The funny thing about first impressions is that you only get one chance at them. You can only see something for the first time one time. With this post, I wanted to capture my first impressions of Peruvian food-before spending months in Peru learning about the food, before I knew Spanish, and before working in two Peruvian restaurants. This post was written shortly after I arrived in Cusco, back in October of last year, and the photos were taken with my phone. I edited the post for flow.
I spent my first two and a half weeks in Peru as a complete tourist. We visited Lima, Nazca, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Machu Picchu, and Cusco through a group package. We saw a lot in a short period of time, and there was a ton of information to take in. Sometimes, I would not realize the significance of something I ate on this trip until months later when I would revisit places.
This is the story of my first taste of authentic Peruvian food through nine memorable meals. It was difficult to limit myself to nice since our meals on the trip were extremely varied and were almost all good. I tried to select meals that represents the diversity of Peruvian food.
1) Ceviche at El Mercado
To me, Lima feels like a city made for lunch. I love the open, spacious feel of restaurants in Lima. Restaurants near the city center will often have outdoor seating and restaurants along the beach will have balconies overlooking the ocean. I love walking into a new restaurant and taking a moment to appreciate the ambience of nicely dressed Limeneans leisurely eating lunch in the middle of a workday. My favorite setting for lunch was at El Mercado which combined an open kitchen, a handwritten menu, an open roof, and lots of plants.
2) Sharing Plates at Surquillo Market
It’s amazing that the city government of Lima created a whole street dedicated to gastronomy. Here, you can find a wide array of Peruvian fruits and and, on weekends, you can taste a variety of typical Peruvian dishes. We started with a juice of tuna (the local name for prickly pear), ordered caldo de gallina (chicken soup), causa (potato casserole), a lamb stew, and chupe de camarones (a chowder with prawns-our favorite). Sharing plates at the market was a great and inexpensive way to sample classic Peruvian dishes.
3) Tacu Tacu at Canta Rana
This meal haunts my memory unlike any other in Peru. Canta Rana, a Lima institution in a humble setting, is famous for its ceviche. However, I just had ceviche for lunch and was craving something hot. The waiter suggested the Tacu Tacu, and I went for it, partially because of its cute name.
It’s amazing to taste a dish that you had never heard of half an hour before and suddenly feel at home. I felt like I had this dish before, not just once but my entire childhood. Beans and rice probably evokes comfort in almost every culture, but the comforting, slow spicy heat of the ají amarillo in the sauce along with the slightly melted cheese was like a warm blanket for me.
When I travel, I love seeing what novel combinations are possible with food, but what really hits the spot are meals like this one when you suddenly find comfort in strange food.
4) Tasting Menu at Astrid y Gaston
Thanks to our friend, Sai, we got to the opportunity to eat at one of the most famous restaurants in Peru. Astrid y Gaston is the flagship restaurant of Gaston Acurio’s empire. Gaston Acurio put Peruvian food on the map. He has open at least one of almost every type of Peruvian restaurant from cevicherias to a burger joint featuring Peruvian flavors, pushing the envelope every time.
The meal started with small bites and drinks outside in the balcony and progressed into slightly larger courses in the dining room. Because the meal was perfectly orchestrated, the thirty course tasting menu did not feel overwhelming. There was even a scheduled pause in the middle.
Each bite featured unique flavors and riffed on classic Peruvian flavors and dishes. Together, the menu told the story of Peru, combining modern (foam, texturization) and ancient (cooking on stone) techniques. The centerpiece course was cooking small potatoes in real dirt on a hot plate. Diners had to dig through the dirt to find the prized potatoes, simulating Huatia, the ancient Incan ritual of cooking potatoes in the ground. The meal was like a crash course on the past, present, and future of Peruvian cuisine.
5) Stumbling Upon the Huarique, A Keeper of Tradition
For my last meal in Lima, I was planning to go to a trendy fusion gastropub, but I got lazy and decided to a small hole-in-the wall restaurant down the street. The restaurant is run by just two people and serves one meal per day. It was just me and a big group of locals.
The dish of the day was rabbit, fried and then soaked in an orange reduction sauce with sweet potatoes. Simple but decadent. I walked up to the front of the restaurant and started asking questions with the little Spanish I knew (mostly pointing and one or two words with a question intonation). Seeing my interest, the owner called his son who knew English. His son told me about the different types of peppers in Peru and how ingredients are transported from the jungle. It was at that moment that I really knew I had to learn Spanish. I couldn’t imagine how many stories I like this one that I would miss out until I learned Spanish.
To be continued …
It’s not surprising that more than half of this list are places in Lima. I had a little more free time to wander around in Lima so that stacked the deck a little bit. There’s a lot of great food to try beyond Lima’s city limits.
Part 2 … The road to Machu Picchu