“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
~ James Beard
You can learn a lot about a city by studying its food options. And we’ve not found a more cosmopolitan dining experience in our South American travels than Lima, Peru.
We spent the evenings before dinner poring over this cookbook, learning about the ingredients, and planning the meals we would have when we arrived. Sometimes anticipation like that can disappoint when the real thing arrives, but I’m happy to say in this case it did not.
We began our culinary tour with the centuries-old favorite of ceviche.
This meal is sold as a starter dish or a main dish at practically every restaurant in Lima, and it is just as delicious at the mom-and-pop joints as it is at the high-end restaurants.
The fish is actually “cooked” by the citric acid from the limes and is mixed with red onions, corn and/or cancha (see below), and served with a sweet potato or yucca. You can find it with plain white fish like tilapia or piled high with scallops, shrimp, and octopus. We’ve eaten this dish at least a dozen times, and it never gets old. In fact, in the heat it is quite refreshing.
Not only is this dish a work of art, it is delicious. Causa is the fanciest form of potato salad you will ever eat. Peru grows many varieties of potatoes of various tastes, textures, and colors, and chefs boil these down and strain them to make a thick past for layering and designing these fancy dishes.
In between those layers you may find avocado, onions, seafood, chicken, beef, creams, or vegetables. In addition, these gorgeous creations are topped with at least one sauce, giving it additional flavor and a more pleasing presentation.
It was a light, delicious honey flavor with the slight taste of flowers, and if we could have found room in our bags to carry a big heavy jar of honey around the world with us we would have done it.
Aji de Gallina
We made this dish ourselves and were surprised at how hard it was to make aji paste. Thankfully it is sold in stores, so we know in the future to leave that to the experts.
The rest of the dish was easy, and we served it over rice one day and potatoes the next, though in Lima you are likely to be served with both at the same time.
Just like ceviche, you can find this meal at almost any Peruvian restaurant and it is always a reliable choice.
Arroz con Pato
We made this dish as well, though we had to substitute the duck with chicken because there were no duck quarters left at the grocery store.
To make the cilantro rice, you first put 2 large bunches of cleaned cilantro into a blender or food processor with a bit of water to make the paste. You then mix this in a pan with the uncooked rice for a couple of minutes before pouring in your cooking liquid and preparing the rice as usual. We were pleasantly surprised at how much this added to the dish.
Just like the aji de gallina, the leftovers are just as good or better than the original meal. (My photo doesn’t do it justice – the main reason Warren is the photographer of the family.)
Corn, or maize, is very popular here, both on the cob with a buttery lime sauce (choclo) and by the kernel in a toasted mix (cancha) that is perfect for munching along with your ceviche or with a cold cerveza.
We’ve tried making the corn both ways, and both times we failed miserably. Sometimes the simplest things take the most knowledge.
You can buy choclo and cancha on the street or have it served along with your meal at many restaurants. One thing to note is that this corn is not like the “sweet corn” in the US. It has more texture, a bigger kernel, and a more dry taste, which makes it perfect for roasting, sauces, adding to soups, etc.
Chifa is the term used for Chinese food that has been altered to use Peruvian ingredients. Chinese immigrants have had a huge influence on Peruvian cooking, and as much as they have changed Peruvian dishes, they have been influenced as well. You won’t easily find “traditional” Chinese food here, though you will find Chinese-inspired dishes at almost every Peruvian restaurant.
The most common dish we encountered was the basic stir fry. Lomo saltado is meat marinated in soy sauce and stir-fried with peppers and then served over rice. Because we are in Peru, though, they also add potatoes to the dish (usually in the form of French fries). You can never have too many carbs, you know.
Ah, the national drink of Peru! We were lucky to be here on National Pisco Sour day, the first Saturday of February, with celebrations all over town.
Pisco Sours are made from a 3:1:1 mixture of pisco, key lime juice, and sugar syrup with the addition of egg white and topped with Angostura Bitters at the end.
Just like margaritas and martinis have evolved (purists may disagree with the term), so have Pisco Sours. You can get them in a variety of flavors by substituting the lime juice. Maracuya, or passionfruit, is my favorite.
We were surprised to find olives in so many dishes in Peru. Octopus with olives (pulpo al olivo) and chicken with olives (pollo al olivo) are two very popular dishes, and you can find an entire olive bar at most grocery stores. In fact, you won’t find many dishes that are not at least garnished with olives. I enjoyed a delicious pulpo al olivo causa.
There are centuries old olive trees in El Bosque de Olivar, and an entire neighborhood is called El Olivas.
You could spend one whole day just sampling olives at the markets, stores, and restaurants in Lima.
Boy, do South Americans love their ice cream! You can buy it anywhere, at any time, and is not unusual to see people eating it in the morning.
But having a premade ice cream treat from a bicycle vendor is far different than the gelato goodness you can find at some specialty shops. We could have easily become addicted to having a delicious cone every day.
Adding some Peruvian flavor to Your Life
Are you interested in learning more about Peruvian cooking? If you live in a larger city you may have a Peruvian restaurant there already. The cooking style is called “Andean” and it is one of the more popular cooking crazes of late.
If you want to try cooking these recipes at home, we recommend the same cookbook that I found in the mountain lodge. It is called The Art of Peruvian Cuisine by Tony Custer and contains a colorful and instructional segment at the beginning about the variety of ingredients found in Peruvian cooking. The cookbook was published about 10 years ago and is a bit expensive, but the cookbook aficionados out there will love looking through this book. You may also find it at your local library.
The free option is a website like Yanuq, which has many Peruvian recipes in English. For recipes you find in Spanish, you can also use Google to translate.
Do you gather recipes when you travel to take a little bit of your trip back home with you? What are your favorite vacation recipes?