The driver eyeballs us curiously in the rear-view mirror of his cab and opens his mouth to speak but we already know what he's going to say. The two burning questions on the tip of every Limeñan driver's tongue when they see two foreigners with a baby hop into the back of their tico taxi: “Where are you from?” and “Do you like the food in Peru?” Every taxi. Every time. I'd love to get the answers printed on a T-shirt and just point to my chest every time I'm asked.
Jokes aside, I do love the tasty dishes here so it's no surprise that Peruvians can deliberate proudly for any length of time over the varieties of their world-famous grub. It really is delicious. All except the guinea pig.
It dawned on me when I arrived just how big gastronomy is here after meeting so many young chefs, all chasing their culinary careers; studying to be a chef is definitely a popular path for students. Forget about anecdotal evidence, 'the proof is in the pudding' with Peru also making it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the diversity of its cuisine. Not to mention that our beloved capital city Lima boasts the fourth best restaurant in the world. You can imagine the excitement of the taxi drivers when I bring that one up in conversation!
Laura Ahmetasavic is a talented Latina chef based here in Lima. Passionate about food, she tells me: “The reason I love being a chef in Peru is that every dish has a background, a story of how it was concocted.” This lady always has something relevant to say and this time she really got me thinking. This isn't 'just another Peruvian food story' but more of a food history.
So here it is:
The top 5 most interesting food stories in Peru
I could never have imagined that one day I'd be in South America eating rice and cassava out of a Macaw-flower leaf picked from the Peruvian Amazon. At the time, I sat appreciating the novelty of the dish as much as the taste and, it was a poignant realisation that I had 'made it'; I had my dreams in the palm of my hands. I always knew I wanted to become the culture, not just to visit it and for this, I felt so lucky. It made me remember a lovely quote by Ellen Johnson: “If your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough.”
Juane de gallina (Photo: Carolina Rey de Castro/Living in Peru)
This is one of my all-time favourite dishes from Peru's jungle region; for me the candor and authenticity of the Amazon way of life is encompassed in this simple recipe. I read that Juane is a popular food with travellers because it can be neatly packed and preserved for days however, the fact that it's such a highly-celebrated dish is not only for its practicality.
Juane has a deeper spiritual significance in the region and symbolises a bridge between religion and the native way of life. It's traditionally enjoyed every June 24 during the festival of St. John the Baptist: one of the most important celebrations in all of Peru. A very important figure in the Amazonian region, 'San Juan's' obvious connection to water made the account of his biblical beheading popular in native communities, especially after Spanish missionaries came to Peru during the colonisation. It's a widely-accepted idea that Juane represents the head of John the Baptist too!
2. Papa a la Huancaina, or 'Potatoes of the Lady from Huancayo' – apparently
This was one of the first dishes I tried when I came here and I immediately loved it. Firstly, it's important to know that Peru has over 3,000 different varieties of potato. Originating from the Andes mountains, they were eventually exported east across the Atlantic after the Spanish conquests; the hardy vegetable was able to thrive in harsh temperatures, and so the potato eventually became one of the most important crops in Europe.
Rich and spicy, the cheese-based sauce itself was accidentally invented more than a century ago by a poor farming woman from Huancayo (a small town in the highlands of Peru). She created it to compliment the potatoes she was selling to the miners and railway men working on the Huancayo-Lima tracks. Today, the railway is the second highest in the world, following Tibet's Quinzang. The señora's salsa became so popular with the labourers that it even became the commemorative dish of the railway's opening. You could say that the Ferrocarril railway was built on papa a la Huancaina!
You can find the full story of the lady from Huancayo and her recipe on Travel Tips Peru.
The mysterious tale of ceviche. This is the most popular dish with foreigners, although I'm probably the only one who doesn't actually like it. For me its the texture and a the worry of playing Russian Roulette by eating raw fish. Ceviche came into existence as a seafood dish born somewhere along the Peru-Ecuador coast, where there is an abundant array of shellfish. However there are varying accounts of how exactly this popular dish first graced our taste buds. Some say that ceviche was a fish eaten by the Incas, and that the Spanish later gave it a zesty Mediterranean touch by adding lemons and onions.
Another rumour is that ceviche was created when some English people were watching fishermen on the coast eating their catches directly from the sea with nothing more than lemons and salt. In this scenario, the name '_ceviche_' was said to have been the locals' mispronunciation of 'see the beach', which is what the English onlookers said when they saw the fisherman eating straight out of the ocean. The term grew in popularity with local Peruvians and today there is a ceviche restaurant on almost every main street in Lima.
There are historians who believe that ceviche is truly Arabic in origin, brought to Peru by Arabian immigrants and re-invented by local Peruvians on the coast. An interesting theory. Whichever sequence of events tickles your appetite, it's certain that this combination of red onions and citrusy white fish is as full of history as it is goodness.
4. Lomo Saltado
In English, this means 'Salted Beef Loin' however, such a meagre translation doesn't do the plate any justice.
Lomo saltado (Photo: Geraint Rowland/Living in Peru)
British-Peruvian chef Martin Morales named lomo saltado as 'one of Peru's most loved dishes.' Combining Asian roots with Latino flavours, it's primarily known as Peruvian-Chinese fusion food. It's oriental tones stem from as far back as the 1850s, when waves of Chinese immigrants started arriving in Peru to replace slave workers. As a result of this, Asian culture became woven into the fabric of Peruvian society, which means that we can look at lomo saltado as a true (and edible) representation of true cultural integration. Today, Peru has one of the highest Chinese/Japanese populations proportionally in the whole of Latin America so it's no wonder that the food here depicts both a contemporary and historical view on immigration.
Yes, that is a guinea pig.
Even this native rodent has an age-old story behind its success as a national dish. Having been a Peruvian favourite since around 5000 BC, it's long been domesticated as a main food source by communities in the Andes mountains.
You can buy these pre-cooked in packets all around Lima, even in the supermarket next to the chicken breasts. I've never tried the guinea pig but if the lama in Arequipa was anything to go by, I'll be avoiding all 'steaks' made from native animals. At all costs.
Even still, the coolest thing I've discovered about this otherwise-fluffy house pet is its strong connection to Peruvian folklore. This four-legged critter is a significant part of religious ceremonies and folk medicine practices here in the land of the Incas which, coupled with the species' 7000-year-old presence, surely means it has more of a claim to Peru than the Spaniards ever did (oops, cheeky).
Well, in any case, it definitely earns its place as one of the top 5 most interesting food stories in Peru.
Natasha Russell is a British writer living in Peru. Passionate about world affairs and journalism for social change, she is currently studying for a Diploma in Freelance Journalism from BCJ and gaining field experience by writing for English news publications in Lima. You can read her blog here.