Boasting more than 2,400 kilometres of South America’s western coastline and bordering Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia, Peru is best known as the glittering heart of the Incan empire (1438–1532). After being conquered by Spain in the 1530s, it developed into a great centre of wealth and power. And since gaining independence in the early 19th century, the country – and particularly the capital, Lima – has grown to become the gastronomic megastar of Latin America, its indigenous cooking traditions having effortlessly, and often spectacularly, melded with western and Asian methods. "Peruvian food is everything to us," says Sydney chef Alejandro Saravia. "It’s a journey through history... and an explosion of new flavours."
The staples of indigenous Peruvian cuisine are corn, potatoes and chillies, and these have prevailed through centuries of colonial rule and immigration. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as potato have always been the hero, especially in the cooler mountainous areas. Many other traditional foods, such as the ancient crop quinoa ("keen-wah"), have increased in popularity in recent times, reflecting a renewed interest in native ingredients and cooking techniques.
Staples introduced by the Spanish included rice, wheat and meats such as beef, pork and chicken (alpaca was a primary source of meat in pre-Columbian times, and guinea pigs a favourite for roasting). Spanish missionary nuns can lay claim to the introduction of a more indulgent food, caramel, the basis of classic Peruvian dessert suspiro de limeña. Made from condensed milk and with a meringue topping, the "sigh of a Lima woman" is a sweet tooth’s sweet dream.
In the 1800s, Chinese labourers introduced ginger, soy sauce and woks, and the Japanese brought their own culinary traditions, including sashimi; African influences can be seen in dishes such as grilled beef kebabs; and signs of Italian and French abound. With many familiar ingredients from home unavailable, immigrants modified their traditional recipes using whatever was at hand. Hence unique fusions such as the Chinese smoky beef stir-fry lomo saltado, which boldly incorporates a Peruvian favourite, hot fried chips; and tiradito, which sees slices of raw fish arranged on a platter, sashimi style but doused in a mellow yellow chilli sauce.
Peru’s varied topography – coastal plains, the mountain ranges that form the country’s spine, and forested slopes that give way in the east to the Amazonian plains – has provided cooks with an amazing natural pantry of wonders. In Lima and on the coast, seafood is abundant and celebrated. It’s no accident that the national dish, ceviche (raw fish, lime juice, chilli, onion, coriander and perhaps a side of yams and corn) showcases fish at its freshest. In the Amazon basin, dishes take their cue from the forest: think heart of palm salad; grilled plantains with deep-fried beef; and juanes (chicken, egg and spiced rice wrapped in bijao or banana leaves). Peruvians love to cook their food in parcels, a technique also used to make the widely consumed Andean "bread of the Incas", humitas. While fillings may vary depending on region and occasion, humitas generally comprise puréed fresh corn kernels, milk, corn meal, onion and chilli cooked in lard and a soft white cheese, all wrapped in corn husks and steamed.
The drink of choice might be the national tipple pisco, a kind of brandy made from grapes brought from the Canary Islands in the 16th century. Peruvians are passionate about their national cocktail the pisco sour, made with egg whites, ice, lime and sugar. Corn beer is also popular, and can be enjoyed in local chicherías – corn beer bars where food is prepared over a wood fire in earthen pots.
View our Peruvian recipe collection here.
Translating to "sigh of a woman" and dating back to the 1800s, this is one of the best-loved traditional Peruvian desserts. The recipe's slow cooking process results in a golden, silky smooth caramel-like base, which is then crowned with a light and creamy liqueur meringue. Serve it with mixed berries.
While alpaca meat is not yet available commercially in Australia, it is much sought after by chefs. Prized for its delicate flavour, alpaca meat offers a great alternative to lamb. In this Peruvian recipe the shoulder is brined and then slowly cooked.
Sautéing over very high heat and flaming the meat gives this Peruvian dish its characteristic smoky flavour; saltado means "to sauté". Have all the ingredients prepared before you start this recipe because once you’ve begun, you'll need to work fast.
Known as "the bread of the Incas", humitas is a traditional food enjoyed throughout South America and a delicacy that dates back to pre-Hispanic times. Nowadays, there are many variations to the traditional way to prepare humitas. This is just one of those recipes.
It's extremely important that the seafood used for this Peruvian recipe is as fresh as possible, as it's a sashimi-style dish. Tiradito means to "throw" or to "place" which refers to the plating of this dish.