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Culinary hub: What are the most famous dishes from Peru?
Peru's heritage dishes have contributed immeasurably to contemporary foodie culture.
Like many Latinos, the first time I experienced Peru's most emblematic dishes was – dare I say it – outside of the country itself.
This is often the case because, over the decades, Peruvians have spread themselves far and wide, bringing their great culinary heritage to every place they go.
However, after dining at some Peruvian restaurants, I thought that I had a clear idea of exactly what Peruvian gastronomy was.
It wasn't until a Peruvian friend of mine, who works professionally as a chef, shattered my delusion and showed me what I had been missing.
The restaurant in question occasionally gave my friend the freedom to prepare special dishes and he would use this chance to serve Peruvian specialities such as ceviche and ají de gallina.
Not only did he prepare the dishes immaculately, but he also explained the intricate stories behind each one, highlighting the importance of the native ingredients that gave the food its unique flavors.
"You have to go to Peru to eat real Peruvian food," my friend told me.
When I finally went to Lima, I understood the complexity of Peruvian cuisine and had to agree with my friend.
There is probably no cuisine on the continent that is so complex and internationally recognized. The distinctive blend of indigenous, European, and Asian influences makes it truly unique.
Of all the traditional dishes the country has offered us, these five have impacted international cuisine – and my tastebuds – the most.
Ahhhh, ceviche! I have tried many versions throughout the continent. But without a doubt, it is in Peru where one can appreciate all the nuances that stem from this succulent dish, from the tanginess of the lime to the crunch of the red onion.
Perhaps it is the freshness of the fish or the experience accumulated over the years but it is here, especially on the coast, where you can get the best versions of this dish.
Consisting of seafood marinated in lime, ceviche is the result of an intense cultural mix, which includes Native Americans, Spaniards, and Asians.
It has several layers of flavor, presenting a unique freshness. And it is certainly one of my all-time favorite dishes.
Ají de gallina
This creamy stew, one of Peru's most popular chicken dishes, is a direct descendant of the milk-and-bread-enriched stews of Latin America.
Traditional cooks render the fat from the chicken skin to flavor the dish, but I prefer olive oil-based versions that allow the flavors to shine more brightly.
In Peru, the dish arrives at the table garnished with a side of juicy black olives, boiled potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. The usual accompaniment is white rice.
This dish seems very simple and, initially, I must admit that I didn't have much faith in it. But two unique aspects of this dish caught my attention, the beautiful yellow color that gives a distinctive aesthetic touch to the dish and the creaminess of the sauce, which is simply wonderful and makes it one of my favorites.
Rocoto relleno is a dish from the southern coast of Peru – more specifically, Arequipa.
It's made by stuffing rocoto, a spicy, thick-fleshed pear-shaped pepper, with beef tenderloin, peanuts, chopped onion, raisins, and cheese that is seasoned with spices such as native huacatay, cumin, and parsley.
For me, rocoto is one of the most wonderful culinary discoveries I have ever made. The rocoto is very spicy but it also has a slightly sweet taste. The mixture of the spiciness with the texture of the peanut and the flavor of the meat is simply unbeatable.
Papa a la huancaína
Papa a la huancaína is a popular appetizer in Peru. It is a simple dish consisting of boiled potatoes, bathed in an exquisite rocoto cream and cheese.
The sauce can be poured over hot or cold potatoes, whole or sliced. I once tried a version in which mashed potatoes are seasoned with lime juice, ground pepper, and a little oil, and shaped into balls. The texture and flavor are spectacular.
Peruvian food historians say that this dish comes from the city of Huancayo, in the highlands of the country, a place famous for its potatoes.
A railroad line was being built in Huancayo at the time. Street vendors offered their food to the hungry workers and they soon settled on a woman who sold a dish of cold potatoes soaked in a sauce made with fresh cheese and rocoto.
They called her huancaína, the woman from Huancayo, and her potatoes were nicknamed papa a la huancaína.
The version that is popular throughout Peru nowadays no longer uses rocoto but rather dried mirasol or fresh yellow chiles.
No round-up of Peruvian food would be complete without a mention of lomo saltado.
One of the great results of Peru's unique cultural fusion is this dish that combines local flavors with Chinese cooking techniques.
As its name suggests, the tenderloin is sautéed in a frying pan until it is properly cooked with a little vinegar and some spices, and then served accompanied by French fries and rice.
Lomo saltado is a dish whose origin dates back to the arrival of the Chinese Cantonese in Peru in the 19th century, who perfected this dish. Then it was known as lomito de vaca or lomo a la chorrillana.
Although many more dishes could be included, these five are the most important to me and should be tried by anyone interested in Peruvian cuisine.
But as my friend advised me: you have to go to Peru to try them.