The Traditional Diet of Peru
Photo courtesy of The Peru Guide
To the Land of the Incas we go. From Lima to Machu Picchu, let’s see what Peru is all about.
History of Peru:
The first indication of human presence in Peru is the Norte Chico civilization, around 11,000 BCE. This civilization is the oldest known complex society in the Americas. It’s actually possible that the Norte Chico settlers arrived in the Americas prior to the emergence of the Clovis peoples, though radiocarbon dating has proven inconclusive. Regardless, the diet of these early Peruvians has been fairly conclusively established, consisting of “squash, beans, lucuma, guava, pacay, and camote.”(1) Other foods included avocado and achira, a very starchy plant. Seafood contributed heavily to the diet, both inland and on the coast, one archaeologist noting that:
“animal remains are almost exclusively marine” at Caral, including clams and mussels, and a large amount of anchovies and sardines. That the anchovy fish reached inland is clear, although Haas suggests that “shellfish [which would include clams and mussels], sea mammals, and seaweed do not appear to have been significant portions of the diet in the inland, non-maritime sites”.
In the 13th century, the powerful Incan empire emerged, eventually encompassing nearly as much land as the Roman Empire. By developing food preservation techniques, the Incas were able to maintain food supplies through their territory to supply the army, enabling the expansive reach of the empire. By a process of natural freeze-drying, the Incas turned potatoes into chuno and meat into charqui (today we call it “jerky”). The diet largely consisted of grains like quinoa, potatoes, and corn, with meat (mainly guinea pig, llama, and game meats) being saved mostly for celebrations. Eggs were also rare. Bananas, pineapples, palta, passion fruit, and seaweed, shored up the Incan cuisine.
As usual, the Spanish came knocking and, led by Francisco Pizarro, defeated the Incas in the mid-1500s. This Spanish conquest, combined with later African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, and British immigration shaped modern Peruvian cuisine. In fact, Peruvian cuisine is celebrated for the creativity of its chefs and their ability to seamlessly mold new and interesting flavors into the cuisine.
Let’s get things started with a few superlatives.(2) (3) (4) (5)
Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the most diverse in the world.
Peru boasts one of the finest cuisines in Latin America.
“Peru’s cuisine is probably the best kept food secret in South America. A bounty of Pacific seafood, a fiendish enthusiasm for chiles and a confluence of Latino, Nativa American and even Japanese and Chinese influences make for a remarkable virtuisoty” (sic) … “FOOD & WINE MAGAZINE, May, 1998″
Peruvian cuisine is one of the best in South America
So are you getting the idea that Peruvian cuisine is considered to be very good yet? It is actually impossible for me to cover everything that is encompassed in Peruvian cuisine. Wikipedia notes that “along the Peruvian coast alone there are more than two thousand different types of soups, and that there are more than 250 traditional desserts.”(100)
Peru has an incredible diversity of climates, its unique geography comprising over 80% of the zones in the Holdridge life zone scale. This climactic diversity results in Peru being a center of crop diversity. There are some thirty-five varieties of maize, fifteen types of tomatoes, over four thousand varieties of potatoes, and over two thousand varieties of sweet potatoes grown in the country. Add to that several thousand species of fish and 650 types of fruit and you have an extremely diverse cuisine. We actually have Peru to thank for the potato.
These many varieties of corn, potato, yams, and chiles place these crops center stage in the Peruvian diet. Along with that, the aforementioned climatic diversity means that virtually any kind of fruit or vegetable can be grown in Peru. Quinoa, kiwicha (amaranth), and maca are all widespread in the diet. And as you’d expect in Latin America, rice accompanies virtually every dish.
The most traditional of Peruvian meats is the cuy (guinea pig). While no longer feral in Peru, they are still consumed, often roasted and served with a peanut sauce. Beyond that, a variety of meats are available, from the typical beef, pork, and chicken to alpaca and young goat. However, ceviche is the national dish of Peru and is found all around the coastal areas, each restaurant having its own subtle differentiation.
As you would expect, fish and other seafoods play a very big role in the diet of coast dwellers. This cuisine is typically richer than inland, also exhibiting a much stronger Chinese and Japanese influence. In Lima, where most of the immigration has taken place, one can find nearly any type of fusion they seek. As we’ll see in the recipes below, Peruvian chefs really have fused together the flavors of immigrants. For instance, there is a beef stir-fry known as Lomo Saltado, incorporating Chinese flavors and cooking styles with Peruvian ingredients.
High in the Andes mountains, many of the traditional Incan dishes have been preserved. Potatoes are a part of nearly every meal and most snacks as well. But their potatoes are a bit different than our brown-skinned Idahos: (6)
More than 200 varieties of potato can be found in the Lake Titicaca region. They range in color from purple to blue, and from yellow to brown. Size and texture vary as well-some are as small as nuts, while others can be as large as oranges.
Fish plays a lesser role in the mountains, though freshwater fish, especially trout, are still fairly prevalent. The meals in this region tend to be more highly vegetable-based, though alpaca is the meat specialty. For a real feast, try the pre-Incan dish of pachamanca, which consists of throwing lamb, pork, chicken, cuy, potatoes, corn, beans, bananas, and vegetables into a pit and steaming the meat with hot stones.
And then there’s the jungle, where the real value of the cuisine comes mainly from the ingredients. The cooking is uninteresting and simple, but “You can eat a different fish or fruit every day – each more delicious than the last!”(7) The cherimoya fruit grows here and supposedly tastes like strawberries and cream. That sounds deliciously healthful. You might also find a plate of monkey, snake, or frog if you’re lucky.
And if you’re just dying for a sugar rush after your meal, don’t forget to check out the churros:(7)
Mainly available in Lima, imagine a doughnut shaped like a head of corn. Now fill it with caramel. Then coat in in sugar. Then deep-fry it. Now coat it in sugar again. Ready? Now deep-fry it again. Then coat it in sugar once more, just to be sure, and serve warm: preferably in a brown paper bag on the street for you to eat on the way to the dentists! Oh boy, it’s good…
The alcoholic specialty of Peru is pisco, a liquor distilled from grapes. By combining this liquor with egg whites, lime juice, a sugar syrup, and bitters, you get the national drink, the Pisco Sour.
The food is both exciting and diverse. One can pretty much find anything they want in Peruvian cuisine, whether that’s meat and assorted vegetables or vegetarian fare. You can actually eat grilled beef heart from street vendors and that’s just fun. Peruvians love meat and seafood, most every dish being based around something dead. It is possible for vegetarians to eat and eat well in Peru, but the national cuisine is not a vegetarian one.
Obviously the national penchant for sweets is detrimental to a healthful diet, but that’s an issue in most every civilized nation. Cut back on the rice and potatoes and take advantage of the bounty of available fruits and vegetables and this cuisine is a flat-out homerun. Looking over recipe lists, you could literally spend months here and not have to eat the same thing.
Eating From Obscurity:
- Maca Root – Similar to a radish or turnip
- Kiwicha – The grain we call “amaranth”
- Lucuma – A subtropical fruit from the Andes. Lucuma ice cream is the most popular type in Peru.
- Paico – An herb from from the Andes mainly used in Pachamanca reminiscent of mint
- Huacatay – An herb from from the Andes mainly used in Pachamanca
A Few Recipes:
There are literally hundreds of great recipes out there from Peru, most of which are perfect for a grain- and potato-free existence as is, others of which require little modification. And to make up for the paltry excuses I came up with for Chile last time, I’m going to provide plenty of them this time. For others, check the Recipe File section on Yanuq.
Meat and Such
- Tiradito – Similar to ceviche, Recipe
- Pescado en Escabeche – Fish in oil and vinegar sauce. Go without breading the fish and you’re golden, Recipe
- Anticucho De Corazon – Beef heart shish-kabobs, Recipe
- Choros a la Chalaca – Mussels with vegetables, Recipe
- Lomo Saltado – A Peruvian beef stirfry, Recipe
- Sole Carpaccio with Arugula – Herbed sole, Recipe
- Duck Escabeche – Marinated duck, Recipe
Sides, Appetizers, Soups, and Salads
- Salsa Criolla – An onion and aji-based salsa, Recipe
- Palta a la Jardinera – Avocado stuffed with vegetables, Recipe (see page 8 )
- Carrot and Orange Soup – Recipe
- Chicken and Coconut Soup with Ginger – Recipe
- Parihuela – Seafood soup, Recipe
- Avocado and Artichoke Salad – Recipe
- Orange Vinaigrette – Recipe
- Crab Salad – Crab, grapefruit, avocado, and herbs, Recipe
- Seafood and Fruit Summer Salad – For those not avoiding dairy, Recipe
- Pulpo al Olivo – Octopus covered in olive sauce, Recipe
Set your dial to the same station for our next article, where we’ll wrap up our exploration of South America with a discussion of Brazil’s cuisine. After that, we’ll move on to Southern Europe and start exploring the real Mediterranean Diet.
(1) Norte Chico civilization – Wikipedia
(2) Peruvian Cuisine – Wikipedia
(3) Language Crossing – Food of Peru
(4) Peruvian Food
(5) Culinary History of Peru
(6) South Americans, Diet of
(7) Peru: The Next Great World Cuisine?
Peru – Wikipedia
Daily Diet of the Incas
Food of the Incas: 1300-1500
Cuisine of Peru and Bolivia
The Peruvian Cuisine: Fusion of Flavors
Understanding the Peruvian Palate
Passion for Peru Food
The Peru Guide – Gastronomy