Turn your attention to the hot new ingénue at the gastronomic tourism party: Peru.
The capital city of Lima boasts the most buzzworthy restaurant scene in South America, with standouts like Central, Maido, and Astrid y Gaston outranking big names from Paris to Rome on lists of the world’s best. Even a full two weeks in the country won’t be nearly enough time to enjoy all the street food, haute cuisine, and exotic ingredients this agricultural powerhouse has to offer, but if you want to get to know the real Peru through her food and drinks, here‘s a shortlist to get you started.
The long Pacific coastline, many rivers (including the Amazon), and large lakes like Titicaca all provide Peru with an ample supply scrumptious fresh seafood. In response, possibly the greatest gastronomic gift the country has given the world is ceviche: fish or shellfish cured in citric acid rather than cooked with heat. A nice tangy bath in lime or passionfruit juice laced with chili won’t kill bacteria, but it will give a chunk of sea bass or a plump little scallop the firm texture and bite that it lacks raw, while adding a complex punch of flavor. The traditional Peruvian presentation surrounds the seafood with cancha (large kernels of corn) and bite-sized deep-fried nuggets of shrimp and other fish. But the real star of great ceviche in many diner’s eyes is the leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, a liquid made from the marinade and the juices from the fish or shrimp, which you can use as a dip for the fried accompaniments or even drink straight.
If you have concerns about food safety, head to a world-renowned restaurant like Gaston Acurias’s La Mar for your ceviche, but be aware that the best versions are often found in local markets, or mercados. Stick to the larger, main mercados in major cities, and look for the stalls drawing the biggest crowds.
“I can get potatoes anywhere,” you may be thinking. Well, for that the world owes South America a debt of gratitude because the beloved spud was first cultivated in the Andes Mountains by the Incas several thousand years ago. By some counts, a jaw-dropping 2,300 varieties of potatoes are still grown in Peru, and the local cuisine takes full advantage. The classic preparation, papa a la Huancaina, smothers boiled yellow potatoes in a creamy yellow chili pepper sauce. Also popular are causas, small rolls or mounds of mashed potato with a variety of toppings.
Alternatively, whenever a server asks, “Would you like fries with that?” answer in the affirmative. This is not the vacation to go low-carb.
The cooking of homesick Chinese immigrants has been embraced by diners in countries all over the world, but the gastronomic love affair between Peru and China is hot (thanks to the Peruvian chile aji amarillo) and heavy, to the point where dishes like chaufa (fried rice) are must-eats for the traveler aiming to explore the real Peru through food.
Not convinced Chinese food can count as classic Peruvian cuisine? Check out the potato chip flavors on the supermarket shelves—among them you’ll find lomo saltado, an homage to the beef stir-fry dish whose flavor profile has risen from the woks of Lima’s Chinatown to take pride of place on menus all over the country.
Time to tackle the elephant in the room, which in this case would be the guinea pig on the plate. Yes, the same type of guinea pig as your beloved childhood pet, but here it’s a delicacy around which many holiday feasts revolve. It is easy to visit Peru and eat well without ever encountering one, but be aware that cuy is a huge part of Peru’s cultural heritage. For the full experience, order cuy al horno and prepare to come face-to-tiny-face with a full specimen atop a mass of noodles and potatoes. Dig in with care, because the ratio of meat to tiny bones is not large. For greater ease of eating (and less eye contact with your dinner), head to one of the many fine dining restaurants offering cuy confit. The meat is supremely tender and has a depth of flavor and lack of gaminess similar to duck or rabbit.
Know your camelids! Vicunas, slight of build and highly strung, are not easy to domesticate, although through a complicated shearing process they are a source of superfine wool. Llamas, burly and sassy, bear the burdens and mow the lawns. Only the alpaca is raised for its meat (in addition to its soft wool). Alpaca meat will probably remind you of buffalo or elk if you’ve tried those, or perhaps a lean cut of beef. Alpaca is often served skewered or as a jerky; in fact, the word jerky comes from a Quechua word for an ancient Andean method of preserving alpaca meat.
Peru’s fruit basket overflows with bright colors and distinctive flavors. Many of the fruits found in every mercado and supermarket are considered superfoods, too, so you’ll be boosting your health while exploring a new food culture.
If you’d rather drink your way to paradise, it is easy to find stores and stalls selling made-to-order juices, often more like smoothies, at which you may make any combination you wish from maracuya (passionfruit), aguaymanto (goldenberry), carambola (starfruit), lucuma, chirimoya, or pitaya (dragonfruit) (along with more familiar offerings). Of these, the first three are more tart; lucuma and chirimoya more sweet, mellow, and custardy; and the pitaya, while flamboyant on the outside, is quite mild within.
Maracuya, aguyamanto, lucuma, and chirimoya are all also popular flavorings for ice cream, although spoilsports might point out that in that form the superfood benefits could be slightly diminished.
Wondering why so many storefronts in Peru beckon visitors with red plastic bags tied to sticks? That’s a sign that the establishment within serves chicha, Peru’s version of beer, made from macerated and fermented corn. The equally popular nonalcoholic version, chicha morada, gets its luscious coloring from purple corn, and its refreshing fruit punch taste from the added juices (most often pineapple) and spices like cinnamon and clove.
The classic cocktail inspires impassioned debate over its original birthplace. Whether or not the pisco sour really entered the world in the bar of the Gran Hotel Bolivar in Lima’s Plaza San Martin, it’s still an excellent place to acquaint yourself with the favorite cocktail of Peru. The combination of pisco (a light but powerful grape-based brandy), lime juice, simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and fresh egg white looks like a cloud floating over tropical waters and tastes tart, slightly sweet, and oh so smooth.
It looks like melted highlighter pens. It tastes like bubblegum. It is the Coca-Cola of Peru; in fact, it is one of only a handful of sodas that outsells the pop juggernaut in any country. If you’re traveling with kids, tell them the ban on sugary sodas has been temporarily lifted in the interest of cultural exchange, and watch their faces light up. If you can wrest the bottle from their hands, try a sip before committing to a whole one for yourself.