Everyone travels for different reasons. For some, the best way to experience a new destination is to eat like the locals. Our Flightie Claus admits that the cuisine of Peru wasn’t something he was looking forward to, but after trying the local dishes, he was surprised by the variety and flavours in Peruvian cuisine. He shares with us how Peru changed his mind:
Last month I had the opportunity to go on a tour of Peru. It had been one of my top destinations to visit, and I must admit that, as much as I knew about how fantastic the country would be, I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience of visiting. In the back of my mind I had a pre-existing idea of what Peru would be like, which did not disappoint: The colourful textiles; the European-influenced architecture; the deeply-present pre-Hispanic culture, including the world renowned Machu Picchu. However, one thing I was not expecting at all was the very diverse (and very delicious) Peruvian cuisine.
The thing is, and now I know, that Peru is actually very well known for its food. The nation boasts over 140 national dishes, according to our tour leader. The Peruvians I interacted with also always seemed to be proud about their country’s dishes, often interested to hear which ones visitors have already tried. Similar to other Latin American countries, Peru’s cuisine is a combination of native and Spanish recipes and ingredients. The result is a very unique variety of flavours that tantalizes your palate.
The cool thing about Peruvian cuisine is also the diversity of its prices. Some restaurants offer a filling 3-course meal for the equivalent of CDN$5, while others will charge CDN$15 for a regular meal. This allows visitors on a budget to experience the flavours of the country, as well as allowing those with a little more to spend to treat themselves to a higher-end meal.
Cuisine was about the furthest thing from my mind when I visited Peru. I enjoy eating, and I am always interested in trying local dishes (including unusual delicacies) of the places that I visit. Having grown up in Mexico, I expected the flavours of Peru to be somewhat similar. I expected to try one or two new dishes that I had never seen before, but I was baffled by the immense variety of new dishes and new flavours I tried.
Corn, Rice, and Beans
The staple foods of the developing world are very present in Peru. Corn, rice and beans, highly popular in other countries from Mexico to Central and South America and the Caribbean, form a big part of Peru’s cuisine; however, Peruvians have found ways to make such staples into very unique and tasty meals and drinks. Corn is used to make flat bread, a pop-corn like snack, purple corn pudding, even non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks. Rice and beans are also common components of Peruvian meals, and is often served with Tacu Tacu, a paste created by mashing white rice with full white lava beans which is seasoned, then fried.
Stuffed, Stuffed, Stuffed
Based on the time spent there, I noticed “stuffed” seems to be very popular in Peru. Palta Rellena (avocado stuffed with chicken salad), Rocoto Relleno (chilli pepper stuffed with seasoned ground beef, boiled eggs, olives and raisins), and Causa Rellena (a lemon-infused, mashed potato crust stuffed with vegetable, tuna, or chicken salad) seemed to be on every single menu, mostly as an appetizer, but with the sizes could possibly be a light lunch or dinner.
Aji for Those with a Hot Taste
Peru’s variety of chilli peppers (or Aji, as called in the country) is amazing. Again, having grown up in Mexico I am used to eating spicy salsas almost every day. The variety of Peruvian chilis, however, seems to be a lot more impressive than those in Mexico. Every restaurant seemed to have an aji sauce made with a different chilli pepper. Every single aji sauce tasted absolutely different and had varying degrees of spiciness.
National beers of course; the pride of every country. While “Cristal” beer is the international known brand of Peruvian beer, I much preferred the flavour of “Cusqueña,” a regional beer made in the city of Cusco, which is easily available nationwide. Peruvian’s major pride, more than its extensive cuisine, is their country’s national drink: Pisco. A strong spirit, distilled from grapes, Pisco is ever present everywhere from small local restaurants, to bars and nightclubs, to high-end establishments. Pisco can be mixed to make an array of beverages that is as extensive as Peru’s geography.
Chifa – The Peruvian Chinese
Peru had a large influx of Chinese immigrants in the past leading to the creation and subsequent high popularity of Chinese food restaurants; however, due to the lack of typical Chinese ingredients in Peru, Chinese restaurants had to customize their recipes in order to adapt to the ingredients they could find. The result was the highly popular Chifa food – a hybrid of Chinese and Spanish/native Peruvian, restaurants which are present all over in cities all over Peru.
Coca – The Forbidden Leaf
Peru’s little naughty secret. The coca tea (yes, made from the leaf of the plant used to make cocaine) has a strong presence in Peru. Although illegal in North America due to strict laws, the leaves themselves (without extensive chemical treatment) are absolutely harmless, other than giving consumers a slight energy boost, much like the caffeine in coffee or black tea. The coca tea, usually made from whole leaves but also available in pre-packaged tea bags, is very common in Peru, especially in the city of Cusco – The tea in fact helps visitors cope with altitude-sickness (common in foreigners when visiting the city, up at over 11,100 feet!) by accelerating heart rate and allowing the lungs to take in more air.
Brave Palate? Try Me!
For those with a more adventurous palate, Peru has a couple of unusual dishes.
The first I tried was a skewer of Alpaca meat. The meat was well season and tender, and although a little more gamey than beef, it had a flavour much softer than that of venison or moose. I shared the skewer as an appetizer with two of the other travelers, as we didn’t know whether we’d enjoy it or not. I actually quite enjoyed it, and I’d definitely order that off the menu in a future visit.
The second unusual plate I tried was another one of Peru’s culinary icons: the cuy. Cuy is the Peruvian name for guinea pig, and the dish I had was at a fusion restaurant, prepared in an Asian style with an orange sauce; the cuy, cut into thin slices was slightly crunchy on one side, but rather greasy on the other. The cuy’s flavour tasted like a mix of rabbit (slightly gamey) and duck (more greasy than not). Although I did not love the dish I had, it wasn’t bad; I’d definitely be interested in trying cuy again, perhaps cooked in a more traditional Peruvian way.
Give me some sugar!
From home-made style versions sold at bakeries and candy shops, to a commercially produced version sold at supermarkets and offered on LAN flights as a snack, “Alfajores” are everywhere. Alfajores are pastries consisting of two short-bread style cookies covered with icing sugar, and stuck together with “manjar,” a hardened dulce de leche caramel, popular in many other Peruvian desserts.
After returning from Peru, I’m surprised that Peruvian cuisine, as varied in flavours as it is, isn’t more prominent as other ethnic restaurants. I find it hard-pressed to find a good Peruvian restaurant in Vancouver, so I guess I’ll have to plan another trip to this wonderful country in the next few of years 😉
Interested in learning more about Peru? Claus Gurumeta is an International Travel Consultant at our Lonsdale Quay location in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be reached by email or by calling 1-866-982-0530.
Peru has been highlighted on the Flight Centre map