Get To Know: Peruvian Flavors
Within the last decade, critically-acclaimed Peruvian restaurants have sprung up in nearly every major American city. Is it any surprise? Peru has been named “World’s Leading Culinary Destination” seven times by the World Travel Awards, and just this year two Peruvian restaurants ranked among the top 10 in the world. Thanks to the efforts of world-renowned Peruvian chefs like Gastón Acurio and Virgilio Martínez, Peruvian food is more visible than ever on menus, on our screens, and in our grocery stores.
If Machu Picchu is your only reference for the cultural and geographical landscape of Peru, you’re missing out. Peru is incredibly geographically diverse, boasting dozens of microclimates among three primary regions of coast, rainforest, and mountains. This diversity accounts for a vast array of foods, which have sustained civilizations in Peru for millennia. Spanish colonialization and the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and immigrants from neighboring South American countries has also had a sizable impact on Peruvian cuisine.
Many staples of indigenous Peruvian cuisine, including potatoes, corn, and chile peppers, survived hundreds of years of colonial rule and remain essential elements of the country’s gastronomy today. In fact, potatoes likely originated in Peru, where over 4,000 varieties are still grown. Both potatoes and chile peppers play a part in popular Peruvian dishes like papa a la Huancaina, boiled yellow potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce spiked with ají amarillo chile peppers.
Chef Gastón Acurio called aji amarillo chile peppers the single most important ingredient in Peruvian cuisine, and they are fundamental to a wide range of Peruvian dishes. Grown all over Peru, ají amarillo chiles are named for the vibrant yellow-orange color they achieve once fully mature. With their mild heat and notes of mango and passionfruit, ají amarillo peppers are commonly added to sauces and sprinkled over ceviche. Often paired with ají panca chiles, garlic, and onion, aji amarillos form the essential basis for the flavors of Peruvian cuisine.
Corn is another staple ingredient. Peruvian white corn, or maiz blanco, is used to make chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer which was used ceremonially by the Inca. It is still popular today, especially in the Andes region. Chicha morada, a non-alcoholic version of the drink, is made from a variety of purple corn called maiz morado. As popular as Coca-cola in Peru, it is a sweet, non-alcoholic beverage made from boiled purple corn and pineapple peels flavored with cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and in some cases chopped fruit and lemon. Cancha, a toasted, salted snack made from a variety of corn called maiz chulpe, is frequently served with pork rinds, ceviche, or as a simple bar snack.
In the 19th century, Chinese laborers introduced ginger, soy sauce, and Chinese cooking methods to Peru. Lomo saltado is an emblematic dish, representing the unique intersection of cultures which makes Peruvian cuisine so special. Although considered a Peruvian classic, it is a product of the chifa culinary tradition which fuses traditional Peruvian foods with Chinese techniques and ingredients. It is typically prepared by marinating strips of sirloin steak in vinegar, soy sauce, and spices, and stir-frying these with tomatoes, onion, and parsley. Lomo saltado is typically served with both rice (which is typical in Asia) and fried potatoes (which are native to Peru.)
Ceviche, the country’s national dish, is another example of how cultures have mingled over the centuries to produce a food which is uniquely Peruvian. Ceviche is prepared by marinating raw fish with limes, onions, and ají amarillo and rocoto peppers. The limes “cook” the fish, making it possible to consume immediately. While ceviche’s precise origins are murky, it is almost certain that the current iteration of the dish came about after Spanish colonization, as limes were brought to Peru from Spain. Ceviche is typically served with sweet potato, cancha, or yuca, is garnished with lettuce.
Craving Peruvian flavors? Try our Peruvian Spice Blend. It’s a robust combination of aji amarillo and aji panca chiles with citrusy notes and herbal aromas. Use it to bring bright, spicy flavor to seafood dishes and more.