The Taste of Lima: Peruvian Food Culture and History
Time-honored classics from pre-Inca civilizations and celebrity chefs steering gastronomy in bold directions: give your palate a gastronomic masterclass in the Peruvian capital.
Often cited as one of the world’s biggest culinary shake-ups is the birth of modern Peruvian cuisine.
Imagine two unique tidal waves forcefully colliding into each other, and you can begin to understand how history played out when pre-Columbian food collided with that of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Other influences, notably Japanese and Chinese, have since crept in to create what is today considered typical Peruvian food.
And Lima, historically South America’s most important port, is where this continent-spanning gastronomy came together and is now exploding in innumerable directions.
A taste of tradition
Pre-Columbian Peruvian staples were alpaca, cuy (guinea pig) and seafood, often preserved by curing in chicha (a maize-fermented beverage), or by sun-drying. The most fabled Quechan contribution to the world is still ch’arki, a type of jerky. There were also 300 varieties of chili to play with, plus over 4,000 types of potato, with the planet’s very first cultivated near Peru’s Lake Titicaca 10,000-odd years ago. In the nation’s Andean Inca heartland, singular cooking traditions survive from the civilization’s heyday such as pachamanca—marinated meat cooked on hot stones.
Peruvian cuisine’s other constituent parts mostly came via Spain, including chicken, beef, pork, rice, cheese, onions, olives, and universally loved garnish cilantro. Altogether, this fusion makes up traditional comida criolla (Creole cuisine) and there is nowhere better to try it than at Miraflores’ Panchita (Calle 2 de Mayo 298). However, experiencing Peru’s broad palette of ingredients is often best done at markets like produce-rich Mercado de Surquillo (Lizardo Montero 705, Miraflores). While you’re here, journey into unfamiliar colors and tastes like blushing, tart camu camu, bruise-hued maíz morado cobs and scaly-green but succulently cherimoya.
Several Peruvian dishes act as “food museums” and celebrate this fusion of Old World and New World, not least of which is the national favorite, ceviche. Pre-Columbians were already preparing corvina (sea bass) by marinating it in chicha, but Spanish-introduced lime, flavored with chili and red onions, became the post-conquest marinade of choice. Even the Japanese, among Peru’s most influential diaspora, contributed by reducing the marinating time and giving rise to Peru’s now-legendary Nikkei food. The standout ceviche spot is La Mar (Mariscal La Mar 770, Miraflores): they work closely with Lima’s local fishermen to offer an unrivalled bounty of boat-fresh fish.
Insider tip: Eating at a cebichería (ceviche restaurant) is the Lima lunchtime experience: ask for the leche de tigre, the divine, tangy ceviche marinade, to be served to you separately in a glass.
FIVE MUST-TRY DISHES
Citrus-marinated chunks of fish, normally sea bass, served with red onions and chili alongside sweet potatoes. It’s Peru’s national dish and the perfect cool-down for sticky Lima lunchtimes.
This aesthetically pleasing appetizer, especially associated with Peru’s capital city, consists of shredded chicken, tuna, or trout stuffed between two layers of chili-infused mashed yellow potatoes.
Sirloin strips marinated Chinese-style in soy sauce, vinegar, and spices, then stir-fried with tomatoes, red onions, and parsley. It’s a hearty comfort food plated with chips and rice.
Pollo de la Brasa
It’s essentially rotisserie chicken, but this is probably Peru’s most widely consumed dish. First created by Swiss national Roger Schuler in Lima province, the chicken is seasoned with salt and spit-cooked over charcoal.
Grilled or boiled plantains get smashed, seasoned, mixed with fat and pork rind, and topped with Peruvian chorizo. The result is textural perfection and it’s a dish traditionally eaten for breakfast.
A taste of the future
Michelin does not currently cover Peru but if they did, they would be star-struck. The country has fostered a brigade of chefs in recent decades that have acquired veritable rock star status across South America and are increasingly renowned overseas for their ambitious advancement of Peruvian gastronomy.
You cannot discuss the contemporary food scene without mentioning Gastón Acurio. The chef’s Astrid y Gastón (Av. Paz Soldán 290), now relocated to a palatial former hacienda in San Isidro, originally opened in 1994 and is considered modern Peruvian cuisine’s birthplace. Acurio and his wife Astrid began by offering French fare, then eventually made the switch to lavishing national dishes. The ever-burgeoning Acurio brand, boasting restaurants from Bogotá to Barcelona, is the most recognizable face of Peruvian food worldwide.
Virgilio Martínez is another household name. Landing Peru’s first Michelin star for his London-based Lima restaurant, his flagship is Central (Av. Pedro de Osma301) in Barranco. It’s topped Latin America’s edition of the 50 Best Restaurants list several times and is a regular top-tenner in the worldwide version, but such is Martínez’s creative drive that whatever gets written about Central dates fast. Suffice it to say that courses are themed around specific topographical regions and elevations, and Peru has 84 ecological zones, so there is ample inspiration. Menus are powered by vigorous research into food geography, Andean plankton through Amazonian arapaima, carried out by Martínez and his team at Mater Iniciativa.
Meanwhile Maido (San Martín 399) is where the artistry of Mitsuharu Tsumura, Peru-born but of Japanese descent, has made Nikkei food legendary. It’s the only equal to Central in terms of international accolades in the city.
Insider tip: You don’t need to spend huge sums to eat exceptional Peruvian food in Lima. Try trendy Mercado 28 (Av.Vasco Núñez de Balboa 755), where contemporary stalls serve high-quality national classics done differently.