As recent food trends go, few are hotter or bubbling with more creativity right now than the myriad delights of Peruvian cuisine. While this stunning, rugged country overlooking the Pacific has long been a standout of rustic Latin cooking, lately it has been punching well above its weight in the refined culinary arena as well. Now home to no fewer than three of the world’s best restaurants – including Central, Maido, and Astrid y Gaston – on the prestigious San Pellegrino Top 50 list, Peru has been exporting its culinary muscle for quite some time and there are probably some tasty outposts near you.
Not unlike the melting pot of U.S. fare, Peruvian cuisine is far from monolithic but, rather, a delirious mash-up of techniques and pairings reflecting its diverse geography, agriculture, and a history that blends indigenous ingredients (the country has more than 4,000 varieties of potato) with diverse influences accompanying sustained waves of immigration from both Europe and Asia over the past five centuries. Among the most conspicuous foreign influences on Peruvian food is Japan. Peru boasts one of the world’s largest Japanese expat populations, and their impact has permanently transformed the national palate.
What to order
To a first timer, the variety of Peruvian dishes and ingredients might seem a bit overwhelming. While you could be tempted to just tuck into the country’s most recognized dish, Pollo a la Brasa (an earthy, satisfying herb-seasoned roast chicken), consider venturing outside your comfort zone. You will be well rewarded. Here are some classic dishes worth trying (and sharing).
Anticucho – These skewers of grilled meat evoke Japanese yakitori but actually originate from humble Peruvian street food culture. Contemporary restaurants have come up with infinite clever variations, but the most traditional — and really worth trying if you’re game — is local favorite roasted Corazon, chunks of intensely flavorful beef heart, often paired with Andean potato and corn.
Ceviche – One of Peru’s best-known dishes is ceviche, which can come in myriad varieties, but nearly always includes at least one type of raw fish or seafood typically bathing in Leche de Tigre (“Tiger’s milk”), a refreshingly puckery marinade traditionally made from lime, red onion, and hot chiles as well as the natural juices from the fish itself. This acidic broth essentially “cooks” the fish, giving it both flavor and texture. It’s a light, healthy dish that highlights the best qualities of its ingredients. Locals have been known to down shots of pure Leche de Tigre as a potent hangover cure.
Chaufa Aeropuerto – A veritable kitchen sink of Latin-accented Chinese fried rice studded with garlicky pork, egg, shrimp and vegetables. Filling and delicious, it’s a great dish to share with the table.
Empanadas – These stuffed, savory pastries hail from across Latin America, but Peru has dozens of its own with fillings ranging from seafood and local corn to all kinds of meat.
Tiradito – Ceviche’s close cousin, Tiraditos are a uniquely Peruvian concoction that draws on the country’s Nikkei influences. Translucent strips (tiras) of fish resembling sashimi are lightly drizzled just before service with a variety of flavorful marinades and spicy sauces. Like sashimi (and unlike ceviche), Tiradito is uncured and eaten raw.
Where to experience it in the states
Authentic and innovative Peruvian restaurants have been popping up throughout the country – some traditional, some fusion. Here are a few of our growing list of favorites.
Mistura, Paso Robles, California
In central California, chef Nicola Allegretta draws from a vast array of cultural influences and indigenous ingredients to whip up his eye-popping creations. Among them, his striking “Trio de Causas” is a gorgeous avant-garde presentation that borders on edible pop art. Order a la carte or call ahead for the immersive tasting menu called “The Experience”. It’s the next best thing to a trip to Lima. Make a reservation at Mistura.
Raymi, New York, New York
Nestled in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, Raymi is home to native Colombian Co-Chefs brothers Felipe and Jaime Torres, who travelled extensively through Peru to steep themselves in the culture and cuisine and came away smitten. Their unfussy renditions of classics reflect a faithful interpretation of Peruvian favorites with a particular attention to allowing their terrific ingredients shine. The epic Arroz con Pato (duck rice) is worth the trip alone. Make a reservation at Raymi.
China Chilcano, Washington, D.C.
With a deep emphasis on both Nikkei (Japanese) and Chifa (Peruvian-fused Chinese) traditions, Spanish-born super-chef José Andrés composes a valentine to Peru in the nation’s capital, serving playful riffs on Peruvian classics with exotic ingredients, such as duck’s tongue anticucho, cumin-scented lamb pot stickers topped with gold flake, live Scallop ceviche, and rice noodles studded with black garlic. You can rest assured you’ll never find his menu boring. Make a reservation at China Chilcano.
Pizco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar, Doral, Florida
After cutting his chops at San Francisco’s famed La Mar, native Peruvian chef Miguel Antonio Gomez took his talents to across the country, overseeing two Miami-area locations in Kendall and Doral. His menu boasts a dizzying array of contemporary ceviches with exotic ingredients, including passion fruit and sweet potato, as well as a protein-packed Chaufa with shrimp, beef, chicken, and squid. Make a reservation at Pizco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar.
Tanta, Chicago, Illinois
Windy City chef Jesus Delgado (in collaboration with La Mar’s Gaston Acurio) has assembled a sprawling menu featuring at least a half dozen made-to-order ceviches, some twists on sushi, such as quail egg-topped skirt steak nigiri, as well as more irreverent fare listed as “Chefs Having Fun,” including heartier dishes to help you get through ChiTown winters, like tamarind-glazed barbequed pork belly and braised lamb shank with quinoa polenta. Make a reservation at Tanta.
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Stan Sagner, a former chef, is a New York City-based a food, culture, and travel writer and has been a restaurant critic for the New York Daily News. You can follow him on Twitter @ssagner and on Instagram@sagnereats.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy and copyright of the featured restaurants.