Why Foodies Around the Globe Have an Appetite for Peruvian Cuisine
The delicious collision of traditional cooking and innovative modern cuisine is putting Peruvian cuisine in the global spotlight.
Ever since Machu Picchu was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the ancient Incan city has garnered millions of visitors from far reaches of the globe to Peru. But today, the South American country’s cuisine has become as big of a draw as its majestic ruins. Peru — particularly the sprawling city of Lima — has emerged as one of today’s hottest culinary destinations, and Peruvian restaurants are popping up all over the world.
That’s thanks in part to the country’s complex culinary history, which begins with the Incas and evolved with diverse influences from Spain, China, Japan, France and Africa, to name a few. Peru is also one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting hundreds of healthy superfoods from the Amazon rainforest and the Andes mountains, fish from the Pacific Ocean and Amazonian rivers, and more varieties of certain crops like potatoes than are grown in any other country in the world (like a staggering 3,800 types of gem-like potatoes in every imaginable hue of purple and red, yellow and pink.)
But Peru’s current hotspot status is largely due to its stable of superstar chefs, most notably Gastón Acurio of Astrid y Gaston — the gastronomic godfather of Peru whose culinary reach extends to 30-some restaurants in a dozen countries on several continents — as well as Mitsuharu ‘Micha’ Tsumura of Maido, and Virgilio Martínez of Central, the subject of a recent episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. All three chefs were born in Peru, cut their chops in cooking schools and world-renowned restaurant in France, Spain, London, New York, and Southeast Asia respectively, and then returned home to their native country to start a culinary revolution.
Peru nabbed three spots on 2017’s list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, with Maido at 8 and Astrid y Gaston at 33. Central not only nabbed the number 5 spot — making it The Best Restaurant in Latin America — but Martínez also won the Chefs’ Choice award, crowning him the world’s top "chef’s chef."
Lima’s fine-dining scene is what’s gets the most buzz, but it’s the diversity and range of cooking styles, ingredients and price points that have captured the interest and appetites of food lovers around the world. Here’s a primer on today’s Peruvian cuisine — everything from humble dishes unchanged since the Incas to some of the top-rated restaurants in the world — and where to try them all if you’re lucky enough to make a culinary pilgrimage to Peru.
Traditional Ingredients & Dishes
Your first order of business when you touch down in Peru (or if you want to pretend like you just did) should be to drink a pisco cocktail. Made with pisco brandy, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and a cloudlike layer of egg white foam finished with a dash of bitters, it’s a refreshing drink before a meal or on a hot afternoon. At El Mercado, handsome celeb chef Rafael Osterling’s fashionable hotspot in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood, sample a classic pisco sour and a variation like passionfruit. Or try a Chilcano (a mix of pisco and ginger ale) or one of the other stellar fresh fruit cocktails. Sip and enjoy the party atmosphere amid the energetic crowd of beautiful locals.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of ceviche in Peruvian cuisine: it’s the national dish, and a point of pride for every native chef. Raw fish is quickly marinated in leche de tigre, a marriage of citrus, onions and aji chiles that “cooks” the fish with its acidic citrus juice. The chunks of tender marinated fish are usually paired with crisp red onion, creamy sweet potato called camote, and crunchy, salty roasted corn kernels, or cancha.
It’s hard to throw a stone in any Peruvian city and not find a spot that serves ceviche, and there are endless variations on the classic. But if you want to taste ceviche made by the undisputed master, visit Chez Wong. That’s where Chinese-Peruvian chef Javier Wong has been serving it up from his home in the working-class neighborhood of Santa Catalina for a for a few decades. His bare-bones cooking setup is enough to make any chef working in a state-of-the-art kitchen question his mettle.
With simply a cutting board, a few sharp knives, and a stainless steel bowl, and no set menu, he turns out deceptively simple ceviches with red onions and seasonings that are almost implausibly perfect. He also creates less traditional creations like flounder with earthy mushrooms and sweet and musky melon, just kissed by the heat of a wok. His secret is the simplicity and quality of the ingredients: instead of shopping the fish market, Wong seeks out his own sources for just-caught fish, and it’s a difference you can taste.
Corn, Potatoes & Quinoa
The variety of crops found in Peru is like nowhere else on earth. But the country’s especially known for potatoes, corn and quinoa in every size and shade of the rainbow. To sample them all in one meal, make your way to El Tupay restaurant in Cusco’s Belmond Hotel Monasterio. Housed in a gorgeous former monastery, the gleaming dining room serves up a bounty of local produce in dishes like Creamy quinoa risotto, Andean potato soup and even in desserts like the Sacred Valley corn cheese cake with purple corn and elderberry sauce.
While in the States the first thing that likely comes to mind when you think of guinea pig is an elementary school friend’s pet. But in Peru it’s cuy, a popular source of meat, and something you’ll see everywhere from roadside carts to fine-dining restaurants. The meat is tender and rich, and to me tastes a lot like duck. It’s usually served roasted or fried…and whole. But if you’re feeling dubious about that visual, skip the whole cuy served at casual spots and try it for the first time at a higher-end restaurant, served either in pieces or totally deboned for palatability.
Playing with Fire
Pachamanca — which translates to “earth oven” — is a traditional cooking technique that originated with the Incan people. A whole meal cooks low and slow inside a stone fire pit dug into the ground. Today it’s less of an everyday cooking method than it is a nod to the country’s culinary heritage on special occasions. If you get the chance to experience it while in Peru, do. At Tambo del Inka, a sleek, modern resort in the Sacred Valley, it’s part of their elaborate Five Fires Dinner. Stroll through a cypress grove beside the beautiful Vilcanota River, and you’ll think you’re in a dream when you come to a clearing with a legion of chefs in white toques. Soak up the serene surroundings while the chefs cook up a huge array of meats, vegetables and more local delicacies on five different types of cooking fires, including grills, a clay oven, and an authentic pachamanca.
Contemporary Eats & Drinks
New-School Nikkei Cuisine
The origins of Nikkei cuisine, a mashup of Japanese and Peruvian techniques and ingredients, dates back to 1889 when thousands of Japanese came to Peru to work the farms and railroads. Today, Micha Tsumura, who was born in Lima and cooked in Japan, marries his culinary ingenuity with Nikkei tradition at Maido. The restaurant is ranked the 8th best restaurant in the world, and the space is elegant and polished. But the food is fresh, exciting and fun, and the vibe is as friendly and relaxed as the chef himself, who went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI.
The tasting menu’s umpteen courses are all artfully displayed dishes. Think fish hotdogs the size of your thumb, dim sum with squid and sea snail cau-cau, beef short rib cooked for 50 hours, sea urchin rice with avocado cream, and tofu cheesecake ice cream dressed up with foam and edible garnishes so it looks like you’re eating a coral reef.
It seems one of the few crops you can’t get to flourish in Peru is hops…which has been seriously bad news for lovers of craft beer. But a few renegade brewers are quickly changing the scene. In fact, at a visit to Cerveceria del Valle Sagrado (Brewery of the Sacred Valley), this former Oregonian wondered if I was back in the Pacific Northwest when I tasted the hoppy IPA and took in all the signage from American west coast brew favorites like Pliny the Elder and Mt. Hood Brewing decorating the walls of the tasting room.
Turns out, Peruvian-born Juan Mayorga, Valle Sagrado’s general manager, worked in breweries in California and Oregon, which is where he met Joe, now his head brewer and business partner. They have to import their hops, but the two get creative with local fruits, herbs and other produce to put a South American spin on classic brew styles from around the world.
Foods Sourced from Every Elevation
"At Central we cook ecosystems," superstar chef Virgilio Martínez has written to describe the concept at one of the world’s top five restaurants. The idea will likely seem abstract…until you’re presented with your first course. Then you’ll understand that through the edible elements and artful serving vessels borrowed from nature of each distinct dish, Martínez has transported an individual piece of the environment where these ingredients were foraged (be it lake, mountain, jungle or sea) to your table.
If Peru is our planet’s most biodynamic country, then Martínez is undoubtedly its most biodynamic chef. Along with his wife and Chef de cuisine, Pia León, and his physician sister, Malena Martínez (whose role at Central is much like a botanist), Virgilio’s ethereal 17-course tasting menu is organized by elevation. You start below sea level, meander through forest and dessert, and eventually climb to the Andes’ highest peaks. Each course explodes with complex flavors, alluring scents, and stunning beauty and craftsmanship to deliver a singular experience that will make you ponder the line between gastronomy and art.