My Peruvian Bookshelf
Where reading anything and everything about Peruvian food has led me
We recently returned to Lima. Each stay brings a new perspective on Peruvian food. This time, in addition to trying the new restaurants I’ve been reading about on Instagram, I’ve found myself embracing the comfort of being close to my books.
I savor being able to randomly leaf through one of my growing number of books on Peruvian food that are at an arm’s reach of my desk. It is one of the many things that make Lima feel like home.
There are so many facts that you could write about Peruvian food. Sometimes, being amongst books makes me feel like I’m in the company of others who came before me who also felt that these facts were interesting enough to commit to paper (I realize the irony of this, given that all of my writing is online).
Scroll down if you want to read about my food-writing recommendations about places outside of Peru.
Note: About half of my books about Peruvian food are in Spanish, but most have an English version. I’ve noted the books that are only available in Spanish.
Ceviche by Martín Morales was my first Peruvian cookbook. I bought it in Seattle at the wonderful Book Larder, a bookstore focused on cookbooks, years before I stepped a foot into Peru. At the time, I was exploring different styles and genres of cooking through monthly dinner parties and was interested in new cuisines that I wasn’t familiar with. I knew next to nothing about Peruvian food at the time so this book caught my attention.
The distinct cover with tiles etched into it definitely also made it stand out. The photography in the cookbook is some of the best in my cookbook collection. The photos feature bright colors and do a great job of evoking the freshness of the food sold in the street and in market stalls all over Peru. The book focuses on the dishes you’d find along the coast of Peru but includes other traditional dishes as well.
I haven’t cooked from this book yet even though I’ve owned it for the longest. However, I did bring this into work one day to show a Peruvian co-worker who told me that the recipes were accurate and that he would cook from the book which was all of the approval that I needed.
The de facto sequel, Andina focuses on the food of the Andes, particularly Arequipa. I like the fact that this book includes little vignettes about the people behind the food. I hope Morales makes this a trilogy and writes another book about the Selva (the Peruvian Amazon).
Peru by Gaston Acurio is an encyclopedic cookbook that showcases regional Peruvian dishes from all over Peru. If anyone can get away with simply titling their cookbook, “Peru,” it’s certainly Gaston Acurio, the chef who helped put Peruvian food on the map so to speak.
From the beginning of my journey into Peruvian food. I carried this book with me on my first journey around Peru.
The short descriptions which are only one or two lines long, convey a lot of interesting tidbits and helpful tips in little space. Many of these recipes feature ingredients that are difficult to obtain even in a market in Peru. Other recipes like “Sarsa de Criadillas” (Bull testicles marinated in vinegar) probably don’t mesh well with the typical reader’s palate. Collectively, however, they illustrate the vast range of ingredients, textures, and ideas that exist within Peruvian cuisine.
Another, encyclopedic cookbook that comes in two volumes is Tony Custer’s The Art of Peruvian Cuisine. The recipes are precise and laid out like a textbook. I think it would be an ideal reference if you are a chef or cook learning about Peruvian cuisine.
The Fire of Peru by Ricardo Zarate is probably the Peruvian cookbook that I would likely cook from the most. I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Ricardo Zarate, the LA-based, Peruvian-born author, or his restaurants before I bought the book. However, I was immediately drawn in by his personable and engaging style. Most Peruvian cookbooks have a short section summarizing the history of Peruvian food, and I think that his version is the best I’ve come across.
Zarate does a great job of choosing recipes that are interesting yet accessible. The instructions are clear, and Zarate manages to keep the number of ingredients under control. I also enjoy getting little peeks into Zarate’s childhood and journey to becoming a chef.
All in all, The Fire of Peru is one of my favorite books about Peruvian food, and because of acessibility and style, is the one I recommend that you go out and purchase the most.
Another quite approachable cookbook is The Peruvian Kitchen by Morena Cuadro.
As its name implies, The Latin America cookbook by Virgilio Martinez, with Nicholas Gill and Mater Iniciativa, is about much more than just Peru. In this book, Martinez delves into street food and the everyday cuisine of Latin America. Instead of the small, delicate bites that you see in Central and Mil, the book features dishes like bean and rice plates, sandwiches, and stews. There’s a whole chapter about corn which isn’t that surprising since Central has a course in its tasting menu (one of my favorites) called the Diversity of Corn.
The Latin America cookbook is a great reference book. It’s especially useful to disambiguate dishes when there are dishes in multiple countries with the same or similar names (for example, locro). Also, since I started cooking in college, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of “canonical recipes.” Based on my recollection of a streamed book talk about this book when it first came out, the team behind it doesn’t consider these recipes the canonical ones, but oftentimes, this is the closest thing that I’ve seen published for many of these dishes.
Unfortunately, because there isn’t currently an electronic version, we weren’t able to use the recipes when we traveled to Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina over the last two years. I also wish there was a better index that lists all of the recipes for a specific country. At home, I like hopping around and trying to find the first dish I see that I haven’t heard of, but when we travel it would be nice to be able to see all of the dishes for a region that we’re visiting.
Note: The recipes in Ceviche above are based on Morales’s restaurant in London with the same name, but it doesn’t feel like a restaurant cookbook so I included it above. The division is a bit arbitrary anyway since all of the cookbook authors in the Peruvian Cookbook section have restaurants.
The Central Virgilio Martinez and Nicholas Gill book is a beautiful overview of Peru’s culinary landscape. It juxtaposes photos of Peru’s stunning geography along with studio-perfect photos of the kind of dishes you’ll enjoy at Virgilio Martinez’s tasting menu at Central.
Along with descriptions of the ecosystem reflected in Central’s tasting menu, there are detailed recipes that break down each dish. Most dishes have multiple components, each of which has several or more ingredients. The number of ingredients in the recipes helps you further appreciate the craft and effort that goes into a tasting menu as ambitious as Central’s.
This is not a cookbook in a traditional sense. Many of the recipes feel more like a multi-day project than something you’d cook on a Sunday afternoon, much less a weekday. Back when I was living in San Francisco, my copy of this book spent a lot more time as a coffee table book than in the kitchen. I have plans to make one specific recipe from this book which will become a blog post once I get around to it.
Mil, another book by Virgilio Martinez and Mater Iniciativa covers the restaurant of the same name in the Sacred Valley. I don’t own this book yet and only got a quick look at it in the bookstore1, but it seems to feature longer descriptions of the story behind Mil as well as foldout pages with glossy photos.
If you are looking for a cookbook by Martinez that is easier to cook from, you may want to check out Lima the cookbook. I personally don’t love the photography direction of the book, but it’s worth checking out.
The El Mercado (Spanish only) cookbook by Rafael Osterling is one that I eyed for a while before finally splurging and buying a copy (cookbooks are generally more expensive in Peru than in the US). The book is from my favorite restaurant with the same name. Unlike some restaurant cookbooks, it does not linger too long into the backstory and founding of the restaurant before it dives into the recipes. However, I finally did figure out why the restaurant was called El Mercado—the restaurant’s original location was next to the market in San Isidro.
The book is neatly divided into sections for rompebocas (appetizers), sandwiches, ceviche, causas, sushi, and more. There are many seafood dishes from El Mercado’s current and past offerings.
I like the fact that the book features a dozen or more diverse recipes for each section. However, many of the recipes are a bit complex and represent a restaurant’s ability to have components prepped and ready. A typical ceviche recipe has three to four components.
The photography is crisp and beautiful. Unlike some cookbooks that incorporate images from all over Peru, the majority of the photos in this cookbook are all from the restaurant which is not huge. You see a lot of closeups of the dishes and beautiful human moments of the staff.
My cookbook collections doesn’t end there. I also enjoy A Comer! (a modern take on home cooking by the people behind A Comer.pe), En Familia by Teresa Izqueierdo (a small collection of recipes traditional recipes from the belated owner of El Rincón que No Conoces), and Cocina con Ximena by Ximena Llosa who presents internationally inspired recipes to a Peruvian audience. These are all in Spanish.
Most of my research into Peruvian food thus far has been primary research-interviewing everyone from the patrons at a local eatery to some of the most innovative chefs in Peru, looking at restaurants that I pass on walks, and, of course, tasting everything.
Recently, I’ve been interested in diving deeper into specific aspects of the history of Peruvian cuisine which means brushing off my Spanish reading skills2 and in some cases diving into academic research which I’ve never been too far away from because of my day job.
Cebiche Power (Spanish only) is a book that was written by Gaston Acurio more than ten years ago. I was lucky to find a used copy in one of the street book vendors in my neighborhood. Since then, it’s become one of my favorite books about Peruvian food. The first part of the book follows Peru’s coastline and examines the ceviche in each region while celebrating Peru’s beaches, ports, and majestic landscape. The book also includes regions like Arequipa that are not along the coast.
The second part of the book is a small collection of ceviche recipes written by Peru’s top chefs. The star power behind these recipes makes up for the small number of recipes.
One of the things I enjoy about this book is that it represents a trip back in time. The book was written in 2011 around the time of Peru’s gastronomic boom when Peruvian food leaped onto the world stage. Some of the restaurants mentioned in the book are no longer around, but many still draw dedicated patrons who seek the best ceviche Peru has to offer. The book also celebrates regional ceviche and the small eateries that are dedicated to their particular style of ceviche.
For information about specific topics within Peruvian food, the University of San Martin de Porres (USMP) publishes a lot of great books grounded in historical and anthropological research. I have books that they published on Ceviche, Pisco, and the history of Peruvian food. A few of these have been published in English and can be found at bookstores in Miraflores.
I particularly recommend Cebiche: The Taste of Peru by Mariano Valderrama which combines elements of an academic treatise with those of a coffee table book. The colorful collages and artwork peppering the book are a lot of fun. The book is shy of 200 pages long but does a thorough job of looking at the history of ceviche from many different perspectives. I saw many familiar stories that I’ve come across before, but Valderrama presents them with more academic grounding and investigation. For example, he explores whether the first ceviche was really made with sour fruits and gives more context about how Japanese immigrants helped broaden the spectrum of seafood used in ceviche.
Many of the books USMP publishes contain half history and half recipes, all centered around a specific topic. This gives me access to a lot more background reading and context than Peruvian cookbooks printed by the US market. However, you need to be careful in selecting the books. I accidentally selected a book about ají based on the cover, expecting information about their use in Peruvian dishes, but instead got what has a statistical census of peppers around Peru. Luckily, I was able to return the book (not always allowed in bookstores here).
Other Printed Matter
When I was around ten, I had a voracious appetite for written words. I didn’t limit myself to books. I would read anything and everything from cereal boxes to brochures to an entire almanac which happened to come with a copy of the game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego which happens to be where I first heard the names of some of the great world cities like Istanbul. This tendency to read everything has served me well in Peru.
Some of the best resources I’ve discovered are little booklets that I’ve discovered in newsstands, used book stalls, and occasionally gifted to me by people I meet. They are in Spanish and sometimes aren’t even ascribed to specific authors. I like these books because I feel like they capture a perspective on food that is closer to the local perspective. Online resources and other blogs are certainly useful for me to cross-check opinions or stories I gather from interviews or memories of personal experiences, but the perspective that emerges from online sources is increasingly shaped by algorithms.
These booklets generally fall into three categories: 1) regional guides, 2) restaurant guides, and 3) recipe collections.
The regional guides are often printed by travel agencies and other organizations like Marca Perú which promote tourism in Peru. They are the ones that have the cool Peru logo, inspired by Nazca lines, that you see around Peru.
The restaurant guides are published by travel agencies, banks, or even insurance companies. They are generally well-researched and while many recommendations are repeated across lists, there are usually a handful of gems that are unique.
The cookbooks are generally based around a specific theme like Chifa or a particular region. I find that these recipes are some of the most accessible in terms of the number of ingredients and the techniques involved. I also find them to be more similar to the way people cook at home than the recipes from restaurant cookbooks.
When you start reading this kind of stuff, you realize just how much information (and perhaps more importantly, perspectives) hasn’t made it online yet.
Other Books About Peru
The Moon Guide to Peru was the guidebook I brought with me on my first visit to Peru, and it continues to serve me well as a reference. I much prefer the recommendations and writing style of this book to that of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Peru. However, the food sections for both guidebook books are very scant which was one of my primary motivations to write a whole guidebook dedicated to Peruvian food.
I’ve been supplementing my knowledge of Peruvian history with Ricardo Palma’s Peruvian Traditions and The Lima Reader which includes the engrossing essay by Marco Avilés about “How Food Became Religion in Peru’s Capital City.”
I definitely could use more recommendations in this department. I really didn’t enjoy “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” (maybe simply because Hiram Bingham seems like such a contemptible person).
Food Writing about Places Outside of Peru
My interest in reading about food, specifically food rooted in place, began long before I visited Peru. Here are some of my favorite food writers and how they have inspired me.
I love Matt Goulding’s deep dives into the food cultures of Japan, Spain, and Italy. I quote Grape, Pig, and Olive quite a bit in my recent post about paella. His books were a constant reference for me as we spent the summer in Italy and Spain. Goulding’s writing is immersive and really takes you to the place, and he is the food writer whose works I’ve re-read the most.
My favorite regional cookbooks are those by Fuchsia Dunlop which focus on different regions of China. My oil-stained copy of Land of Plenty introduced me to the food of the Sichuan province and inspired many different dinner parties. Dunlop’s dedication to documenting regional Chinese cuisine is amazing. She was the first Westerner to graduate from the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and is fluent in Chinese.
My favorite anecdote that attests to Dunlop’s dedication to research is how Dunlop pieced together her recipe for Dan Dan noodles. She visited a famous street vendor multiple times over many years asking for a recipe. Each time he would leave out one or two ingredients, but each time, he would leave out different ingredients. Dunlop was able to eventually piece together the recipe which was published in Land of Plenty as well as her recent The Food of Sichuan.
Another author I highly recommend is Austin Bush. He did both the photography and writing for his book, The Book of Northern Thailand, and his upcoming book on food of Southern Thailand. His research is extremely thorough, his recipes are well-tested, and his photos really capture the spirit of the regions he covers. I’m saying all of this as a Thai American who grew up on Thai food and visited Thailand seven or eight times.
Last but not least, David Lebovitz is fun to read and live vicariously through. His ice cream cookbook, The Perfect Scoop, inspired me to make dozens of batches of experimental ice cream flavors (many involving chili peppers). I love learning about French cuisine through his eyes, starting with My Paris Kitchen and then continuing in his Substack. Though the specifics are different, I can relate to his stories about the trials and tribulations of buying and furnishing an apartment in another country.
Beyond the Bookshelf
A common theme that you may have gleaned from my capsule reviews is that I haven’t cooked from many of these books! There are several reasons for this. First, it took us much longer than expected to get our condo kitchen set up (story coming in a future post!) Also, I have to admit that it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to cook Peruvian food when 1) Mariela is such a good cook (and doesn’t use recipes so ignores my cookbook collection) and 2) there are so many restaurants in Lima that are on my list to try and new ones continue to pop up.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve been ignoring the recipes in the books. I refer to them quite a bit especially when writing about classic dishes or when I wonder how restaurants achieve certain effects.
I believe that trying to cook a dish is the best way to really get to know it. Thus, I plan to cook more dishes at home as part of some upcoming stories. I also have a couple of ideas for combining Thai and Peruvian flavors, but these kinds of stories take time to develop.
Finally, I’d like to reiterate that most of what I’ve learned about Peruvian food is through firsthand experience. Trying the food and talking to people is the most fun way to learn about the food. I spent a few months in Peruvian kitchens to learn and then traveled all around the country, interviewing chefs, cooks, and locals about food. That’s why I worked to fill my guidebook with practical information about what to eat and where to eat.
Buy my guidebook today
Speaking of books, if you’re interested in diving deep into Peruvian food, please consider buying a copy of my guidebook today! It’s full of mouthwatering descriptions of classic Peruvian dishes, high-quality photos, and personal recommendations.
Where to Buy Books in Lima
Finally, here’s where I recommend purchasing these books if you’re passing through Lima. They make great souvenirs and gifts!
Book Vivant (C. Miguel Dasso 111) juxtaposes wine and books in a well-curated selection. Plus it’s next to the Dasso location of El Pan de la Chola so you can start reading your purchase over a coffee alongside a pastry.
Babel Libería (Arístides Aljovín 421) is a cozy bookstore in Miraflores. I’ve learned about a lot of great books in Spanish on their Instagram.
El Virrey (Bolognesi 510) is centrally located in Miraflores and has a large selection along with a cafe that’s a nice place to just take a break and hang out.
I recently visited Feria Internacional del Libro de Lima, a book fair which takes place annually in August. I picked up an armload of books to fuel my personal research, some at a fairly steep discount. I was surprised at the size of the crowds. It’s almost not worth it unless you really plan to buy a lot of books.
Most of the restaurant cookbooks are available for sale at the restaurant.
Any recommendations for books about food rooted in a particular place? Please share!
Many books at bookstores in Latin America are shrink-wrapped. It took me a long time to realize that you can take a look at the book before you buy if you ask the employees nicely.
I personally find it much easier to read non-fiction in Spanish versus fiction, especially since my Spanish skills double when the topic is food. During the pandemic, I read several young adult fiction books in Spanish. I fell into a pattern. I would be strong and confident the first two chapters, but then as I progress, I would start not quite understanding more and more of the plot until I would completely be lost the final fourth of the book. I found it easier to read non-fiction books like Sapiens in Spanish when I knew what was going to happen ahead of time.