Ceviche, Coca, and Chifa
Things that I Missed about Peru
After a four-month hiatus, we’re back back in Lima. We kept busy during that time-we swam in cenotes in the Yucatan, experienced the highs and lows of Quito1, enjoyed a vacation in the Galapagos, and caught up with friends and family. I spend most of the year outside of Peru, but when I think about the comforts and familiarity of home, I usually think about Lima.
To get back into writing, here’s a quick list of things that I missed most about Peruvian food:
I eat ceviche just about every day when I’m in Peru and never get tired of it. Ceviche is widely available in both the Yucatan and Ecuador, but in our experience, it just wasn’t the same. The fish wasn’t as fresh, the portions were not as generous, and the flavor tended to be one-note.
For the ceviche we had in the Yucatan, we chalk a lot of the disappointment to being in areas where restaurants catered mostly to tourists. (However, we regularly enjoy ceviche at tourist favorites in Lima such as Rosa Nautica.)2 We tried most of the places recommended online but were happiest when we found a great small pescadería two blocks from our Airbnb in Tulum, and Mariela could make ceviche and aguachile at home.
As for Ecuador, Quito (where we spent most of our time) isn’t near the coast so I wouldn’t necessarily expect the seafood to be as varied or to be freshly caught that day. Though, Guayaquil is a port city and the ceviche we tried there wasn’t much better. However, we did have a very enjoyable crab dinner on the riverfront on our last night.
Our disappointment with the ceviche we tried in Ecuador mostly had to do with the preparation. We were surprised to learn that oil and water were commonly added to the ceviche, giving it a bland taste at best and a muddy taste in some cases.
Simply put, for me, Peruvian ceviche is simply unique in its flavor and variety. I always look forward to the first ceviche of a stay3. That’s how I know I’m home.
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You can find Chinese food just about everywhere in the world nowadays, but chifa4 (Peruvian Chinese fusion) is unique to Peru. In addition to common Chinese dishes like wonton soup, fried rice, and duck, Chifa has its own unique dishes.
It’s not the specific dishes like Kam Lu Wantans that we miss but rather the overall experience. I miss reading and re-reading the big menus even though I usually end up with the same order. I miss the bold flavors of ají (Peruvian pepper) and sillao (soy sauce) combined with the aroma of the wok. I miss both the easy Chifa takeout order and the Chifa restaurant experience whether it be dinner at Chifa Titi or a dim sum brunch.
3) Coca Tea
Coca tea has become part of my daily routine. It has replaced my second cup of coffee. I simply love the earthy flavor of coca leaves.
Coca is banned in the United States due to a massive misunderstanding so it’s something that I look forward to enjoying while in Peru.
It was surprisingly hard to find coca leaves in Quito. We looked in several local markets. We found some old-looking tea leaves in small plastic bags marketed towards tourists in the artisanal market. Eventually, we settled on a box of tea bags-imported from Peru.
4) The Familiar and the Frontier
The number one thing I missed about Peruvian food is the perfect mix of the familiar and the frontier. Now that we’ve spent several months in Lima together, we have our favorite spots in Lima and other parts of Peru. Sometimes, it’s nice to have the comfort just returning to place that we’ve been before. I don’t even have to take pictures because we’ve already enjoyed the same dish at the same restaurant several times (but I usually do anyways).
What I truly love about Peruvian food and excites me about each visit is that there’s always more to learn and that Peruvians are always eager to share and talk about the food.
I remember Mariela asking a question about the difference between two types of tacos on the menu at a hole-in-the-wall during our trip to the Yucatán and getting a very terse answer. In Peru, that question might have sparked a couple hour conversation with the owner. In fact, a lot of my writing is inspired by these types of conversations.
I’m in Lima for two more months which is plenty of time to revisit favorites and discover new places (we make every meal count!). I hope to share more stories about Peruvian home cooking as we set-up our kitchen. We also hope to do a couple of semi-spontaneous trips to other regions in Peru. Our short list currently includes Arequipa, Ica, and Ayacucho. Now that we have a home base, it’ll be nice to go somewhere and not to have to haul all of our stuff!
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Literally-the altitude is no joke.
For a while, I tried avoiding ceviche at more expensive restaurants that are in guidebooks in favor of more local spots. I’ve since learned to embrace both. In general, Lima ceviche has a high baseline for quality. At more upscale places, there’s a difference in presentation and quality, but a lot of the difference in price goes towards the ambiance, service, and view. Ceviche that is twice as expensive doesn’t usually mean that the ceviche is twice as good.
I’m looking forward to the day that I can go straight from the airport to a cevichería, but with a reduced number of flights to Lima, the timing hasn’t quite been right yet.
I occasionally see restaurants with “chifa” in their name in other Latin American countries, but their menus look more like Chinese takeout menus in the US than the menus of Peruvian Chifas.