian fruits such as tumbo and cocona. Today’s Peruvian cebiche relies on flash marinating just-caught fish in lime juice or acidic leche de tigre—leaving it to marinate any longer is considered a sin. Cebiche is customarily a daytime food, as discriminating locals prefer to eat only the freshest possible fish, still “flapping” from the morning’s catch.
Distinctive garnishes complement the acidity and heat of Peru’s key limes and ajís. Slices of perfectly cooked sweet potato, large-kernel Peruvian corn known as choclo, and cancha, a crunchy toasted corn, adorn the plates of regional cebiches.
The evolution of cebiche and the rise of tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche, bear the unmistakable stamp of Peru’s large Japanese population. The techniques and rules for making Peruvian cebiche are nothing short of an art form. Whether it is the type of ají used to season the dish, the slicing of the fish, or the way the lime is squeezed, the act of making of cebiche is almost sacred.
Peru’s Chifa and Nikkei Cuisines
Chinese and Japanese immigrants have shaped and transformed Peruvian cuisine over the past two centuries, making ginger and soy sauce as quintessentially Peruvian as quinõa and potatoes. Stir-fried dishes like lomo saltado and saltado de tallarines have become part of the national cuisine, transcending stereotypes and gracing the kitchen tables of all Peruvians.
Other dishes like tiradito, a cross between Peruvian ceviche and Japanese sashimi, reflect a marriage between Japanese and Peruvian traditions. The country is home to master Japanese chefs who rival the best in Tokyo, expertly combining ingredients from the Andes, the Amazon, and Peru’s more than two thousand kilometers of Pacific coastline.
Peru’s Andean Cuisine
The Andean region is home to thousands of varieties of rare tubers like fuschia-colored ocas, buttery yellow ollucos, tan huamantangas, deep purple papas moradas, and blackened, freeze-dried potatoes known as chuños. Millions of visitors travel every year to the Peruvian Andes to visit Cuzco, the surrounding Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. Quechua-speaking peoples have inhabited this region since 6,000 BC, farming tubers, corn, and super-grains like quinõa and kiwicha. Peru’s Andean region is also home to exotic ingredients like vegetable caviars harvested from high altitude lakes and rare animals like Andean guinea pig, called “cuy.” Marinades made from dried panca ajís are used to season alpaca meat skewers, a fusion of Andean ingredients and African street food traditions from the coast. Other icons of the Andean table include hearty huatia and carapulcra. Simmered in earthen clay pots, these dishes showcase important regional ingredients like huacatay, a minty herb related to the marigold, and chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer consumed in Peru since pre-Hispanic times.
Perhaps the region’s most well-known culinary tradition is the pachamanca—an earthen pit barbeque tradition that pays homage to the “pacha mama,” or Mother Earth, for bringing bounty to the land. The foods—primarily tubers, legumes, and meats, are cooked in pits lined with hot river rocks, covered with herbs, and hermetically sealed to evenly roast the ingredients.
Peru’s Amazonian Cuisine
The endless canopy of the Amazon jungle covers more than half of Peru’s territory. Imagine visiting a foreign planet with exciting new ingredients practically unknown to the outside world. This is a culinary wonderland where ingredients like freshly cut hearts of palm, baseball-sized river snails, yellow ají charapita, and exotic fruits like cacao, tumbo, cocona, and lucuma form part of the local, everyday cuisine.