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 cuisine, which is finally receiving its share of accolades. The most notable moment came when restaurants Central and Maido were asked to sit at the head of a very long VIP table of influential chefs and restaurateurs. In the air is an expectation that Peruvian (and other Latin American cuisines) is about to lead a charge and rush against European- and Momofuku-dominating forces. Now, everyone is crowding around, looking at the cuisine in a new light.
1. The Original Fusion Food
Traditional Peruvian food to try: Everything including lomo saltado.
Peruvian cuisine is so vast that you’ll eat more than your share of ceviche (marinated raw fish). That’s because Peruvian, called “the original fusion food,” stands on the shoulders of many cultures. Charred Peruvian chicken, stained with dark beer and chilies, is from the mountainous region of the country. Meanwhile Japanese-Peruvian hybrids, like izakaya meals and sashimi, 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 and are sold from rickety carts on street corners. If you can find it, 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 Peruvian ají amarillo chilies.
2. Land of Potatoes (Fresh and Dried)
Traditional Peruvian food to try: Potato dishes like pastel de papa or huancaína.
The potato was originally drawn from the rich, dark soil of Peru. Unsurprisingly, Peru famously offers an abundance of varieties, fresh and dried. The country’s potatoes are pure beauties: reds, blues, purples, pinks. Some are gently ringed with bleached colors. The dried varieties, called chuño, can look like pebbles or large gravel, or are “soft, tasting and smelling as funky as fermented bean curd or ripe cheese,” according to food writer Madhur Jaffrey. Try potato dishes like the pastel de papa, a buttery potato cake. Or go for a homey stew of dried potatoes, powered by aromatic chili pastes, peanuts, dark chocolate, and warming spices like cinnamon and star anise.
3. Nikkei Cuisine
Traditional Peruvian food to try: Nikkei concoctions 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
Traditional Peruvian food to try: Taste the soul of Peru at Lima’s famed restaurant Central.
The one that made modern Peruvian cuisine famous is Virgilio Martínez. When he realized that much of his country was still unmapped, gastronomically speaking, he wandered through it, like a great explorer. What did he find? 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 world stood up for Martínez and clapped.
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