Certain ingredients in Peruvian cuisine are essential to the nation’s ever-growing gastronomic scene. These are the kind of ingredients that, if removed , would leave a big gap in the Peruvian pantry, making many classic and popular dishes impossible to recreate, or at least fundamentally changed…
Peruvian cuisine without fish ceviche? Unthinkable… Photo by Tony Dunnell.
When it comes to the meat used in Peruvian food, chicken, pork and fish are the main three. Beef, lamb, duck and various other meats are also used in certain regional dishes (and, where beef is concerned, in the nationally popular lomo saltdo), but not to the same extent.
Chicken — Chicken is a truly vital ingredient in Peruvian cuisine. Without it, we wouldn’t have ají de gallina, pollo a la brasa, escabeche de pollo and various other Peruvian classics.
Pork — Pork is a big ingredient in the highlands, and especially in Cusco, where chunks of chicharrón de chancho are never in short supply. Pork is also important in the Peruvian jungle, especially in cities like Tarapoto, where cecina (cured pork) and chorizo sausage are sold at every street grill.
Fish — Peru is home to about 2,000 different species of marine and freshwater fish. Fish dishes are varied and differ from region to region, from trout near Lake Titicaca to paiche in the Amazon to corvina along Peru’s lengthy Pacific coastline. Ceviche is by far the most emblematic fish dish in Peru, and Peru wouldn’t be the same without it. Various types of ceviche exist, using a variety of ingredients including seafood and freshwater fish.
Honorable mention: Cuy (guinea pig) deserves a special mention for being one of the country’s most famous dishes, albeit not so widely eaten. Cuy is a delicacy to a certain extent, and not something people eat on a daily basis. Among many foreign tourists, cuy is considered one of the weirder foods in Peru — especially for anyone who had a pet guinea pig as a child.
Harvesting in the potato fields in the Cusco Region of Peru. Photo by Tony Dunnell.
Peruvian cuisine includes a reasonable amount of vegetables, although authentic Peruvian vegetarian dishes can be hard to find. Root vegetables and tubers are particularly common. Vegetables that can be considered essential to Peruvian cuisine include:
Potato — A native Peruvian specialty, the potato is a staple, especially in the Andean highlands. Some 3,000 varieties grow in Peru, so you’ll never be short of a new potato to try. Which of these spuds has the most value in Peruvian food is open to debate, but the papa amarilla (yellow potato) has a strong case to make. It is used to make potato purees, as well as the ever-popular causa rellena.
Red onion — The standard yellow onion commonly used in Europe and the USA is something of a rarity in Peru compared to the smaller, sweeter red onion. Red onions are used in almost everything, including classics like ceviche, lomo saltdo, escabeche, and many more.
Tomato — Frequently used in salads and sauces, tomatoes are pretty fundamental in Peruvian cuisine, without being fancy. They rarely take center stage, but serve with honor when called upon.
Honorable mention: Two root vegetables, camote (sweet potato) and yuca (cassava), deserve a mention despite not being quite as fundamental to Peruvian cuisine as the humble potato. Both accompany various dishes, including ceviche and breaded seafood jaleas. Yuca is a popular side dish in the jungle regions (boiled or, preferably, fried), and is also chewed or mashed up and fermented to make alcoholic masato (the jungle version of Andean chicha).
Ají amarillo: “The DNA of Peruvian cuisine.” Photo by Tony Dunnell.
Herbs and Chili Peppers
Herbs and chili peppers deserve their own section, as they make a particularly strong mark on Peruvian cuisine. Of particular note are:
Ají amarillo — Peru produces a wide range of chili peppers, but none are as important as ají amarillo (yellow chili, although it’s more orange than yellow). This fairly mild chili pepper is used to make classic Peruvian dishes such as ají de gallina, causa rellena, papa a la huancaína, tiraditos, escabeches and many more. One of Peru’s star chefs, Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, called ají amarillo “The DNA of Peruvian cuisine.”
Ají rocoto — Generally speaking, Peruvian food isn’t spicy-hot. But when ají rocoto is involved, things can get fiery. Ají rocoto is used to make potent chili sauces, normally served on the side rather than incorporated into a dish, allowing you to add as you see fit. The most famous rocoto dish is rocoto relleno from the Arequipa Region. The rocoto is stuffed with chopped up beef or minced beef; the rocoto itself is normally boiled or soaked overnight to remove some of the heat, but it can still be a hot, hot dish.
Culantro / Cilantro — The words cilantro and culantro are often used interchangeably in Peru, despite being different things. Both cilantro (Coriandrum sativum, also known as coriander) and culantro (Eryngium foetidum) have similar flavors, and can be used as alternatives to one another. Culantro, however, tends to have a stronger flavor. Culantro is used in Caribbean and Latin American cuisine. In Peru, culantro — or cilantro — is used in dishes such as arroz con pollo, aguadito, tamalitos verdes, and in escabeches and ceviche.
Honorable mention: Huacatay (or wakatay) is a culinary herb used in various dishes, particularly in the southern half of the country. Huacatay sauce (ají de huacatay) is a popular accompaniment to pollo a la brasa and other grilled or roasted meats. A similar sauce is poured over potatoes to make ocopa, a popular starter from Arequipa. Huacatay sauce is sold in some stores internationally (including on Amazon.com), where it is called various names including Peruvian black mint and black mint sauce.
Grains and Beans
It’s hard to think of a classic Peruvian dish that doesn’t incorporate either maize, rice or beans in some form.
Maize — Peru is home to a few varieties of native maize (corn). Large-kernelled Peruvian maize is a key ingredient, especially in the Andean highlands. Known as choclo in Peru, it serves as an accompaniment to dishes like ceviche and chicharrón de chancho, and in dishes such as pastel de choclo and humitas. Whole ears of boiled corn are popular on the streets of cities like Cusco, where corn on the cob served with a slice of cheese is called choclo con queso. Maiz chulpe is used to make cancha, a type of toasted corn served for free in many bars and restaurants. Corn is also used to prepare drinks, including the alcoholic chicha de jora and the non-alcoholic chicha morada, the latter made from Peruvian purple corn.
Rice — Rice is not native to the Americas, but was introduced by colonists in the 1500s. It is now an essential ingredient in Peruvian cuisine, accompanying many classic dishes including lomo saltado, ají de gallina, arroz con pollo and numerous chifa dishes (Peruvian-Chinese food).
Beans — Beans are a popular accompaniment to many dishes, especially rice-based dishes (with the exception of chifa). When you buy a rice-based lunchtime menú, there’s a good chance it’ll come with beans. Various types of frejoles (beans) are cultivated in Peru, including lima beans.
Honorable mention: Quinoa deserves a mention, and could almost be considered essential. But this traditional Andean grain isn’t as widely used as other ingredients mentioned here, partly due to rising costs. Quinoa isn’t one of Peru’s major exports, but it’s still a desirable crop in the international market. This has caused both opportunities and problems in Peru and in Bolivia, leading to some international debate about whether eating quinoa is even ethical.
Various Peruvian cheeses, including queso fresco, on sale in a market in Lima. Photo by vcheregati, flickr.com.
Peru’s dairy scene is pretty bleak. If you like creamy French camemberts and smelly British blue stiltons, then you’ll be disappointed by Peruvian cheeses. Two dairy ingredients that do play a notable role in Peruvian cuisine are:
Evaporated milk — Evaporated milk is an important ingredient in Peruvian desserts like arroz con leche and the classic suspiro limeño. But it’s also used in many savory sauces and dishes, including ají de gallina, papa a la huancaína and ocopa.
Queso fresco — Peru isn’t a good country for interesting cheeses. But the light and milky queso fresco does find its way into a few tasty dishes, including papa a la huancaína, ocopa arequipeña and in solteritos.
Honorable mention: Tres leches cake. It’s neither essential nor an ingredient, but it is damn delicious. Tres leches cake is a type of sponge cake with three types of milk: condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk (or ideally cream). Don’t leave Peru without trying it.
Tacacho (balls of roasted green plantain) with cecina and chorizo. Photo by vivir_de_ilusiones, flickr.com.
Where to start? The variety of fruits available in Peru is mind blowing. At the same time, it’s hard to call any particular fruit essential to Peruvian cuisine. But as someone who lives in the Peruvian jungle, I will put forward this one ingredient:
Banana — Short ones, long ones, sweet ones, savory ones: You’ll find plenty of bananas in Peru, especially in the jungle regions. Sweet bananas are sliced lengthwise and fried as a sweet and slightly caramelized accompaniment, as part of a dessert or just to eat on their own. Then there are the starchy, unripe green bananas (plantain, or platano verde) used in the jungle cuisine of Peruvian cities such as Tarapoto and Iquitos. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get a boiled green plantain, known as ingiri, which is probably the most boring food in the world. It’s like eating a stick of wax. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a perfectly cooked ball of tacacho, a concoction of mashed-up roasted plantain will a few chunks of pork fat thrown in for flavor. When done well, tacacho is a thoroughly satisfying accompaniment to cecina or grilled chicken.
Torta Tres Leches is sponge cake soaked overnight in a mixture of the three milks.
Cakes are also known as Kekes. Afternoons in the market area you can see the odd parked van with the back door up and a LED sign brightly showing the appetising word “K E K E S”.
Yuca is a common alternative to potato. It’s grown in the arid-climate Andean valleys above Trujillo where with a a modicum of canal irrigation the low altitude (below about 1000) and very regular sunshine seem to be ideal for the plant.
If we have fried fish for lunch yuca is the main accompaniment.