There’s a lot more to Peruvian food than marmalade sandwiches a la Paddington Bear. In fact, asking ‘What do they eat in Peru?’ opens up a can of worms (okay, maybe not such a disgusting phrase) or a Pandora’s box (okay, maybe not such an inedible phrase), or a worm-flavoured Pandora’s box(?!) of suggestions.
The honest answer is that Peruvians eat a very varied diet, blending their own signature dishes with a lot of international flavours, so you really won’t struggle to find something you like on the menu. Many waiters and waitresses have great English skills and will be happy to translate anything you don’t understand, helping you to choose something a bit more out of the ordinary.
On my own trip, taken as a group tour with Intrepid, I was lucky enough to have a group leader on hand to give suggestions based on each person’s dietary requirements. I’ll be passing on some of his hints and tips here, as he definitely helped our entire group to venture out of our comfort zones.
Sopa de Quinoa
Whilst quinoa is something of a hippy health food in the UK (try finding it in your local supermarket), it’s a staple ingredient in Peru. This little grain makes an appearance in many meals, mostly in soups, where you’ll see it forming little white spirals in the bowl. It’s filling, healthy and delicious, meaning you can tuck in guilt-free.
Sopa de Pollo Dietetica
This is a really light and simple chicken diet soup, perfect for when you’re in need of something basic and tasty, packed with vegetables such as corn, broccoli, potato and carrots. One thing to bear in mind is that it’s very salty, something slightly at odds with the diet aspect.
The first local dish I tried, this was finely sliced beef in a spicy sauce made from onions, soy sauce and tomatoes, served with both rice and chips. Not one for the carb-conscious amongst you, but definitely worth trying otherwise.
Found on most menus here, ceviche is also incredibly popular on the London restaurant scene. It’s comprised of raw fish marinated in lime juice and garnished with herbs, chilli peppers and potatoes or corn. Types of fish can be as exotic as shark, or as normal as sea bass.
Arroz Chaufa de Pescado
I tucked into this as a ceviche alternative in Arequipa. Fried Chinese-style rice with peppers and beans is paired with fried pieces of fish, such as shrimp. It went down beautifully served with a bottle of Arequipeña, the local beer.
A.k.a. the one I refused to try… it’s your friendly pet guinea pig, fried and served with chips! As a former guinea pig owner, I just couldn’t stomach this one, but one man in my group was brave enough to taste cuy. All I’ll say is that it still looked very much like an animal on the plate.
Much chewier than beef or lamb steak, alpaca is tough and muscly but worth ploughing your way through for the zero cholesterol it contains. I should point out that it gave many people in our group the odd stomach problem the first time they ate it, but I would still recommend trying alpaca; I had it as a soup.
Not a Peruvian invention but another street corner fixture in the country, churros are doughnut sticks served with thick chocolate sauce. They’re fairly addictive and you’ll be left wondering why your own country hasn’t caught onto this trend.
Although this worryingly translates as ‘cheese ice-cream’, there isn’t actually any cheese in this Arequipan dessert. We grabbed ours on a street corner; it was a welcome relief on a hot day and tasted beautifully light and fresh.
Arroz con Leche
Rice pudding is a Spanish-influenced dessert, though Peruvians add cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins to theirs. They top it off with condensed milk and a mazamorra sauce, which is made from purple corn. Pick yours up, as we did, down by the riverside street markets in Lima.
Rings of pumpkin or squash fried in oil are the basis of this snack, which is served with honey or a sugar syrup. Expect to pay 2-3 soles for four rings, which is a decent serving and will definitely keep you going until your next meal.
Something more international…
Across Peru, and not just in the more tourist-heavy parts, you’ll find a wealth of chicken shops, so there’s no shortage of chicken on the menu. Meanwhile, most restaurants have some type of Italian, American or Mexican dish on offer, typically ravioli, burgers or burritos, so fussy eaters won’t go hungry. For example, in The Treehouse restaurant in Aguas Calientes, I enjoyed a delicious butternut squash and brazil nut ravioli topped off with salty Peruvian cheese.
And to drink…
Evidently, Coca Cola has the monopoly here, with Pepsi having a feeble presence in comparison; the Coca Cola company also bought out Inca Kola, which was its main challenger in Peru, and it also owns one of the bottled water brands too. This all means that buying a Coke is relatively cheap, although you will inexplicably pay more for Coke Zero in a restaurant. Stepping away from brands, you might want to try frozen lemonade, which is actually made from limes as there are no lemons in the country. The other soft drink to sample is chicha morrada, made from purple corn, cloves and cinnamon, and resembling Ribena.
Tea in Peru isn’t quite the same as back in the UK, with the main varieties at breakfast being ‘Te Puro’ (black tea with spices), ‘Manzanilla’ (chamomile) or ‘Coca Tea’ (made with coca leaves). Coca is excellent for altitude sickness and can also help to keep you alert and energetic, so don’t miss out on your chance to enjoy some. It is, however, considered a drug outside of Peru and Bolivia, so don’t bring home any tea bags. Coffee is also widely available and is very smooth, but any milk you are given will either be hot milk or cream, leaving a very different taste in your latte.
When it comes to beer, your main choices are Cusqueña (from Cusco) or Cristal (from Lima), with Cristal being a bit smoother to drink and being more popular across the country, bearing the slogan ‘The beer of Peru’. You can also buy Cristal in Chile, albeit under a different name – La Nuestra. Further down in the popularity stakes is Arequipeña. Bizarrely, along the highways you’ll see huge adverts for various beers, seemingly targeting truck drivers and road trippers who want to stop for an ill-advised alcohol break.
The last variety to look out for is chicha de Jora, a yeasty home brew made with maize. You’ll know where this is served, as there will be a red plastic bag tied to a pole outside the homes or bars where it’s available. The first few drops are spilled on the ground as an offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
As well as beer, there’s also Peruvian wine to sample during your trip, though you might find it tastes very different from the wine back home, or even from Chilean styles. Many bottles have a sherry-like taste, and fruit aromas can include fig and peach. We visited a winery and tried quite a few different types, including Happy Wine and Passion of Night (ooh-er), though I must admit I’m more partial to an Italian white myself.
Turning to stronger stuff, the most well known tipple has to be the Pisco Sour, made with very potent Pisco (a brandy-like liquor) and topped off with egg white and cinnamon. Some restaurants will offer small free glasses of this cocktail to tempt you in; there are also several variants to try, including a passion fruit sour.
Whilst I haven’t exhausted the entire range of food and drink in Peru, hopefully I’ve given you a grounding in what to expect when you visit, or when you track down a Peruvian restaurant in your own city. Happy dining!
Disclaimer: I visited Peru with Intrepid, opting for the 15 day Majestic Peru tour. This trip was booked, paid for and enjoyed independently, so my views are totally unbiased.