Potatoes? Over 3,000 in variety. Alpaca? The best steak I’ve ever had. Corn? Not just any old corn, but giant, grape-sized kernel corn.
A handful of colorful potatoes at the local supermarket in Lima. Yes, this aisle was my dream come true.
Peruvian cuisine comes straight from the earth to the table, then goes back to the earth. On the coast, fish based dishes such as ceviche populate menus whereas in the mountains, quinoa dots every table, often accompanied by hearty potatoes and meats. No matter the content of the meal, the food is always prepared with a certain amount of reverence to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) as is shown by the fact that the ingredients are almost always local, and that the food is prepared in ways that showcases the most delicious aspect of each food item. This means that sweet potatoes are sometimes served chilled and plain in order to highlight the natural sweet, nutty flavor, the fish is seasoned solely with lime, and various meats are graced only with a light sauce and sautéed tomatoes and onions.
Most dishes are served with bread, rice, or potatoes. Bring on the carbs! However, the beauty of this exists in the fact that these staples are prepared in several variations. I’ll start with bread. Bread isn’t just plain, white wonderbread in Peru. At any meal there could be rolls, croissants, wheat and white toast, chocolate bread, and even what seemed to be a relative of Italian bread in some places. I had the chance to see a horno (an oven used to bake breads) and this is what it looked like:
Wood piles next to an oven? I’d be happy to eat any bread that came out of that! If making an oven like this didn’t seem like an impossible feat, I’d attempt to build one so I could make bread in it. Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve found myself eating more bread with meals than ever before. Maybe my Peru habits have stuck with me a little bit.
Delicious, fresh trout accompanied by rice and potatoes. Served on Amantani Island at Lake Titicaca.
But if I were really Peruvian in eating habits, I’d have to also incorporate both rice and potatoes into the latter portion of my meal. Often bread is served as an appetizer (or a pre-appetizer), and alongside the first course which is often a soup. Potato dishes such as papa a la huancaina (potatoes smothered in a delicious yellow sauce and topped with an olive and a slice of hardboiled egg) or causa (a sort of potato casserole that incorporates some type of meat, avocado, and a mayonnaise type sauce) are often featured as appetizers. In addition, potatoes are often boiled and served plain next to the main dish’s meat or served as french fries, depending on region. And then of course, sitting right next to the potatoes is a heaping scoop of rice. If you didn’t get enough carbs from that, most of the time there was a rice pudding offered for dessert to top it all off. I get full just thinking about it! I’m typically not a huge fan of rice, so I often stuck to eating my beloved potatoes while in Peru. However, I recognized the importance and cultural significance of introducing this many carbohydrates into a meal and did my best to eat most of what I was served.
Papa a la huancaina
Mini causas topped with shrimp, tuna, chicken, and fish.
There are other characteristics besides constant carbo-loading that define Peruvian Cuisine, the most significant being the influences of other cultures throughout history. Looking at some classic dishes featured in Peru helps to understand the impact that other cultures have had on Peruvian Cuisine.
Lomo Saltado: this dish was delicious! Although it primarily features beef, many variations are available depending on region including fish and chicken options. The meat is sautéed with a soy-sauce based sauce and is accompanied by tomatoes, onions, rice, and french fries. It’s quite a combination! This dish demonstrates the effects that Chinese immigrants had on Peruvian cuisine, as you can tell by the incorporation of soy-sauce into the dish. This brings me to…
Chifa: oh, Chifa. On the day I first tried Chifa, I think that a Clif bar in the morning was the most filling thing I ate-meaning that I was HUNGRY by the time our 8:30 dinner rolled around. One of the girls on our trip exclaimed “keep calm and Chifa on” as we trudged down the street to find somewhere, anywhere to eat. We all settled on Chifa and after mumbling a few broken Spanish phrases and pointing at the menu, managed to order myself the biggest plate of noodles stir-fried with cabbage and shrimp, and a heaping pile of fried rice. Naturally, I ate the entire serving.As you might be able to tell from my description of the food I ordered, Chifa is Chinese influenced Peruvian food. This means that Chifa as a food ‘genre’ if you will, offers menu items such as fried rice, stir fry dishes, wonton soups, etc.
Pisco: Pisco is a brandy that originated in the town of Pisco. How original! The Spanish, looking for an alternative to their brandy of choice, brought grapes to Peru, and there, Pisco was created. It’s a very strong brandy that Peruvians take great pride in making-the authentic Pisco must be made with a certain type of grape and adhere to certain regulations and all that jazz. At many restaurants, free Pisco Sours are given with meals. Pisco Sours are pretty much the specialty drink of Peru and they are a blend of Pisco, key lime juice, sugar, and whipped egg white. I tried a sip and it was strong! Although the Peruvians take great pride in the beverage now, some of the credit goes to the Spaniards for introducing grapes to Peru.
Anticuchos: take a guess at what this is! Drum roll, please….BEEF HEARTS on a skewer. This dish was influenced by the African slave population that existed in Peru at the time that the Spaniards were colonizing the country. Because the Spanish didn’t want such organs, they were given to the slaves. Resourcefulness led to the creation of a dish that is now extremely popular throughout the country. You can find anticuchos in many restaurants and from street vendors alike. I had the chance to try these and they were actually really good. The meat was chewier than most other types but it was packed with flavor and cooked to perfection.
Ceviche on the left-hand side of the plate.
Ceviche: definitely one of my favorite dishes. Many variations of ceviche exist: some made with fish from the sea, some with seafood such as octopus, squid and shrimp, some with trout, and even some vegetarian versions with mushrooms. My favorite was definitely the ceviche from the coast-a tangy, light, melt-in-your-mouth, flavor-packed dish. Fish is marinated in lime juice and chili peppers and mixed with tons of sliced red onion for a really zesty taste. SO delicious! This dish showcases influences of the Japanese through the cutting techniques used on the fish and the lime-a variation of the fruit brought by Spaniards.
I could go on and on and on about the food (I’m sure you can imagine) but I’ll stop there because I know reading about it isn’t as good as tasting it. Oh, to be back in the land of giant corn kernels, fresh fish, thousands of potatoes, and quinoa soup. QUINOA SOUP? Maybe that’s a hint at what tomorrow’s post will bring…