Five places to be happy (eating) in Arequipa, Peru

Rocoto relleno with Pastel de papas, a classic combo in Arequipa’s cuisine.
Photos: Eating in Arequipa.

Every time I return to Arequipa, I can’t help gaining some weight. It is quite inevitable. Anybody who has been in this city knows exactly what I am talking about. With such an abundant, spicy and delicious food, who wouldn’t?

Those bell-shaped spicy hot peppers, for example, known as rocotos rellenos, stuffed with a filling made of seasoned ground beef, dice-chopped onions, raisins, black olives and bits of hard-boiled eggs, topped with melting cheese and baked in the oven, generally served nowadays with a slice of delicious and creamy pastel de papas, is unique and originally from Arequipa. Sorry Cusqueños.

I could go on listing a dozen or more traditional dishes I’m actually craving as I write this piece. But rather than testing my abilitiy to describe food, I’d rather suggest some places where to get it in the gleaming White City, the name given to Arequipa due to the predominant color of sillar, volcanic rock-like material used to build churches, monasteries, mansions and palaces since its foundation in 1540.

I’ll include a traditional picantería, a couple of top-end restaurants, the market, and… a Turkish fast-food place. Surprised? Maybe you shouldn’t. The small but economically significant Middle-Eastern community -Syrians, Lebanese, Palestines and Turks of course- have lived in this city for, at least, a hundred years. And Arequipa loves their food.

Picantería, the real thing

Picante means spicy. Hence, picantería, a place where spicy food is served, and believe me, Arequipeños know their spice.

The origins of this traditional eatery, rustic and generally situated in the outskirts of town, can be traced back to the late 19th century, where freemen and bohemians gathered for a drink of anisado or chicha with some spicy food to sober up.

Picanterías still hold much of Arequipa’s culinary essence. Sabor Caymeño is a good example, if not the best, of this tradition.

Doña María Meza, owns the place. She is short and red-haired, with a cheeky sense of humor. This is probably the third time I go to her place in order to enjoy an adobo, tender pork meat marinated with chicha (corn beer), clove and cinnamon, and cooked with thick slices of red, richly flavored onions. When served, you have a soup-like meal with a generous piece of pork and a portion of fresh, crusty bread to dip in the sauce. Delicious.

“Un levantamuertos,” a corpse reviver, assures Doña María with a grin. I’m not quite sure if the saying originated because it is too spicy or extremely delicious, but either case, she’s write: even the dead would resuscitate to eat happily a portion of adobo.

In 1940, her mother opened the picantería that she inherited in 1986, where she still is the boss. Doña María cooks and talks with her clients, loves to serve and pamper her regular clients and assure she will cookuntil the day she drops dead. Doña María has lived enough to raise three sons and three daughters, to spoil 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and to survive many revolutions and dictatorships. She knows that for at least half a century her food has been praised as the best.

Jumbo-sized camarones, or river crayfish, from the Majes Valley, an essencial ingredient of Arequipa’s gastronomy.

Chicha and Alma: style and tradition

When Gastón Acurio decided to open Chicha, initially in Cusco and then in Arequipa, I was wondering what he had in mind. During an interview in 2005, he said to me "traditional dishes are just perfect, it took 200 years to become what they are." So I wondered. What could he do to traditional food from Arequipa to make it better?

When I looked at the menu, then I understood. A classic cóctel de camarones was included, as well as a more innovative grilled scallops in lomo saltado sauce. Or the cuy-filled tortellini if you’re an adventurous pasta eater, as opposed to the more traditional cauche, a creamy stew with potatoes, cheese and a dash of spicy rocoto. I’ve tried the lamb ribs with chickpea cream and quinoa salad, and an extraordinary dessert that consumates the perfect blend between French pastrymaking and Peruvian sweets: Crème brulée mazamorrero, containing the typical French dessert filled in with utmost Peruvian purple corn pudding. This one dessert, you have to try.

Alma is Casa Andina’s elegant and exquisite option for a meal. There is one in Arequipa situated within the thick, massive sillar walls of its Classic Collection Hotel; a mansion built in 1794 that reckons to have been the city’s mint house. The restaurant is situated in the left side of the first patio, distinctively decorated, very much in the architectural style of the 18th-century building.

The food options in the menu are excellent, combing, once again, tradition with a touch of sophistication. Last December I ordered a native potato soup with rocoto oil and asparagus curd, and then lamb shin braised with cilantro sauce served with pumpkin and ají amarillo risotto. Superb.

Desserts are also quite impressive, including the emblematic trilogía de papayita arequipeña which, as its name suggests, is a trilogy made up of a mini sorbet, chessecake and crème brulée with this baby-size papaya as main ingredient, only found and consumed in Arequipa. The fragance of this small fruit is extraordinary and unique. But if you really want to enjoy it fully, go to the market.

San Camilo: the soul of the city

Designed by Gustav Eiffel, this market is without doubt a symbol of Arequipa. When I was a kid, I used to go with my grandmother Natalia, almost on a daily basis, who would buy the ingredients in order to make the day’s lunch, a true ritual for any well being Arequipeño.

Habas con llatan, boiled fava beans with a spicy sauce made with black mint, rocoto peppers, garlic, and onions. A favorite munch available at the picantería or the market.

In San Camilo you can buy the freshest cheese, the tastiet meat, the ripest fruits, and the driest frogs, among other produce. If you want Paria cheese, this is the place where to buy it. Maybe some lamb chops to make them ovened? They’re juicy and good here. How about a generous pitcher of papaya arequipeña juice? Please head towards the left side of the market, sección jugos, and search for puesto 14. I haven’t seen Eliana Durán in many years, but I’m quite sure she still runs her juice business there.

Are you concerned about the water? Nevermind. Eliana, as well as the other dozen ladies that sell juices and fruit salads all year round, use orange juice as the base for their healthy mixes. You order and you’ll have it: jugos mixtos (mixed juices) with papaya, mango and pineapple. You’re hungry? Cheese sandwiches or empanadas salteñas which are dirt-cheap and a meal in itself. Maybe a papa rellena or boiled fava beans with mint and a spicy dip. After a bite like this, how could I not be happy?

Fast food alla turca

The Turks have been doing business in Arequipa since the mid-19th century. Ibrahim Veyssal is not the exception. Better known to his friends as "el turco," (or "el turko" as he writes it) he has opened a bunch of eateries around the city for different tastes and budgets. Personally, I still love going to the very first place he opened in 1999: El Turko I.

The best baklava to be enjoyed in Arequipa is available in El Turko I.

The classic döner kebab (chicken sandwich with veggies in Turkish bread), a refreshing cacik salad (chopped cucumbers with a yogurt and garlic dressing), the more robust patlicanli urfa (lamb meatballs in an eggplant and bell pepper sauce with rice) or my favorite, the delicious yaztürlüzü (chicken stew with green beans, zuchini, bell peppers, eggplants and rice) are the highlights of this Turkish fast-food place in downtown Arequipa.

Once again, there is a dessert that will seduce you, made by a woman that will stun you: the classic baklava made by Melihat, Ibrahim’s attractive sister.

Veyssal also has a bar across the street named Istanbul, which is a perfect sport to have a drink in a quite ambient, and a hip restaurant, Paladar, around the corner of Casa Andina’s Private Collection Hotel. They’re all good and interesting, but El Turko I is humbly the best. Enjoy.