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Emerging Cuisines: Peru

Peruvian: Pride of the Andes.

Peruvian cuisine may be a latecomer to America’s tables, but it’s gaining a foothold. “The healthy, fresh ingredients and unique flavor profiles are creating a surge of interest in Peruvian food and restaurants,” confirms Marcella Guzman, an instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Peru’s culinary heritage dates back to the Incas, who cultivated potatoes, maize (corn) and quinoa (an ancient cereal grain) in the high altitudes of the Andes. Their diet also revolved around beans, squash, tropical fruits and seafood. Herbs like black mint and cilantro grew wild to add to the cooking pot, but a native pepper the Incas called uchu was the most important seasoning. Renamed aji by the Spaniards, it remains a key ingredient today.

When the Conquistadores arrived in 1533, Spanish ingredients and techniques eventually filtered in. As the Spaniards prospered, they enslaved Africans to work their plantations or “haciendas.” The slaves, in turn, imprinted some of Peru’s native foods with their own culinary stamp. Then in the late 1800s, waves of Chinese came to work the railroads, bringing soy sauce, rice and tea to the mix. While these three global influences dominate, there are also hints of Italian and Japanese.

Peruvian restaurants in the United States run the gamut, from quick-casual spots specializing in the country’s signature crispy-skinned, spiced rotisserie chicken (pollo a la brasa) to mom-and-pops with classic comfort foods (platos de fondo criollos) and upscale establishments featuring New Andean (Novo Andina) or contemporary Peruvian fare. The most iconic of Peru’s dishes show up in all segments, tweaked to reflect style and price. These include ceviche or cebiche, fresh fish and/or shellfish marinated in lime juice; causa, mashed yellow potatoes infused with lime juice, pressed into a cake and stuffed with a savory filling; arroz con pato, duck cooked in dark beer served with rice; chupe de camarones, shrimp chowder with lima beans and corn; and anticuchos, skewers of grilled meat or seafood.

At Andina in Portland, Oregon, guests can experience the best of both worlds. “We rely on traditional ingredients and recipes but use techniques that bring more color, flavor and elegant presentation to the dishes,” says Doris Rodriquez de Platt, owner with her husband and sons of this popular Peruvian restaurant. She has found that Pacific Northwest seafood and produce (especially Washington state potatoes) can be substituted for Peruvian products, but certain items are just not available here. So Andina imports several types of frozen or dried aji (amarillo, mirasol and rojo) and blends them into bright yellow and red pastes. “We tried having an Oregon farmer grow aji, but there weren’t enough daylight hours for them to survive.” In the works is a deal with a farmer in Peru to vacuum-pack the peppery pastes. Another export is a purple corn that is integral to many recipes, including a cinnamon-spiked drink called chichi morada.

Guzman agrees that certain pepper and corn varieties are difficult to source. Unlike aji, the rocoto is easier to find here, especially in locales with South American communities. Rocoto is a yellow or red pepper similar in size to a habañero but milder, more like a jalapeño. Many of the Peruvian maize varieties are also available frozen. But when this corn (with its larger kernels and starchier taste) is unavailable, Guzman suggests, “substitute kernels of white sweet corn and add a little cornmeal.”

To familiarize Portland diners with Peruvian culture and food, Andina offers both casual and high-end takes on tradition. For example, the bar menu lists two versions of the humble Anticucho. In one, the skewers are threaded with chunks of beef heart—much like those created by the African slaves. In the second, the kitchen spears and grills marinated chicken or shrimp. Patrons can wash either down with the national cocktail—the frothy Pisco Sour—made with Peru’s signature grape brandy.

On the dinner menu, Andina’s Arroz con Pato is elevated by pairing pan-seared duck breast with duck confit. Quinoa is presented like risotto with a name to match: Quinoto de Hongos de la Montana, laced with local wild mushrooms and black truffle oil. And shades of Japan show up in the Tiraditos, made with raw fish like ceviche but plated in translucent slices like sashimi.

At La Cofradia in Coral Gables, Florida, Jean Paul Desmaison serves his rendition of New Andean cuisine, melding Peruvian, Mediterranean and Floridian flavors. Previously, Desmaison operated a restaurant in Lima, where he was swept up in a culinary renaissance that began about 15 years ago. A number of European-trained chefs had rediscovered Peru’s “forgotten” crops and opened places where they could reinterpret the country’s cuisine with fine-dining touches.

“My style is a fusion of what I like to eat and what I learned working as a chef in Peru,” Desmaison says. Menu items such as Sea Scallops Salad with fresh fava beans, white cheese, Peruvian corn and black mint and Slow Braised Pork and Grapes cooked in Pisco reflect this approach. The appetizer list offers several top-selling ceviches. Along with a typical Peruvian version, there’s an Oriental Tuna Ceviche marinated in lime juice and sesame oil with snow peas, as well as a Lemon Sole Tiradito with yellow chili and Mandarin Crème. All the fish is purchased fresh from a local purveyor and a good amount is from Florida waters.

Desmaison sources authentic ingredients from Belmont International Trading (a.k.a. Belmont Foods Peru), a Miami supplier that stocks more than 100 products. These include several varieties of aji, rocoto, Peruvian yellow and sweet potatoes, Peruvian corn and black mint—all in frozen foodservice packs—as well as a wide assortment of canned products, grains and spices. Belmont has two major distribution centers that deliver to the South, Midwest and West; New Jersey-based Goya Foods now offers a 34-product Peruvian line as well. A spokesman for Belmont confirms the boom in Peruvian cuisine: “Our warehouse space has quadrupled in four years,” he says.

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