On the northern coasts of Peru you’ll find an abundance of unique ingredients and amazing flavors. Seafood is a staple part of the cuisine, but this culinary tradition could not be what it is without precious local ingredients, such as lemons, chilies, mangos, yuca, and plantains. Great food is everywhere, and there’s no escape! Here is a guide for eating well if you’re in Piura and Tumbes.
In the north coasts, great ingredients come from all around
Piura and Tumbes are coastal regions, but they also share dry forests, tropical zones, and mountains. With these diverse climate zones, it is no surprise that there are such a wide variety of ingredients that make northern recipes what they are.
One of the basic dishes in northern cuisine is cebiche. But if you think that you know cebiche by trying it in Lima, think again: it’s different here than in other parts of Peru. In the north, they coat the fish in lemon juice, and add onion, limo chili, cancha (roasted and salted corn), mote (boiled corn), and cassava. As a side, you’re likely to find zarandaja (boiled beans that are typical of the area). I’d recommend that you try a cebiche made from the tasty mero murique (a white, firm-fleshed fish). Other great options include sea bass, langoustines (small lobsters), crab, or mangrove scallops. Also, keep in mind that there are some types of seafood that might be endangered, and we would hope that you steer away from these options. It’s always a great idea to ask your server what is currently in season and to stick with these choices.
Soup, broth, and chowder
The soups, broths, and chowders prepared in the north are amazing. They are fixtures of the picanterias and chicherias (traditional lunch shacks) that you can find all over the north, especially in Catacaos, and Chulucanas (Piura). From the fresh cebiche, to the mighty sudado (a cross between a soup and a stew), the dishes are prepared from whatever is at hand on a particular day. The sudado broth is made from tomatoes, chili peppers, and chicha. It’s then poured into a deep bowl, over-top a portion of fresh-caught fish. You’ll typically find this dish accompanied with cassava, and steamed rice.
A traditional Northern Peruvian lunch starts with a chilcano, also known as ‘raise-the-dead broth’. It was traditionally made in Tumbes and Piura from fish heads, cochayuyo (a seaweed), and lemon. But in recent years this dish has evolved, and it is not necessarily made from fish heads anymore. Chilcanos are typically topped with fresh lemon, chili pepper, and parsley or coriander. Finally, a chupe is a stout broth containing milk, eggs, and sometimes pasta. Though it’s served as an appetizer, helpings are usually so large that it can be a main course in its own right. With that in mind, take my advice: split a chupe with a friend, or order it as your main dish.
One of the classic dishes in Tumbes is majarisco, made from fried bellaco bananas that are bathed in a sauce made from shellfish, squid, scallops, langoustines, fish stock, mangrove scallops, and octopus. It is seasoned with garlic, chili peppers, and coriander. Majado can be made using cassava, or stewed green bananas that are then mashed, mixed and served with a dressing made from onions, limo chili, and coriander. Traditionally, it is prepared using roast pork, but shellfish are fine as well.
Malarrabia is another stew, traditionally eaten on Fridays during Lent, especially in Piura. It is served with turmeric-flavored yellow rice, boiled and salted fish, green bananas, and an onion dressing. The entire dish is then covered with goat milk cheese.
As a starter or side dish at lunch, try a green tamale. The true green tamale from Piura is made from maize (sweetcorn), coriander, and pieces of cheese, chicken, or pork. Its slight sweetness creates a contrast with the other intense flavors of lemon juice and chili pepper.
There are many sweets to be found along the northern coast. I recommend that you start by trying the natillas, which are made from goat milk, flour, and chancaca (caramelized sugar). Other popular desserts are chumbeque de miel (a sweet cake made from egg yolks, spices, and honey), a soft toffee called manjar blanco, voladores, quesillo, and alfeniques.
Cover art: Ultimate Journeys
Credit: Ultimate Journeys