Typical Foods by Region - The Andes
Millenia of Agricultural domestication by early Pre-colombian societies of the Andes created tubers and grains that continue to power modern societies. Earth would not be able to sustain seven billion people without the achievemennts of Andean agriculturalists. The Andes were also blessed to border the Amazon basin and the bountiful Peruvian coast where sophisticated trading routes allowed for kingdoms high in the mountains to enjoy the rich variety of fruits, nuts and seafood from far off lands. Today, traditional Andean cuisine is being continued by humble indigenous families, while the young modern chefs of Peru's urban centers are taking it to international acclaim.
The Potato - The Andes Mountains which cover much of the center of Peru is probably best known for its thousands of varieties of potatoes. Many historians and scientists believe it was the potato discovered by Europeans in the 1500's that provided a nutrient packed food source for the dense urbanization that began during the renaissance and continued into the early industrial age. Its numerous genetic varieties give us insight into how to prepare agricultural products in the face of a challenging climate. All the while, the cultures of the Andes continue to toil their fields and pass on the ancient and deep knowlege of the potato.
Chicha - The Andean Corn with its large mealy kernels is used in its entirety. The most common use is to make Chicha, a corn beer that has been the local libation of choice for the past 3000 years at least. Still today, you can find large collectives of families working in the fields of the Sacred Valley, sipping chicha. Visiting a traditional valley home on a Sunday, you would most likely find a large vat in the corner with the matriarch of the family ladling it out in portions to all that pass through.
The Cuy (guinea pig) - The favorite pet of the suburban elementry schooler, Cuy's are an important source of protein and fats in the dry and desolate Andean Altiplano. Traditionally, Cuys are raised in the adobe homes, left to roam free until reaching a proper size, and then they're cooked in an earth oven. In the swanky restaurants of Cusco, the modern visitor can enjoy this delicacy in a noveau preparation without any resemblence of the family pet.
Quinoa - This native Andean grain has become a mainstay in the food aisles of organic and natural food stores in North America and Europe. Its protein rich attributes have made it an essential aspect of the Andean diet, served in soups or cooked and chilled as an Andean rice of sorts. A hearty and flavorful grain that goes back millenia is just now being shared with the outside world.
Alpaca - One of the few large native mammals in South America, it roams the mountains above 10,000 feet feeding on grasses and shrubs with its fluffy outer coat. The fur of the Alpaca is incredibly warm and soft, and is a reason why Andean weavers developed their trade to be one of the most skilled textile incubators of any human civilization ever. The meat of the Alpaca serves as a important source of protein and the dried Alpaca fetus is a revered offering in the sacrificial traditions of Andean cosmovision.
Typical Foods by Region - The Coast
Peru was blessed by being located at the intersection of a current that brings cold plankton rich Antarctic water colliding with the warm waters of the south pacific. It essentially creates a food rich ecosystem that is one of the most bountiful fisheries in the world. With the manufacture of fishing nets from native cotton of the region these fisheries were leveraged by early Peruvian societies. This created an explosion in development from a hunters and gathers society to one specializing in animal domestication, architecture and textiles. The incredible citadel at Machu Picchu would not have been possible without the advancement of early societies fueled on fresh seafood.
Ceviche - Officially, Peru's national dish is fresh raw fish (or mixed seafood) marinated in lemon, salt and local chili peppers (aji). Its modern origins began as a plate for the servant class during the Colonial Period, essentially the leftover morsels of fish tossed in some lemon juice. Largely thanks to the popularization by famous Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, ceviche has become an international phenomenom getting served up in some form in most urban capitals of the world. Today it can be enjoyed in a traditional market with a slice of steamed yam, onion and corn or it can be eaten in some verical presentation by a new generation of Peruvian chef in a swanky Lima restaurant. Either way, it's extremely tasty, healthy and carries with it a sufficient dash of Peruvian national pride.
Aji (Peruvian Chili Peppers) - The numerous varieties of these hot peppers are used in just about every dish that comprises of seafood. Sitting down in a cevicheria you are immediately greeted by a comunal dish of either chopped or ground Aji with varying levels of heat as well of shades of red to yellow. The pepper is a product of the dry, desert landscapes of Peru's coast and a must for any foodie who wishes to truly experience its gastronomy.
Sudado - A Peruvian cioppino of sorts with a mixture of fish, shellfish, broth, aji peppers and topped with a crab is absolutely incredible. It's all the wonderful things from the sea mixed in a fashion that is flavorful and full of aromas and colors of the Peruvian type. A perfect compliment to ceviche in a family style meal at a local cevicheria. We reccomend it.
Causa - What is essentially cold mashed potatoes formed as a patty and in layers filled with either seafood or chicken.While simple in its approach, somewhere between the velvet nature of the Andean potato and the freshness of the regions seafood, it's a combination that is equisite in all ways.
The Capital of South American Gastronomy - Lima
Within the boundaries of a few districts that is no more than maybe 5 miles squared, you have numerous restaurants that have been named world class with undoubted dominance when you narrow the contest to the best restaurants in South America. In fact, the best restaurant in South America was recently awarded to Astrid y Gaston, developed by Peru gastronomic ambassador Gaston Acurio. Over the last few decades the revolution in gastronomy has been an important source of national pride following the deep civil strife of the 1980's. Young Peruvians of all economic classes aspire to be the next Gaston Acurio, fusing influences from the world in a uniquely Peruvian way. Gastronomy should be a critical part of any journey to Peru, as it's intimately part of the culture of the country in aspects that go far beyond the dinner table.
Some of ours and the world's favorite Peruvian restaurants and markets:
Lima Restaurants: Astrid y Gaston; Central; Rafael's; La Gloria; La Mar; El Mercado; Pescado Capitales.
Lima Markets: Mercado Surquillo, Chorrillos Fish Market.
Cusco Restaurants: Ciccolina, Chicha, Greens Organics, Calle del Medio, La Divina Comedia
Cusco Markets: San Pedro Market, Pisaq Market, Calca Market, Chincheros Market (textile co-op).
Machu Picchu Restaurants: Indio Feliz, the Cafe at El Pueblo, the Buffet at Sanctuary Lodge