The Essence of Arequipa's Picantería Food
The food in Arequipa is much more than meat and potatoes
One of the questions always in the back of my mind as I travel to learn about food is “What makes a great version of a particular dish?” I thought about this a lot as I spent a month in Arequipa back in 2016, working my way through the large repertoire of local dishes. Most places have a couple of specialty dishes to try, but Arequipa has dozens.
After trying several versions of each, I formed my own opinions of what made a great costillar (lamb ribs) or chupe de camarones (prawn chowder). However, I wanted to know what the locals thought separated good from great when it comes to traditional picantería food.
What is Picantería Food?
The term, picanteria, refers to a type of local eatery and gathering place with a special place in Arequipa’s history and culture. If you head to Arequipa, you have to try at least one picantería.
Picanterías have a shared history and several defining attributes. Picanterías usually only serve lunch and serve a repertoire of traditional meat and potato dishes including rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper served with a layered potato cake) and chupe de camarones (a chowder featuring Arequipa’s prized prawns). Soups are a major part of picantería fare. There’s a traditional soup for every day of the week.
Picanterías evolved from chicherías, gathering spots where locals got together to drink chicha de jora, a beverage fermented from corn. Eventually, chicherías started serving food to accompany the drinks. Although the name, picantería derives from the word picante for ‘spicy,’ a majority of picantería dishes aren’t actually too spicy.
The role of picanterías transcends the food. While picanterías have their root in the drinking culture, they have evolved into civic places where men, children, and women gather to celebrate their culinary heritage.
Throughout Arequipa’s history, picanterías became known as democratic venues where people from all walks of life could come and exchange ideas. Poets and musicians would come to perform regularly.
Picanterías continue to be a central part of Arequipa’s culture and an uniting force among Arequipians. Locals have spirited debates about which picantería is their favorite, but they all agree on their love for the hearty dishes that picanterías serve daily.
Asking the Locals—”What makes picantería food great”?
One bite and you can tell that the food in Arequipa is rich in flavor. There are many dishes to get to know in Arequipa. And many picanterías to choose from. Given all of the choices, how does one choose which picanterías to go to and what to order? How does one ever choose a favorite with so many dishes to choose from?
To find these answers, I decided to be an extrovert for a day and ask the patrons at La Capitana, a popular picantería in Arequipa. I asked the people who had eaten picantería food their whole lives what their favorite dish was and why.
I also wanted to know what they liked La Capitana in particular and what made La Picanteria’s version of a dish especially good.
It happened to be a holiday when I conducted my interviews which meant that I was able to capture a diverse sampling of patrons of La Capitana and their opinions. I ended up interviewing pretty much all of the customers that day.
A Diverse Set of Answers
As I am unpacking my camera at a table, a father and son ask if the other seats are free. They became my first interview subjects.
Juan Carlos Fuentes explained to me that there is a soup for every day of the week and that this soup of the day happens to be his favorite. For example, on Monday, there is chaque soup that is made with the inside of the cow, and on Tuesday, it’s chairo, a soup that has beef, potatoes, and barley.
The soup comes with a choice of a segundo (main dish) from a list of six or seven options. He says that he likes food at La Capitana because it is cooked like food was cooked 100 years ago with a wood oven which gives it a natural, smoky flavor.
The son doesn't tell me his favorite dish but tells me he's bored. His dad explains that since it's a holiday, he doesn't have kids his age to play with today.
Juana Rivera Coayla said that picante de cuy is her favorite because cuy is “muy sabroso” or very flavorful. Many people told me that a particular dish was their favorite because it was flavorful.
I tried to probe deeper. It took me some practice and creativity to ask the question from different angles in Spanish in order to get people to elaborate further. The answer always seems to come back to the flavor
Mario Adelqui Paz Caceres said that his favorite dish was the special of the day but went on to list other dishes including recoto relleno, cuy, and papas (potatoes). Then, he summed up his opinion by saying, “younger people have a preference but old people eat everything.” There’s a lot of truth in that answer.
Lizardo Salas Carpio said that his favorite dish is chaque because it is a dish that is substantial. He says that this dish is particularly good when cooked with the natural flavor of the wood fire.
Iwo Ortega (not pictured) also likes chupe de camarones because it has a lot of flavor and is a very traditional dish for special occasions. He points out that the shrimp in Arequipa are different from the ones in the US. He reiterates that the quality of the shrimp depends on the river.
Jennifer Ramon Qwintazi had a hard time picking a favorite but says that chancho al horno has a unique flavor and especially likes the combination with the salad that comes with it. She likes the version at the La Capitana because it is more traditional.
Silvio Roman Medina (not pictured) said that his favorite dish is Sencca. He explains that it is a dish made with meat from the nose of the cow. He likes the mix of flavors-peppers, onions, and the meat. It’s juicy and flavorful. He likes the Capitana because it has a lot of history and captures the traditions of the people in Arequipa. He likes to come here because families sit together at the same table even if they don’t know each other.
Marco Delgado likes Caldo Blanco because of its flavor and Locro de Pecho because of the meat and potato combination. He says that you can tell a good locro by its color and that La Capitana has the right color and texture.
Mario Urquizo Tapia likes Cuy Chactado. He likes the version at La Capitana because they cook the whole animal from head to tail including the eyes and the brain. He also likes it because it has a crunch, like a cracker, and also likes that there is not too much fat.
I ask for a photo, he consents, and then turns around and continues eating.
At this table, Wilfredo Zawalaga (the father) likes the Locro in La Capitana because it has the flavor of home cooking. Angela (the mother) likes Chaque because it has a variety of meats, potatoes, and vegetables, and she thinks that the part of the lamb used (the intestines) is very tasty. I then ask the kid, Joaquin, about his favorite dish and he immediately says Pastel de Tallarin for the cheese.
Elena Espinoza can no longer see, but her caretaker brings her to La Capitana every day. Soltero de queso is her favorite because it uses very traditional cheeses.
La Capitana is located at Calle los Arces 209 in Arequipa.
This story is a rewrite of a couple of stories I had originally published in 2016 on my defunct WordPress blog. I rewrote the introduction, but most of the interviews remain intact.
This set of interviews was one of my favorite things that I did as part of my original research for my guidebook. It was partially inspired by a couple of This American Life episodes including the classic one that documents 24 hours at a diner. I miss the “slice of life” style of reporting even though it’s a bit quaint now.
Looking back, I am in awe of my younger self. I’m not sure if I would have quite the same courage, if you can call it that, to interview everyone at a restaurant. I went from these interviews to interviewing people at a food festival. I even made a couple of friends along the way. Then through sheer persistence, I scored interviews with two of the top chefs in Peru which I hope to share with you next year.
I also spent a day behind the scenes at La Capitana. Look for that story soon!
This story focuses on La Capitana, but there are many other great picanterías you should try. The Arequipa section of my guidebook recommends other favorites and provides detailed descriptions of must-try picantería dishes.
Many thanks to Giancarlo Palao Díaz for allowing me to interview the customers at La Capitana and helping me with the translation. Thank you to Tom Diaz and Paola Cuba for helping introduce me to Arequipean cuisine and continuing to answer my questions seven years later.