Arroz con Mariscos at El Mercado, Lima
The Best Thing I've Ever Eaten
Quick intro—I’m Sutee. I started out in Peru as a tourist but then stayed for a while. I hung out in two restaurant kitchens in Cusco to learn and then started traveling all over Peru to interview chefs, cooks, and everyday people about food. This story is about the best thing I’ve ever eaten after more than a thousand meals in Peru.
The best thing I’ve eaten was the Arroz con Mariscos (rice with seafood) at Chef Rafael Osterling’s El Mercado in Miraflores, Lima.
El Mercado is my favorite restaurant in Peru which makes it my favorite restaurant in the world since if you can’t tell by now, Peru is my favorite place to eat.
Peruvian Arroz con Mariscos (rice with seafood) is a staple of cevichería menus. The seafood featured varies from restaurant to restaurant but can include octopus, shrimp, clams, scallops, and fish. Little bits of seafood and vegetables are mixed into the rice. Then the rice is usually topped with choice pieces of seafood such as scallops in the shell. The warmth and savoriness of the arroz con mariscos pairs nicely with ceviche.
The thing that I loved the most about the Arroz con Mariscos that I had at El Mercado was that every bite was different. Every bite had a slightly different combination of seafood and flavors.
Unlike in a tasting menu where one or two bites are all you get, a plate of Arroz con Mariscos is generally generously portioned. Honestly though, if I’m eating a typical plate of Arroz con Mariscos by myself, I will get bored with it by the time I get to the end. That’s one of the reasons why when at a cevichería, I usually think it’s better to order a couple of plates to share.
At El Mercado, I was glad to have the whole plate to myself. It was delicious to the last bite. There were so many great seafood components in the dish, all freshly caught. There were little bits of calamari and fish mixed into the seafood. Then, the dish was adorned with two large scallops in the shell.
Fresh seafood was the start but not, but not enough to elevate the dish to the favorite thing I’ve ever had. Fresh seafood is everywhere in Lima, so much so that it’s easy to take fresh seafood for granted in Peru.
The rice was packed with flavor. The base flavor of the rice captures the rich essence of the seafood. Layered on top, the rice had a smoky flavor, a bit like the wok hei or “breath of the wok” that’s so coveted in Chinese cooking. Finally, the combination of Peruvian peppers that infused the rice added acidity and a tiny bit of heat.
Finally, the dish was topped with salsa criolla, the ubiquitous condiment consisting of red onions and lime juice. The salsa criolla added acidity and contrast to the savoriness of the rice.
The layers of flavor and texture with both bold and subtle notes made eating the Arroz con Mariscos at El Mercado an absolute pleasure. One bite would be slightly smokier while the next would have a bit more acidity. Every bite was interesting in itself. Often the first bite of a dish is the best one. This Arroz con Mariscos was having the first bite over and over again.
Rice and Seafood, More than the Sum of its Part
On the surface, seafood rice is a simple dish. It’s certainly not as intricate as the dishes that many of my gourmand friends describe as being their favorite meal.
And let’s get this out of the way—I am not particularly fond of rice nowadays but yet I am consistently drawn to Arroz con Mariscos. I have great memories of the sizzling jasmine rice soup my mom made us on Sunday mornings growing up, but most rice that I come across nowadays, both on my travels and in meals in Peru is filler, remnants of a farm diet where you needed the energy to put back into the field.
And even though I don’t go out of my way to order rice, I have to say that the white rice in Peru is good. You can almost eat it plain. Without anything added, when cooked, the rice tastes like a couple of dollops of butter were added.
I am not a rice lover, but I am a seafood lover. What makes Arroz con Mariscos better than a seafood dish revolving around seafood with no rice like a scampi? Well, when cooked properly, rice becomes a perfect vehicle for deep flavors. In a good Arroz con Mariscos, you can taste the essence of the seafood as well as the smoky flavor from the plancha.
The rice also becomes an easy way for textures to be layered. The grains of the rice provide the foundation with the slivers of calamari and chunks of the fish comprising the middle layer. The featured seafood including the shrimp and scallops are delicately cooked round out the dish.
Everyone enjoys Arroz con Mariscos a little differently. Personally, I like to save the best for the last bite. For me, the best bites are the scallops. If I’m eating Arroz con Mariscos alone and there’s one scallop, I’ll save it for the end. If there are two scallops, I’ll eat one right away and save the other. Some like to jump in and eat the best right away.
Most of the Arroz con Mariscos I have are at hole-in-the-walls or family restaurants. If a restaurant has good ceviche, the Arroz con Mariscos will likely be good as well. Arroz con Mariscos helped me get through the tail end of the pandemic shutdowns. We would always order ceviche and then either chicharrón de pescado (fried fish pieces) or Arroz con Mariscos. Like ceviche, Arroz con Mariscos varies from place to place, and the variety was something we looked forward to each day.
I’ve only had one or two bad Arroz con Mariscos out of dozens which is a testament to the overall caliber of food in Peru. The main reason I’m even bringing up the bad Arroz con Mariscos is that having the bad stuff helped me appreciate a couple of subtle qualities that make a good Arroz con Mariscos. With a good Arroz con Mariscos, the grains start to mesh together. With bad versions, each grain is a little hard and completely separate. Bad versions also are overly spiced in one direction and don’t have the layers of flavor I described above.
Arroz con Mariscos, a Cevichería Classic
Arroz con mariscos is a cevichería classic. It features a variety of seafood including octopus, shrimp, clams, scallops, and occasionally fish. The warmth and saltiness of the arroz con mariscos provide a nice counterweight to the ceviche.
Like many great Peruvian dishes, Arroz con Mariscos exhibits a wide range. There are everyday versions that help fill out a meal at a ceviche stall and ones that you savor on the weekends. Decadent versions of this dish feature whole seafood with fresh clams and scallops. Cheaper versions like the ones served in market stalls tend to use chopped seafood.
Arroz con mariscos is often enjoyed as part of a larger meal. It can be ordered as part of a combination platter with ceviche. You generally can build your own combination by choosing between ceviche, chicharrón de pescado (fried pieces of fish), chaufa de mariscos (fried rice with small pieces of seafood), and arroz con mariscos. When ordered as a stand-alone entrée, the dish generally has more seafood and a couple of big prawns and/or conchas (scallops in the half shell).
Try Arroz con Mariscos
El Mercado is located at Av. Hipólito Unanue 203, Miraflores 15074, Peru
Al Toke Pez is located at Av. Angamos 886, Surquillo, Peru
Buy a copy of my guidebook
If you’re headed to Peru or want to help support my writing, please purchase a copy of my guidebook that covers 100 dishes including Arroz Con Mariscos plus recommended restaurants including El Mercado.