I headed off to Peru with a bit of a stereotype in my head that all South American food revolved around chilli. That turned out to be way off the mark. Although chilli pops up in plenty of Peruvian food, it normally lends only a very mild flavour, rather than blowing your tastebuds out of your mouth.
The potato is the staple food in Peru, where they grow about 2000 different varieties (according to our local guides). Although some form of potato turns up as a side vegetable in pretty much every meal, there are some traditional dishes where the potato is the star, like ocopa (potatoes with a sauce made from chilli, walnuts/peanuts, huatacay and cheese), papa a la huancaina (sliced potatoes with a spicy cheese sauce) and causa (mashed potato with lemon, onion, chili and oil - often served with chicken, seafood or avocado).
Given the long coastline of Peru, seafood is also an important part of its cuisine. Lima is famous for cerviche, which is seafood marinated in lime juice, onions and chilli. The seafood isn't cooked - it's just served once the seafood has been marinated for the appropriate time. Cerviche is traditionally served with raw onion, boiled sweet potato and giant corn kernels. I had some fish cerviche in Lima, and it was delicious (see photo).
When it came to meat, I tried beef, chicken, duck, pork, alpaca and guinea pig (look out for the post on that one). Some of the traditional meat dishes are lomo saltado (slices of beef stir fried with with onion, tomato, soy sauce and chilli), arroz con pato (duck with coriander flavoured rice - see photo), papa rellena (potato stuffed with minced beef, egg and olives) and aji de gallina (chicken with a creamy spicy sauce).
We also came across some plants and cereals that I hadn't tried before - quinoa, kiwicha and kaniwa. Quinoa forms an important part of the locals' diet in the south of the country, especially around Lake Titicaca, where I had some delicious quinoa soups.
Peru has some fantastic desserts. My favourite was suspiro limeno, which is an incredibly sweet dessert made from condensed milk. It was so good I'm going to put up a separate post with the recipe. Other desserts include locally flavoured ice cream (like prickly pear or lucuma) and alfajores (small biscuits with a caramel filling).
Being a bit of a snack food addict, I was glad to find Peruvians shared my love of snacks. In every town there were snack stands on most corners, selling things like fried plaintain chips (my favourite snack in Peru), peanuts, Brazil nuts, crunchy fried corn kernels, biscuits and all kinds of chocolate bars. Most of these snacks cost 1 Sol (about 40 Australian cents) so I tried plenty of them.
Pisco sour is probably the most famous drink in Peru. Pisco is a grape brandy, made in Peru. Apparently Peru and Chile have an ongoing argument as to which country first made pisco. Anyway, the pisco sour is a cocktail made of pisco, lime juice, ice, sugar and egg white. It ends up as a fairly frothy cocktail and is served with a few drops of bitters or sometimes cinnamon (see photo). They taste great and plenty of restaurants would offer a free pisco sour to get you in the door. Now that I'm back in Brisbane, I'm on the hunt to track down a bottle of pisco. If you've seen any in your local bottleshop, please let me know.
We also got to try chicha, which is a home made corn beer (see photo). It tasted ok, although it's pretty filling. An enormous litre sized glass of chicha costs about 40 cents, so you can see why its popular with the locals. There's also a strawberry flavoured chicha for the ladies.
There are of course local beers (like Brahma, Cristal and Cusquena) and there is some wine made in Peru, although I didn't get to try any. My local drink of choice (when I wasn't drinking pisco sours) was Inca Kola.
Inca Kola, although called cola, is actually bright yellow and tastes like creaming soda. Not exactly what you'd expect from cola, but I was a big fan.
I also drank plenty of coca tea, especially at altitude. It's supposed to help out with altitude sickness. Generally it's made by just throwing a handful of coca leaves into hot water. Although they do grow some coffee in Peru, we had a hard time finding a good cup of fresh coffee. The hotels usually served this incredibly thick stuff, that was so strong it had to be diluted with lots of hot water and milk. One morning I made the mistake of pouring about a third of a cup of condensed milk into my coffee (thinking it was milk) only to end up with the sweetest coffee ever.
Of course there's no way I can do any justice to the amazing variety of Peruvian cuisine in one post, but hopefully this gives you some idea of the delicious food on offer in Peru. I've got a few more Peru posts in the pipeline, so keep your eyes out for those over the next week or so.