The Secret Ingredients Behind Peru's Diverse Culinary Scene

History Behind Peru Powerful Gastronomy

Peru’s incredible access to land and sea has given it a natural base for some of the world’s most unique food that involves powerful influences from a variety of cultures. The country’s culinary foundation comes from a wide range of countries like Spain and China that has pushed the locals, and immigrants, to innovate its dishes that include food from both the land and sea. Collectively, the local Peruvians and migrants - who have integrated into the fabric of Peruvian culture - have embraced their responsibility for taking Peruvian meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables in order to combine them and make some of the world’s most delicious cuisine.  

A Small Piece of Peru’s Culinary History

In September 2016, I sat down one night to eat dinner one night at Tío Mario’s, a local restaurant in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, and I unexpectedly got an informative history lesson about one of Peru’s most famous yet seemingly bizarre dishes. At the restaurant, I placed an order of Peru’s famous “anticuchos” with confidence and a gringo accent that made the waiter question if I knew what I really ordered. The waiter glanced at me, slightly squinted after hearing me, and wanted to make sure that I knew I was ordering cow hearts.  

Yes, anticuchos are cow hearts!

Cow hearts come on a skewer with a side of boiled, skinned potatoes. Don’t forget to ask for sauces!

Cow hearts come on a skewer with a side of boiled, skinned potatoes. Don’t forget to ask for sauces!

In response, I smiled and told him that I love them and he seemed so pleasantly surprised that he asked me if I knew the story behind how cow hearts became a culinary favorite in Peru. At the time, I didn’t know so I asked him if he’d share a quick recap with me, given the fact that it’s a popular restaurant and it was busy at the time. He explained that when the Spaniards came and colonized centuries ago, they took the best of the food which left the rest for the locals.

He mentioned, in the times of Spanish colonial rule, the Spaniards ate the finest of steaks and the nice cuts of cow meat. Meanwhile, the Spanish colonists gave the Peruvian locals the leftovers, which you can imagine, included cow hearts. Aside from Spain’s impact of Peru’s cuisine, Peru has also innovated and infused local ingredients, foods, and products from other places.

Special Peruvian Staples

The variety of Peruvian food allows the locals and visitors from all around the world to try the array of dishes that indicates a wide range of tastes that play between sweet and spicy as well as flavors from the land and the sea. The delicious food, and the famous local soda that goes with it, gives Peru a unique identity in South America. The combination of various dishes incorporate local ingredients, spicy peppers, fruit, fish, and meat highlight and show off the many flavors of Peru.

Ají - these peppers are made and cultivated only in Peru, but please be aware, they can be very spicy! Before I tried it for the first time, one of my good Peruvian friends told me to avoid the seeds.

Orange ají peppers - that’s a lot of heat!

Orange ají peppers - that’s a lot of heat!

Why look at the seeds?

Similar to other spicy peppers, the seeds can make it very spicy, and according to pepperscale, the ají pepper can be four to twenty times spicier than a jalapeño. One of the most popular dishes in Peru is Ají de Gallina which involves making a spicy and creamy sauce with these delicious peppers, mixing the sauce and other ingredients with chicken, and adding rice and potatoes on the side. It’s as delicious as it sounds!

Don’t forget about the juice - it doesn’t bite!

Don’t forget about the juice - it doesn’t bite!

Ceviche - Also written as “Cebiche”, this national Peruvian dish combines the best of the land and sea. Peru’s world-famous dish combines fresh, uncooked fish sprinkled with lime juice along with finely cut onion along with a sides of peeled “camote” (sweet potato) and a side of “canchita” (fried corn kernels) to provide a salty crunch.

Local tip: you should spoon the juice mix of fish oils and lime juice from the bottom of your place on top of the fish as you eat it to combine the flavors! Don’t forget about the juice, or as the Peruvians call it “la leche de tigre” (tiger’s milk) because despite the intense name the flavor has an acidic yet smooth finish!

Lucuma - This special fruit can only be found in the region of the Andes mountain region, especially in Peru. Its natural sweetness makes it into a refreshingly delicious addition to ice cream that you can find in most shops in Lima, depending on the season.

Inca Kola - This Peruvian soda has become one of Peru’s best selling products and one of the most unique, untold stories. True story: Coca Cola tried to compete directly with Inca Kola in the 1980’s, and surprisingly, the Peruvians still stayed loyal to Inca Kola. Although Coca Cola came in and took 21% of the market during that time, Inca Kola had control of over 30% of the soda market in terms of sales. Although Coca Cola lost the initial sales battle, it won the war because it now owns 50% of the business, according to a report by Penn’s Wharton Business School.  

Chinese Influence

The Chinese people who have immigrated to Peru and have changed the face of Peru’s culinary with their food has become some of Peru’s most popular food known as “Chifa”.

Surprisingly, more than twenty Spanish-speaking countries simply label food with Chinese as “comida china” or Chinese food, but Peru’s distinct heritage has given this unique blend a name that infused new elements new to the Peruvian diet. The words “chi” and “fa” in Chinese collectively mean “to eat rice” because the Chinese foods incorporated rice that became more widely used as the Chinese influence grew and new food group gained popularity.

In Lima, the popularity of these Chifa restaurants has grown because the Chinese took Peruvian recipes and incorporated local ingredients. Today, the Chifa restaurants offer the local sauces, such as the aforementioned ají sauce, to go alongside their stir-fry-style meals. When the Chinese first came, they lacked certain ingredients such as ginger so they had also began incorporating well-known Peruvian foods, such as tomatoes and onions, into their foods. These restaurants stand out in most of the neighborhoods as Chifa continues to boom in major cities like Lima.

Chinese-style rice along with Peruvian ingredients and staples, such as potatoes, have become all part of the famous “Chifa”!

Chinese-style rice along with Peruvian ingredients and staples, such as potatoes, have become all part of the famous “Chifa”!

Whether you like seafood and meat, or if you prefer more fruits and vegetables, you have no excuse to avoid Peru! The endless amount of food options welcome anyone to come and try the wide array of foods. You can be adventurous and try the cow hearts, or you can pick from a lot of other foods!

Have you tried any different foods lately? Do you want to try something new and adventurous? Please visit our custom programs page if you’re interested in a faculty-led or high school program to Peru, or our study abroad page if you’re a student interested in studying abroad in Peru!