By Sol Noya
“Oh, you’re from Lima? The food there’s meant to be really good, isn’t it?” is one of the things that I hear the most often when introducing myself and where I’m from. And it’s true – in the last decade, Peruvian food seems to be ever more notorious, even occasionally popping up in those viral Facebook recipe videos and my Pinterest feed (although some of the recipes are appallingly divorced from the food I grew up with, so proceed with caution).
A contextual note before I dive in: Peru is huge. The twentieth-largest country in the world, it can be roughly divided into three big sections slicing the country from north to south: the Pacific coast, where Lima is located, the sierra, which is dominated by the Andes mountains (this is where Machu Picchu is located!), and the Amazon jungle, which borders Brazil and Colombia. Each region has access to very different ingredients, but with the scale of migration to Lima since the late twentieth-century, food from all three can be found in Lima.
A lot of Peruvian food is characterized by the idea of fusión (fusion): many of our dishes marry elements of at least one other culture to the ingredients and cooking techniques found in Peru. A prime example of this is one of my favourite dishes, lomo saltado (roughly translated to sautéed beef loin). This dish takes beef (which was first brought over from Spain during colonisation) and a soy-sauce-and-garlic based marinade to then be stir-fried with slices of red onions, bright orange chilli peppers, and tomatoes until the vegetables are beautifully caramelising in the sauce, combining Chinese and Peruvian ingredients.
This is then served alongside fluffy white rice mixed with pale yellow Peruvian corn and yellow, hand-cut chips. For a special treat, the restaurant to try this is definitely José Antonio (at either of their two locations) – they have decades of experience making it and it really shows.
If you remain unconvinced about why you should go to Peru and choose to eat “steak and chips,” let me say that chips in Peru are truly something. Peru is home to the World Potato Institute (yes, this is a thing) and over 3000 species of potato. Hence, potatoes get served alongside many other delightful main dishes – if you want the chips but not the beef or rice, you could always check out pollo a la brasa (our take on rotisserie chicken), which is usually eaten with salad and chips.
Or if a boiled potato is more your idea of a perfect vegetable, why not try ají de gallina (a chicken dish with a creamy chilli sauce, which has the added bonus of having the flavour of the chillies without the spicy kick, for those who are spice-averse). The former is found at various restaurants and even some grocery chains – my favourite places for it are La Granja Azul, which takes a drive but is in a lovely location on the hills on the northeast end of Lima and comes with amazing homemade mayonnaise, or Wong (one of our biggest supermarket chains) for a cheaper takeaway option. For the latter, I’d say go with homemade and accept the black olives on the side.
You’d rather have rice than potatoes? Well, the first thing to note is that Peruvian cuisine’s response to this tends to be “both is good”, and the second is that we’ve got you covered. If this is you, you might want to look to Nikkei, which is what we call the fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Lima is home to a wealth of Japanese-style restaurants, from the high-end (does Nobu Matsuhisa ring a bell? He got his start in Lima!) to the more casual.
On a student-friendly budget, my recommendation is to get a group together and head to Edo, where various rolls featuring a mix of Peruvian and Japanese ingredients abound. If not Edo, it’s still worth looking for the acevichado roll on your maki menu in Lima – maki rolls and ceviche sauce turn out to be a dream team. If you want to go all out now that you know Nobu himself cooked in Lima, the restaurant he founded, Matsuei, is still operating and an excellent choice for a treat: my dad likes the sushi cones.
Although travelling to Peru is probably far-off for most of us, I hope this city guide is helpful for navigating our wide-ranging cuisine. Do note that I’ve missed out loads of absolutely delicious dishes, but if you run into me in Durham (possibly crying over the lack of chilli varieties in Tesco), I’ll happily talk you through them! And until I can return, I’ll be dreaming of lomo saltado.
Photograph: Lou Stejskal via Flickr and Creative Commons