Sep 12 2018
Jenn Mar
3 Minutes to read

For years Peruvian cuisine lived and breathed in the shadows of other hulking Latin American cuisines. It stood behind Mexican, for instance, whose pliant corn tortillas were so easy to love. But Peruvian cuisine largely remained “undiscovered.” At times it even puzzled Americans. When Lucio Medina opened his restaurant El Pollo in New York in the late ‘80s, diners asked him, “What makes chicken Peruvian? Do they catch it with bows and arrows?”

Today, every food critic is obsessed with Peruvian. And the way they’re gesturing for our attention. ‘Splaining things about its magic, you’d think that Peruvian cuisine was a geeky-modern thing for a mostly young, hip crowd. Then came the rain of awards, giving Peruvian a brash self-confidence. The most notable moment was when restaurants Central and Maido were asked to sit at the head of a very long table of influential chefs and restaurateurs. Besides excitement, in the air is the expectation that Peruvian, and other Latin American cuisines, is about to lead a charge. And rush against French-, Spanish-, Italian-, and Momofuku-dominating forces. Now, diners want to rub elbows with Peruvian, and everyone is crowding around, looking at the cuisine in a new light.

Here’s what to know and what to eat.

1. Fusion

[Lechon / Instagram]

Traditional Peruvian food to try: Everything, including lomo saltado, and don’t feel guilty about it.

Peruvian cuisine is so vast that you’ll eat more than ceviche. That’s because Peruvian is “the original fusion food” and stands on the shoulders of many cultures. Charred Peruvian chicken, stained with dark beer and chilies, is from the mountainous region of the country. The country’s sashimi and izakaya meals—Japanese-Peruvian hybrids—are culled from a different part of history and hit a different note. If you’re new to Peruvian cuisine, certain dishes may seem un-Peruvian. Like Italian pasta and Chinese-ish stir-fries and bao. Grilled meats called anticuchos have African origins. Though these foods appear defiant, they’re all distinctly of Peru.

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Lomito saltao!

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[Maido / Instagram]

In Peru, at dusk, you’ll find rickety carts on street corners selling skewers of anticuchos and many other delicious things. This is all to ensure that you won’t make it to the end of the street without making one or two stops. Try lomo saltado, a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian. Strips of beef are seared on a smoke-hot wok and stir-fried with Peruvian potatoes. The dish is hot, garlicky, and fragrant from the Peruvian ají amarillo chilies.

2. Potato Land

[Yuyo / Instagram]

Traditional Peruvian food to try: Potato dishes like pastel de papa or huancaína.

If you feel oddly tender toward the potato, know that it was originally drawn from the dark, rich soil of Peru. Peru famously offers an abundance of varieties, fresh and dried. These potatoes are pure beauties: reds, blues, purples, pinks, some ringed with bleached colors. Its dried varieties, called chuño, can look like pebbles, large gravel, or are “soft, tasting and smelling as funky as fermented bean curd or ripe cheese,” writes Madhur Jaffrey. Try potato dishes like the pastel de papa, a buttery potato cake. Or, a homey stew of dried potatoes, powered by aromatic chili pastes and warming spices like cinnamon, star anise, peanuts, and dark chocolate. Peru’s national dish is a cold one—slices of soft, creamy potato draped with a canary-yellow sauce called huancaína—rich, creamy, and spicy from a mild chili.

3. Nikkei Cuisine

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Rocoto relleno en tempura #Maido

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[Maido / Instagram]

Traditional Peruvian food to try: Dishes of Nikkei cuisine like fish hotdog and sea-urchin fried rice.

When Nobuyuki Matsuhisa cross-wired Japanese sashimi and Peruvian ceviche, many of us went “whaat?” In a good way. But we shouldn’t have acted so surprised. Called Nikkei cuisine, the melding of Japanese and Peruvian flavors and techniques can be traced back to 1889. That year thousands of Japanese workers immigrated to Peru to work on the railroads. Some of those workers stayed behind and cooked Japanese food, somewhat loosely, using Peruvian ingredients. If you want a taste of this “borderless” cooking, try Mitsuharu Tsumura’s restaurant Maido, in Lima. His tasting menu includes dishes like fish hotdog, dim sum with sea-snail cau-cau, and sea-urchin fried rice.

4. The Soul of Peru

[Central / Instagram]

Traditional Peruvian food to try: Taste the soul of Peru’s geography in dishes from Central, in Lima.

The one that made modern Peruvian cuisine famous is Virgilio Martínez. When he realized that much of his country was still unmapped, he wandered through it, like a great explorer. What did he find? Clouds ringed around the peaks of the Andes. The thrum of the Amazon rainforest. The desert, a sea. Nose-deep in research, he and his team foraged ingredients like wild herbs, desert plants, rock mollusks. When they returned home, Martínez stepped into the kitchen and translated his understanding of Peru’s biodiversity into a set of perfect menus. At his restaurant Central, diners taste the soul of Peru. Mountain rain, Andean slopes, deep-sea coral. The entire world stood up for Martínez and clapped.

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Written by:

Jenn Mar

Jenn Mar is ezCater’s senior digital editor. She covers food, culture, and the arts for outlets like McSweeney’s, Kenyon Review, Kirkus Review, and elsewhere. She is anchored by crusty donuts and tingly “biang biang” noodles.

Posted in: Trends in FoodNeed to Know

Tagged with: African, Asian, Dinner, Food Trends, Lunch, South/Latin American