Peru's Favorite Dishes
A lightning round of the classics
In this post, I will explore the top 20 Peruvian dishes (and then some). This list takes you all over Peru from the coast where you find exquisite seafood to the Andes featuring hearty vegetables and grains growing in the fertile soil to the jungle with its unique fruits and Amazonian fish.
In honor of Peru’s Independence Day, El Trinche, a website devoted to stories about food in Peru and Latin America, recently published a list of the top 100 Peruvian dishes and the top 46 Peruvian desserts. The list has been making rounds on social media, and I thought it would be fun to do a run-through of my personal thoughts on some of the top dishes.
This post will be a lightning round. I will run through the top twenty dishes one by one and then jump around and selectively discuss dishes in the remainder of the list. I won’t spend too much time defining a dish and will link to past writing when relevant.
I’ve also only lightly edited this post in order to capture initial thoughts and to avoid reworking it too much.
Each of these classic dishes has its own rich backstory. They also have been interpreted countless times. An interesting theme for me is to try dishes in the street and then the refined version at one of Peru’s top restaurants. I could easily write a post about just about any of these dishes. I take a copious amount of notes when I try a dish for the first time and generally wait to write about dishes once I stumble upon the right hook or inspiration. With this post, I wanted to highlight the breadth of Peruvian cuisine.
What’s in a list?
Before we leap in, I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about lists in general which is why I’ve thus far avoided publishing lists, instead preferring deep dives into specific dishes or restaurants. This doesn’t mean that I won’t ever publish lists here; I just haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing it. I already include lists of dishes and restaurants around themes in my guidebook, but I don’t rank them. I don’t present them as definitive either, instead including them as starting points for learning about particular themes within Peruvian cuisine. Recently, I’ve started coming around to lists to some extent, at least as a starting point for conversation.
That being said, El Trinche does a good job with their list. Their list is compiled from the top 5 picks from 300 cooks, baristas, coffee growers, chocolatiers, winemakers, producers, farmers, and journalists. I also appreciate that the list was presented with humility. They describe the work that went into compiling the list as “ant’s work.” Finally, I like that they don’t force competition between dishes that are tied in ranking.
You can see the fruits of their labor in the quality and breadth of the list. The list includes a lot of very regional dishes. Reading through the list will take you all over Peru including the coast where seafood is plentiful, the Andes with hearty dishes that celebrate the bounty of the soil, and the jungle teeming with fruits and giant fish.
My initial reaction to the list is that I agree with almost everything on the list. Of course, my personal ranking would be slightly different, but I would be happy to eat just about anything on the list for lunch with few exceptions.
I’m skeptical of lists as a writer, but as an eater, I’m a completionist. I like to try everything at least once.
When traveling to new places, I try to give myself enough time to try the top dishes at least once (without eating more than normal). Furthermore, I like to try dishes like ceviche and tacos in as many different places as possible while also leaving a meal to loop back to favorites. Much of my first few visits to Peru were dedicated to working through the classics that you can find throughout Peru and then traveling to Arequipa, the Amazon, and then the North Coast to try regional dishes.
The Top Twenty
The number one spot, not surprisingly, goes to ceviche. It’s also my personal number one. When I’m in Peru, I try to eat ceviche for lunch every day. Since there are so many diverse ways to prepare ceviche, you see variations of ceviche a few times in the list. Northern-style Ceviche (Ceviche Norteño at #26), for example, is becoming increasingly popular in Lima with restaurants like Cumpa.
Lomo Saltado (#2) was my original favorite. It was also a dish that represented a milestone in my ongoing journey to learn about Peruvian food. To me, Ají de Gallina represents the ultimate Peruvian comfort dish and is one of the first dishes I learned to make at home. Chupe de Camarones is a decadent chowder celebrating Arequipa’s prized ingredient—river prawns. I make sure I enjoy a bowl whenever I’m in Arequipa.
Arroz con Pato, rice with duck, is from Chiclayo in the North. I enjoy the rustic version of this dish along with the refined preparations at restaurants like Mayta and Fiesta. I find it fascinating that just about every culture has its version of Arroz con Pollo (chicken with rice). Peru’s version makes for good comfort food at home or for an inexpensive meal at a menú restaurant.
Seco de cabrito con frejoles, lamb stew with beans, makes for a great hearty, Sunday lunch especially if you’re in the North. I had a variation of this dish in Cajamarca that replaces simple beans with tacu tacu, and that was the most filling dish I’ve had in Peru and that’s saying quite a bit, given the standard portion sizes here.
Carapulcra is a traditional stew made with dried potatoes and ají panca. I like the version when it’s served with sopa seca (a pasta dish that translates as “dried soup”) in which case it’s called Manchapecho, a combination that appears at #17 in the list. El Bodegon’s Manchapecho is especially good. Part of the reason their version is so good is that it is topped with beautifully cooked pork.
I recently wrote about Pollo a la Brasa as the classic of the classics. I suspect if this list was simply a poll of all Peruvians, it would be higher on the list (perhaps even #1). Tacacho is a jungle dish made with mashed plantain and smoked meat (cecina). It is usually served as a side dish.
Pachamanca is a feast of different meats and vegetables cooked in the ground under hot stones. It’s something that you should experience at least once, in the most authentic way that your schedule allows.
Anticuchos, are a classic street food. I think they are best from places that make little else. Papa a la huancaína, potatoes smothered in a cheesy, yellow sauce are a classic starter. Seco con frejoles, beef stew with a side of beans, makes for a filling lunch.
Cuy Frito, fried guinea pig, is not surprisingly the favorite preparation for cuy. It’s a rare treat to be somewhere where they know how to perfectly fry the cuy. Traditionally, a perfect fry is achieved by submerging the cuy in hot oil and putting a stone on top which ensures that the cuy is fried evenly. Many times, cuy frito is used interchangeably with cuy chactado (#20).
Adobo arequipeño is one of my favorite soups as a meal. It features stewed pork in a broth made with ají panca and chicha de jora. The exact recipe is cloaked in secrecy and is made a little differently depending on where you have it. It’s best enjoyed on Sundays in Arequipa’s main square with the famous, crusty tres puntos bread.
Juane is a rice dish from the jungle made for travel. It consists of rice, chicken, olive, and an egg steamed in a bijao leaf. The street version is equally good if not better than any you’d get in a restaurant.
Arroz con Mariscos, rice with seafood, is a cevichería staple. I pick it over chicharron de pescado (fried fish pieces) if I get a duo. The version I had at El Mercado was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in Peru or anywhere else.
Patarascha, fish grilled in bijao leaf, is my favorite jungle dish especially when it’s made with paiche. It’s leaner and less carb-heavy than the other dishes you typically find in the jungle.
Cau cau consists of tripe stewed in ají amarillo. It typifies the kind of criollo dishes that use every part of the animal. Interestingly, I found that cau cau is like a magic phrase that unlocks more advanced recommendations. If I’m in a taxi and the driver asks me what food I’ve tried and I mention “cau cau”, I’ll get the real local recommendations versus the ones geared towards first-time visitors.
Ocopa is a potato salad from Arequipa in which boiled potatoes are dressed with a creamy huacatay sauce. From my experience in Arequipa, soltero (#28), was more popular than ocopa and easier to find on menus. Papa rellena, mashed potatoes stuffed with meat, is a filling appetizer or market snack.
Arroz chaufa is Peruvian fried rice. It evokes the anticipation of a Chifa meal. The Washington Post has a great piece on it here.
Thoughts on #21-100
Rounding out the list, there are many regional dishes and local variations of classic dishes that appear earlier in the list.
At #23, Puca Picante, a vividly red stew made of beef and beets from Ayacucho, is the first dish that I’ve not tried. I thought I had not tried Seco de Chabelo (tied for #22), a traditional dish that combines plantains and dried meat, but I later realized that I had it the last time we were in Piura as part of a shared platter. I had to look up Espesado (corn and meat stew), Chorizo Huamanguino (ground meat dish from Ayacucho), and Jamón de Carhuaz (a version of the Spanish jamón from what I can tell).
Sudado is a personal favorite (#28) that I’m a little surprised didn’t place higher. I’m even more surprised that Parihuela didn’t make the list at all. As a soup lover, I also would’ve added Sopa Criolla to the list. However, the list already well represents soups and stews.
If this list was just a popular vote, I suspect dishes like Tallarines Verdes that are commonly found on the chalkboards advertising daily specials at local eateries and market stalls would be higher.
Chiriuchu is one of Peru’s most epic dishes and is generally only served in Cusco on Corpus Christi during June. Chiriuchu originated in Cusco which was considered by the Incans to be the center of the universe. This dish brings together ingredients from all over Peru—fish eggs and seaweed from the coast, guinea pig and cheese from the Andes, and cecina from the Amazon.
Chanfainita (lung and potatoes) and Sangrecita (blood cooked with onions and other seasonings) are the only dishes on the list that I’d be hesitant to try. I’d be more likely to try Sangrecita and contemplate trying it every time we’re at Panchita. (I’ve had blood sausage before in other Latin American countries so don’t feel like it would be incredibly different).
Many people are aficionados of Chanfainita which features cow lung and will go to great lengths to find it. There’s even a place in my neighborhood that is well-known for it. I could probably be convinced to try it, after I tried everything else on this list...
Top Peruvian Desserts
In addition to the list of the top 100 (savory) dishes, there’s a whole other list dedicated to Peruvian desserts. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and thus can only name about a dozen Peruvian desserts off the top of my head. I was surprised to see 46(!) desserts on the “top” list. Like with the top 100 dish list, many of these are highly regional which explains why I had to look up about half of them.
Here are the desserts I do have experience with …
You see Suspiro de Limeña, the #1 pick, everywhere, but I feel like locals actually will line up for the #2 pick, Picarones (fried doughnuts made from squash). From my limited experience, suspiro tends to be treacly—too sweet for even those with a sweet tooth.
Picarones are everywhere and are sold at almost any event. However, it’s difficult to find truly good ones. Most don’t taste like squash which believe it or not is desirable for this dessert. Many picarones are also too heavy; good picarones should be on the light and airy side. Picarones are especially good after anticuchos (grilled cow hearts—#12 on the savory dish list).
Queso Helado is a famous dessert from Arequipa. Despite its name, there’s no cheese in the ice cream. The name comes from the fact that the texture is a bit like soft cheese. A good place to try queso helado is near the Mirador de Yanahuara where there are multiple vendors blocks apart.
Many think that #3 and #4 (Mazamorra morada—a pudding made from purple corn and Arroz con Leche—rice cooked in condensed milk and topped with cinnamon) is best when served together in which case it’s called a Combinado (#11). I like the cold version of Mazamorra morada, with a minimal amount of sugar so that you can actually taste the fruit that’s mixed in.
The difference between crema volteada (#8) and leche asada (#9) was a little hazy to me. Both seem like flan to me. Cema volteada has caramel while leche asada doesn’t. Crema volteada is cooked in a water bath while leche asada is cooked in an oven1.
King Kong is a fun name for a sweet treat from Lambayeque with alternating layers of cookie, dulce de leche, and fruit filling. Living up to its name, the dessert can weigh up to two pounds.
Tasting Table just published an interesting article about Rafañote, a type of Peruvian bread pudding. I didn’t realize this dessert (#10) was such a staple. This just goes to show that the dishes in this list are rich with stories. I also find it a fascinating example of how different people can choose entirely different paths through the universe of Peruvian cuisine.
These lists illustrate the range of Peruvian cuisine. There’s always something new to try! It’s important to keep in mind that this is still only a partial list. Gaston Acurio’s Peru book has 500 recipes from all over Peru, and I’m sure they eventually ran into space considerations. And then there are the dishes that are constantly being invented and reinvented throughout Peru.
Learn More by Buying a Copy of My Guidebook
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Where to Find These Dishes
To work your way through these dishes, I recommend giving yourself time. I provide recommendations for the best places to try these dishes in this special companion post for paid subscribers:
Main source: https://www.facebook.com/DolcePiacereOficial/posts/crema-volteada-vs-leche-asada-la-gran-diferencia-entre-ambas-es-el-tipo-de-leche/440856570596194/