When you hear ‘Peru’ you probably think of one of two things. One, the well-known image of Macchu Picchu. Two, llamas. Three, the cuisine. I chose Peru as a study abroad destination for all of the above (although the llamas were just an extra benefit).
So you’d think this post would be raving on and on about how tasty everything is but the truth is, I arrived with high expectations and I’ve had a complicated time deciding how reality met them. I don’t technically have the expertise to comment on food, but I consider myself fairly fluent in food culture. So here’s a shot at explaining how I feel about Peruvian cuisine.
Truth is, I was pretty disappointed at first. It seems like most Peruvians are very aware of the fact that tourists come in part for the history, in part for the value, and in part for the cuisine. Given encouragement, any taxi driver will gladly talk for the entire ride to the airport about food. Tell them you like ceviche and a eulogy to all the main dishes will ensue. In the newspaper there are always articles about food festivals, gastronomic history and analysis, quinoa, and the importance of the potato. The cuisine is undoubtedly a big source of national pride, and it should be, given the mix of cultures over the centuries and how they’ve adapted regionally (Japanese, Italian, and French, to name a few).
The problem is that in my opinion and those I’ve collected from other gringos, the typical day-to-day Peruvian lunch and dinner is not that special. It typically consists of a huge scoop of white rice, something fried, potatoes, and a big chunk of meat. Every restaurant has the same exact menu of five options, with soup, juice, and a dessert. Perhaps my initial unenthusiastic opinion was in part thanks to being vegetarian before arriving, and one of my favorite things about Madison is the farmer’s market and natural, local food scene. Quantity over quality is not what I seek.
It almost seemed to me that the Peruvian public latched onto the gastronomy hook not really understanding what it is exactly that everyone loved about their food— of course they loved it, because they grew up with it. None of us gringos were quite sure either. Where’s this world-renowned cuisine? It certainly was not at any of the nameless identical lunch spots across from the university. Probably to be expected, I guess.
For a while I concluded that, probably like many places, the great food was only for those who could afford it. This was true, for a while. For the ‘good food’ you had to go to a place recommended on Tripadvisor, one that cost about the equivalent of an American meal. The pisco sours were great, and the fruit was fantastic to someone who’s undergone fresh food withdrawal every winter.
But the question remained: “Where does the buzz come from?”
During my final trip to Cajamarca to the north I had a ‘aha’ moment as a result of eating some things I hadn’t had before. We tried wonderful local cheese, tropical fruits, coconut tres leches cake, curry (alright, it wasn’t local at all), and great pita-like bread. I decided it was time to really think about the food and process what I had seen and experienced of the cuisine.
Good food is not only for those who are willing to pay the money. Yes, good food can always be found at high-rated restaurants, where people are not there necessarily to fill their stomachs but to experience something new and inspiring. But, and more importantly, good food is always always found at the source. Good food is found in regions that specialize in one thing and become renowned for it simply because it is completely unique. And finally, good food is a dish that has been in creation since the day that place was named, whose ingredients reflect and inspire local culture, and whose main cooks are those in charge of feeding their family everyday.
Just like America the ‘typical’ food is not really anything special. Sure, a sandwich can be great, but can you distinguish one from another a year later? The typical food is fine, and good if you’ve grown up with it. But hamburger and fries are not really the best representative of what American cuisine can be, and nor is the ‘menu’ served at every corner in Lima. I guess I should have known this, as it holds true wherever you are.
So here is my advice for eating in Peru: Go for the place that has a sign and a description. Go for the place with a three-page menu, not six. Go search on the internet before you travel what the famous regional dish is and ask the locals where you can get the best one. Buy fruit and vegetables at the market. If you dare, buy food from the cart surrounded by a crowd. (With definite luck, I was only hit by food poisoning once).
Basically, put in some effort, and you will be rewarded.
The variety of food in Peru is astonishing, given the size relative to the US. Each city has fresh bread for breakfast, all slightly different, sometimes flat, sometimes plate-sized, sometimes with corn flour. Each city has fruit carts, but the closer you get to the jungle the more exotic they become. Each restaurant will give you aji to mix and dip, but with slightly different color and spiciness. Each city has a little woman selling something out of a bag or pan on the corner, but you never quite know what you’ll get unless you ask.
I think I can officially say I’ll miss Peruvian food when I go home. That’s why I convinced my mom to take a cooking class with me when she comes to visit, so I can recreate all my favorites. Speaking of, here are the foods you must try if in Peru:
- Papa a la Huancaina
- Fresh juice and fruit, especially aguaymanto and mango
- Maracuya sour
- Aji de Gallina
- La Lucha Sangucheria, the best sandwich restaurant ever
- Tres Leches cake (seek out the experimental flavors)
- Manjar blanco
- Soups (especially in Cusco!)
- Ceviche (in small doses)
- Fresh bread
- The chef/ national ambassador/ potential presidential candidate Gaston Acurio and all his restaurants