One of my favorite parts of Peru was the food. My oh my was it delicious! I did not have a single meal that disappointed. The food is rich, flavorful, and complex. Yet, somehow, it also managed to be fresh and light. No food comas to be had. Surprisingly, it was easier to find vegan, vegetarian, and organic foods in Peru than my uber-hipster neighborhood back home. It was a foodie’s wonderland!
I can’t remember all of the amazing meals I had, but here is a list of a few local and traditional dishes and drinks that you can try during your own visit:
Aguaymanto — Aguaymanto, also called a gooseberry or goldenberry, is a bright orange-yellow berry that is slightly tart. I had the pleasure of eating the berry right off of the vine during a walk through an Amazon village. There is nothing better than freshly picked wild fruit. I didn’t see Aguaymanto in any of the restaurants during my visit, but keep an eye out because it is often used in pies and other desserts.
Canchita — Canchita was perhaps the nicest culinary surprise I got during my visit. It is crunchy toasted corn that is used as a snack or side dish with many Peruvian meals. It was either an appetizer or accompaniment to most of my dinners (see the next pic down of the ceviche for an example of how it was used). I am a little obsessed them. If anyone has ever made this before, I’d love to hear how it went.
Ceviche — Ceviche can only be described with one word: Exquisite. Ceviche is fresh fish (cured in citrus juice) marinated in a mix of salt, red onions, chili peppers, and lime juice. I’ve had it with salmon, trout, and catfish, but salmon was by far my favorite. Because the fish is not cooked, make sure you go to a reputable restaurant so you reduce your risk of food poisoning.
Chicha Morada — Chicha morada has been around since before the Incas. It is a super sweet purple corn drink. It reminds me of the fresh juices I get at home, but with about 10 times more sugar. I definitely suggest trying it to get some local flavor, but one was enough for me.
Coca —Coca tea is part of the daily life of the Andean people and is purported to have many medicinal benefits, including helping with altitude sickness. It is made with the raw leaves of the coca plant and tastes like a gentler version of green tea. I have an entire post just on drinking coca tea in Peru, you can read all about it here.
Coca Candy — You can find coca candy everywhere in Cusco. It is made from the coca leaf and comes in every form imaginable: chocolate, toffee, hard candy, etc. But, don’t try to bring any home with you. Coca products are illegal in many countries around the world.
Cremas — Cremas are staples on dinner menus across Peru and come in every form imaginable. They are basically thick creamy soups made with potatoes, corn, and other basic ingredients. At first I figured I’d give the meal a pass since it seemed so ordinary, but when I broke down and had it one night for dinner, I was not disappointed.
Inca Kola — Inca Kola is a neon yellow-green bubblegum sweet soda. It is sold in almost every shop, but I rarely found it refrigerated other than in restaurants. Inca Kola is so popular in Peru that it significantly outsells Coca-Cola. It was way too sweet for my taste, but it is certainly part of the quintessential Peruvian experience.
Palta Rellena — This was probably my favorite dish while I was in Peru. I stopped off at a little restaurant in Ollantaytambo while I was waiting for my train to Aguas Calientes. I am so glad I did. Palta Rellena is a hollowed out fresh (oh so fresh) avocado stuffed with peas, tomatoes, and other veggies and mixed with a creamy sauce. Mine was topped with a heap of yummy cheese for good measure. I can’t wait to try to recreate this one at home and if I ever find myself in Ollantaytambo again, I know exactly what I am having for lunch.
Papas a la Huancaina — Papas a la Huancaina is a traditional Peruvian dish made with boiled yellow potatoes in a spicy creamy sauce. I had to go on a bit of a hunt and visited a few restaurants in Aguas Calientes until I finally found it. Actually, the last restaurant I visited did not have it on the menu, but offered to make it for me anyway.
Every time I asked about it, I got the same response: “That is a very traditional Incan dish.” Potatoes are a huge part of the Peruvian diet and culture. More than 4,000 varieties of native potatoes grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Boliva, and Ecuador. Despite it basically being all potatoes and cream, it was surprisingly light.
Pisco Sour — The pisco sour is the traditional drink of Peru. It is made with Peruvian pisco, lime juice, syrup, egg white, and Angostura bitters over ice. It is not uncommon to be given a small pisco sour when you sit down to lunch or dinner. It is a must to have while you visit, but take it easy on the alcohol if you are in Cusco and are not used to drinking at higher elevations.
Suspiro de Maracuya — Suspiro de Maracuya is made from manjar blanco caramel custard (also known as dulce de leche) is a gooey dessert that is both tart and creamy. It is made with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and egg yolks and often accompanied by some sort of fruit. Be sure to treat yourself to some! Suspiro Limeño is also a very popular version of the dessert.
If you are a meat eater, Peru is famous for is cuy (guinea pig), alpaca, and llama. I did not partake in them, but cuy and alpaca were on almost every menu in Cusco.
- If you are interested in trying local delicacies when you travel, take a few minutes to search what the best local foods are in your destination before you leave. Having a list when you land ensures you don’t miss any special gems on the menu. It did not take me long to come of with a hit list of more than 20 local drinks, fruits, meals, and desserts I had to try. (If I added meat items to the list, I am sure it would have doubled). I have also already started my ‘must try’ food list for my upcoming trip to the Yucatán.
- Be sure to pay attention to what foods you should avoid in foreign countries. Generally, you should stay away from cheese, uncooked meats and vegetables, and unfiltered water. But use your judgment based on the restaurant. Check reviews, see if locals are eating there, and stay away from street vendors (as tempting as they can be).
- If you have concerns, ask your doctor to write you a prescription for antibiotics before you leave so you have it on hand just in case. The only thing worse than food poisoning, is food poisoning on vacation and no access to medical care.