Before coming to Peru, we knew that we were supposed to eat ceviche in Lima and that the country has a bazillion varieties of potatoes. Otherwise, we didn’t know much about food in Peru, particularly in the Andean mountainous region near Cusco. In this region, there is not as much seafood (with the exception of river trout) and hearty meats and grains are common.
Here is some of the other unique Peruvian food we found:
This hearty, protein-rich grain is native to Peru and traditionally a staple food. Our guide on our tour through the sacred valley told us that when European explorers came to Peru, they forced the native people to stop eating the very healthy quinoa and kiwicha (or amaranth, a related grain), and to eat less-nutrient dense rice instead. It’s only recently in Peru that people have learned to go back to their native ways of eating, including quinoa in their diets. Most of the quinoa in the country is exported, and the price of the staple has increased in Peru. This made me guilty for having easy and cheap access to the big bags of quinoa I buy at Costco back in California. Our guide, Maritza, still gave thanks for the exports because it helped improve the diet of the local people and provided a good source of income as well.
Alpacas are a domesticated ungulate (I love that word for a hooved mammal) native to the Andes. They are related to llamas, but raised for their wool. I had never heard that they were also eaten as meat! Kevin tried their meat in Cusco and liked it a lot. He thought it seemed like a hearty, lean version of beef.
Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Guinea pigs (cuy) are another traditional meat source, served grilled or fried. You may remember Kevin’s account of eating cuy in Peru. He found it quite tasty, especially the meat around the cheek. The brains are thought to be a delicacy, but he wasn’t feeling brave enough to try that!
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese immigrants were brought to Peru as contract laborers to work in the mines and sugar plantations. Chifa is a word used to refer Chinese cooking adapted with Peruvian ingredients. Lots of chifa dishes are stir-fries in a soy and ginger sauce. As a vegetarian, chifa is an attractive option because you can always have them make you a vegetable stir fry. Unfortunately, most of the dishes I tried were bland for my taste, as Peruvian food is never very spicy. (This also makes chifa a really good option for kids or other picky eaters!)
This is a common type of chifa that is strips of steak, marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, and spices then fried with onions parsley and tomatoes. It’s usually served over rice with homemade French fries (i.e. the Peruvian potato influence).
I said before that food in Peru isn’t very spicy, but luckily, sometimes they serve this green salsa on the side. It’s not spicy enough for my tastes, but added amazing flavor to the dish. It uses local chile peppers, red onion, and sometimes cheese (cheese really does make everything better). I wish I had the recipe from this particular restaurant. The owner said it was his grandmother’s recipe.
This is a wild mint native to the Andean region. We were introduced to it by Winn, one of the proprietors of Casa de Wow!, the homey little hostel we stayed at in Ollantaytambo. (Yes, it’s literally the casa de Wow… “Wow” is her partner’s nickname!) Winn said that she finds it growing wild in the hills outside of town. We made it as an herb tea and it had a light minty-floral flavor, not overpowering like I find peppermint and spearmint. I wish we could find it here. Winn said she wants to try to export for sale in the US. If she does, I’ll be their first customer!
Cancha is a type of toasted corn made from a large and colorful variety of corn called maiz chulpe. The kernals pop when heated, but the insides don’t burst out like popcorn. Instead it gets puffy and toasted. Cancha is served as an appetizer with almost every meal across Peru.
Find out more unique Peruvian food on this list of weird things for sale at Cusco’s San Pedro Market.