Visiting Peru over the summer, I discovered the indigenous Inca people were agriculturists who introduced four staples into the world – potatoes, corn, beans and quinoa. Potatoes are native to the Andes Mountains. It was a staple food of the Incas. The Inca civilization was the largest Pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas with its capital city Cusco.
The best preserved example of its architecture is in Machu Picchu. Here the Inca’s grew potatoes, fruits filled with antioxidants, and plants to boost energy and help with the high altitude.
Today Peruvian dishes are a fusion of Inca, Spanish, African, Asian, French, Italian and American flavors. Here is a guide to enjoy 10 pleasing gastronomical experiences while exploring Peru.
1. Did you know that 99% of all potatoes in the world are descendants of South America? The potato is originally from Peru, and Peruvians grow over 3,000 types in different sizes, shapes, and colors. When the Spaniards invaded Peru, they sailed tuber treasures back to Europe. One of the most famous Peruvian potato dishes is Papas a la Huancaina (Potatoes in Spicy Cheese Sauce).
2. Another staple the Spaniards brought back to Spain was Peruvian corn. Peru grows more than 55 varieties of corn. The kernel size and colors were a surprise. Besides yellow corn, they grow purple, pink, white and black. In South America they make fermented and non-fermented Chicha corn beverage, almost like beer. In Peru it’s consumed in vast quantities during religious festivals. Driving through Peru, we noticed bamboo poles with red flags or balloons at the tip of the pole advertising fresh Chicha inside. My favorite way to eat corn in Peru was crunching salty Inca Corn, similar to corn nuts, by the handfuls.
3. On almost every menu is quinoa, because it originated in the Andean region of Peru over 4,000 years ago. Quinoa is a sacred crop to the Inca’s who call it “mother of all grains.” In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared “International Year of Quinoa.” It’s gluten-free and easy to digest. I enjoyed spooning vegetable and quinoa soup at Pachapapa in the Plaza San Blas area of Cusco. Quinoa is excellent in pancakes too.
4. The last staple grown in Peru are legumes. A large Lima bean was cultivated in Peru around 2000 BC. They are found in stews, side dishes and salads.
5. Coca is known throughout the world for its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine. It grows as a bush in the Eastern Andes and along the Amazon River in Peru and other areas in South America. Entering the airport arrival gate in Cusco, Peru there was a wicker basket filled with coca leaves. To welcome visitors a sign states – “Free Coca Leafs, Take only 3.” These leaves are known to alleviate high altitude sickness. Our hotel Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel offered the leaves for guests to steep in hot water and sip. Coca helps reduce headaches, stomach aches and malaise. Since Cusco is 11,000 feet above sea level, the hotel also offered oxygen tanks and masks for guests to breathe in pure oxygen.
6. Cuy is best served grilled and barbecued. It’s a large breed of guinea pig raised in the Andean regions of South America that was first domesticated in 5000 BC. I ordered this on the last night of my trip at Chicha por Gaston Acurio in Cusco. Acurio is Peru’s most famous chef and a global ambassador for Peruvian dishes. He has multiple modern and colorful restaurants throughout Peru. Guinea pig meat is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol and offers a mild dark chicken meat essence. It was served with purple corn tortillas, pickled turnips and carrots with a delicious rocoto hoisin sauce. For adventurous foodies, at the Cusco Saturday market, cuy was skinned and on a stick with bones and teeth displayed.
7. Another Peruvian delight is their exotic array of fruits, some are super foods boasting many vitamins and nutrients, others are known to help cure diseases and ailments. My favorite was the smooth yellow Inca berry, Peruvian groundcherry, Pichuberry, and Peruvian cherry. It’s looks like a yellow cherry tomato offering a slightly tart and sweet flavor profile. There are no cherry pits, just little edible seeds. It’s high in vitamins and low in calories. Peruvians believe it helps those with lung cancer. At the Inkaterra Urumbamba they had bowls of the this fruit in the common areas for guests to peel away the protective papery petals and pluck the yellow fruit inside.
8. Sipping Pisco Sours as a welcome drink. Every hotel we stayed at in Peru offered a complimentary Pisco Sour. At the Inkaterra Urumbama and Inkaterra Machu Picchu Puebla Hotel they made a delicious Pisco Sour cocktail similar to a margarita. It’s made with white-grape brandy with a frothy top layer made with egg whites, lemon juice, sugar and bitters. Some bars add macerated coca leaves or passion fruit to the drink.
9. Eating Paiche an amazon-size freshwater fish from South America’s Amazon River basin. I ordered this at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu resort. It’s a delicious tender white fish that grows up to 100 pounds. The firm fillet is similar to swordfish or Chilean sea bass, yet offers a lingering sweetness that is similar to lobster.
10. Eating ceviche at T’anta in Miraflores (Lima, Peru) or Chicha in Cuscos. Both are innovative dishes by the esteemed chef Gaston Acurio. In Lima, his seaside restaurant T’anta serves marinated raw fish and shellfish in fresh lime and lemon juice. The chefs add some hot chili peppers to give it a zing. It’s refreshing and spicy.
Peruvian cuisine offers fresh ingredients that appeals to all of your senses. Be sure to try a few or all of the above to elevate your South American adventure.
This article is featured in InTravel Magazine https://www.intravelmag.com/intravel/in-good-taste/ten-memorable-peruvian-food-drink-experience