Introducing Arequipa’s Culinary Traditions
You can enjoy ceviche, lomo saltado, and other Peruvian favorites in Arequipa. However, Arequipa has its own rich food traditions waiting to be discovered. The long-running joke is that Arequipa has so many of its own traditions that locals consider it its own country. Nestled among the cloisters of a 16th century church, La Benita de Los Claustros provides a gentle introduction to Arequipa’s rich and storied food traditions.
Picanterías, the Bastions of a Proud Heritage
The bastions of Arequipa’s food traditions are picanterías, traditional eateries that serve food from recipes handed down from generation to generation. Over time, picanterías in the city center have gradually disappeared. Opened just last year, La Benita de Los Claustros is now the only picantería in the historic center. Less than a block from Plaza de Armas, it provides visitors with a convenient way of sampling traditional dishes. Whereas traditional picanterías usually open only for lunch, La Benita caters to visitors and opens for lunch and dinner.
While picanterías have been pushed to the outskirts of the city, the tradition is still strong and very much alive. Menus rotate between classic dishes, ingredients are fresh everyday, and food is cooked traditionally on a wood fire. There is a special soup that is served daily in just about every restaurant in the city. For example, on Mondays, restaurants in Arequipa all serve Chaque, a thick soup that contains tripe, potatoes, and vegetables. In addition, there is an extensive repertoire of main dishes that locals know and love. However, picantería food can be intimidating to visitors. Oftentimes picanterías don’t list all of their dishes on the menu. And when they do, the descriptions can be lacking.
Picantero Roger Falcón, Curator of Tradition
Luckily for me, Roger Falcón, the picantero and owner of La Benita de Claustros, helped me get started as I began a month-long dive into Arequipa’s traditions. The picantería tradition is typically passed through the women in a family. Falcón and his brother are a proud exception. They started learning from their mom, who opened La Benita de Characato, at a young age. Now, Falcón and his brother are working to push the picantería tradition forward while making it accessible to a larger audience.
During our chat, Falcón discusses the role of picanteros in Arequipa’s culture. He explains how picanteros have historically helped bring people from different professions together. He also describes how the role of the picantero is not unlike that of an artist. They can’t change tradition. However, they must intelligently chose from the vast repertoire of picantería food and decide how to interpret classic recipes using modern techniques.
To give me a taste of Arequipa’s diverse culinary repertoire, Falcón selected these three dishes from La Benita’s menu for me to try.
Rocoto Relleno (Stuffed Pepper)
Soltero (Traditional Arequipian Salad)
The name for this classic Arequipian salad comes from the Spanish word for “bachelor.” The path in which the word became the name for this salad is convoluted and contradictory. However, what’s important is that the name stuck.
Soltero combines fresh cheese, olives, fava beans, tomatoes, choclo (Andean corn with large kernels), and red onion. As a side note, the red onion from this region is a source of pride because of its pungency and is exported all over Peru. The salad also has contains the herb, Huacatay, which is used throughout Arequipan food and gives the salad a unique flavor.
Locro de Pecho (Mashed Potato with Beef Brisket)
Locro” means completely different things in different parts of Peru. In Arequipa, Locro de Pecho is a classic meat and potato dish. The “pecho,” the chest of the cow or brisket is braised until tender. Then, the meat is served on a hearty mashed potato base which is flavored with ají and other spices. Locro is best enjoyed hot before the potato sets and becomes dry.
Other “Must Try” dishes in Arequipa
In addition to the three dishes selected, Falcón recommends that every visitor to Arequipa also try Cuy Choctado (fried guinea pig) and Chupe de Camarones. I will discuss these dishes in future posts.
Stay Tuned …
This is the first of several stories looking at the past, present, and future of food in Arequipa. I had originally planned to stay four days in Arequipa but ended up staying a month because of the wealth of food knowledge and stories. My Airbnb host and I joked that it would take not one but two lifetimes to fully document everything. Over the next few weeks, I plan to share some of the stories of the people I met while also providing practical advice for visitors wishing to enjoy food in Arequipa.