Chifas, Cuy, and Aji: A Spicy Guide to Peruvian Cuisine
By Jessica Festa
When most people think of foodie destinations, places like Tuscany, Paris and Spain’s Basque Country usually come to mind. That was how I thought too, that is, until I went to Peru.
For those who enjoy trendy fusion restaurants, a trip to Peru allows you to sample dishes with a mélange of flavors for under one dollar. Cultures from all over the world, most notably Spain, Italy, West Africa, Japan and China, immigrated to Peru and influenced the cuisine of the region. For example, while Spain brought beef, pork, chicken and rice, the Chinese brought food items like soy sauce and introduced cooking techniques like stir frying. In fact, while traveling through Peru you’ll see many “chifas,” local restaurants serving Peruvian-Chinese food. In Latin America, Peru is by far the country with the most Chinese restaurants.
Peruvian cuisine is also largely influenced by its proximity to the Andes mountains. Potatoes and corn grow plentifully at high altitudes, and the country is home to hundreds of varieties of each. For centuries, these crops have been an important staple in the Peruvian diet dating back to when the Inca civilization inhabited the country.
When traveling through Peru, skip the Westernized restaurants and head to a local eatery. These places are easy to spot as they have special set menus posted on the door. You’ll be able to order soup, an entrée, juice and sometimes even a dessert for $0.75 to $5.00 depending where you are.
Deciphering the menu can be a bit of a challenge at times, but even when I ordered items I was unsure about, I always ended up enjoying the meal. Remember, food in Peru tends to be a bit spicier than in neighboring countries, so taste with caution. If you want to know if something is spicy you can ask, “Es Picante?” or “Is it spicy?” Additionally, if you’re not a fan of spicy food don’t use the “Aji,” the colorful sauce in the center of the table.
Some typical dishes you may find on a trip to Peru include:
Lomo Saltado For most visitors, Lomo Saltado ends up being the dish of choice. It has a creole and Asian influence — although you don’t have to go to a chifa restaurant to get it — and contains strips of sirloin marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and yellow aji peppers and is stir fried with tomatoes, red onions and parsley. It’s served with fried potatoes over rice.
Tiradito Often touted as the “younger brother” or “cousin” of ceviche, Tiradito is a Peruvian dish with Japanese influence as it involves eating raw fish similar to sashimi. Some people also compare it to Italian carpaccio. The dish, which is lighter and less oniony than ceviche, contains thinly sliced raw fish that is gently flattened and seasoned. Lime juice, yellow aji paste, garlic and sometimes ginger, celery, salt and/or pepper can also be used to flavor. It’s covered in a spicy sauce, and served with sweet potato and corn.
Papa a la Huancaina Originally from the city of Huancayo, this dish is now served all over Peru. It contains boiled sliced potatoes covered in a spicy and creamy “Huancaina” sauce. Typically, it is served cold as a salad with lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, black olives and kernels of white corn.
Aji de Gallina This dish is one of Peru’s most common, with thin strips of stewed chicken that are covered in a spicy, nutty orange sauce. Garnishes used are potato slices, black olives and hard-boiled eggs.
Papa Rellena Papa Rellena, or stuffed potatoes, is a traditional dish that features a baked potato filled with onions, garlic, olives, raisins, hard boiled eggs, chopped beef and spices. Once prepared, the meal is fried and served with spicy Aji sauce.
Anticuchos This colonial-era dish is a popular form of street food in Peru. The meal consists of pieces of grilled marinated beef, (usually the heart) and is seasoned with garlic, cumin, vinegar and aji panca. Typically, Anticuchos are served with potatoes and corn and dipped in spicy Aji sauce.
Cuy Once you see your food, there will be no question about what you’re eating. It’s a guinea pig, and in Peru they serve it with the head, appendages and all. Before you curse me and say how gross it is to practically eat your pet, I beg you to try the dish. The locals feed the pigs things like lemongrass and yellow carrot to enhance the flavor of the meat. The prepared dish actually tastes like a succulent piece of chicken — it’s fatty, juicy, and bursting with flavor. Moreover, it’s one of the country’s signature dishes.
Arroz a la Cubana This dish has a Spanish influence, and consists of rice, a fried egg, fried plantains and tomato sauce — very simple, yet full of flavor and filling.
Chocla con Queso Chocla is the name of a type of corn, while queso refers to cheese. This popular street food is a plump-kernelled Andean corn on the cob topped with fresh cheese, and sometimes spicy Aji.
Locro This hearty potato and cheese soup features other ingredients like avocado, corn, garlic and pepper in a milky broth.
About Jessica Festa Jessica Festa is a full-time travel writer who is always up for an adventure. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and finding places you don’t see in guidebooks. You can follow her adventures on her travel website, Jessie on a Journey.
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