Flavors of Peru

Sunday, June 20, 2010

-Peruvian food at it's best involves deep frying.-

I know as much about Peruvian food as I do about the Large Haldron Collider, which is to say I know the general premise of it. Peruvian food involves smashing potatoes, the LHC smashes protons. They're similar in that they both demand smashing of things. That limited amount of knowledge on both subjects has served me well enough and there has been little need or desire to pursue either any further.

However, when my co-worker, Estrella, invited me to a Peruvian food festival I decided that this was a golden opportunity to learn about a foreign cuisine I knew little about. Looking through the flyer she gave me it listed all sorts of tasty sounding goodies which my limited Spanish was unable to translate. I saw the words arroz verde (green rice) and masa morro (red corn) but that didn't tell me much.

-Sweet potato doughnuts. Smother these with maple syrup and you're good to go.-

I knew through my thesis research was that Peruvian food's primary food source is potatoes. I'm not saying Russets or Yukons, but any number of varieties and all sizes and colors such as bright green Emerald potatoes, oblong pink and purple potatoes, and tiny, red potatoes the color of a matchhead. Other key ingredients are apples, red corn, rice, and just as famous as the potatoes, Guinea pigs. It's a strange mountain ritual using the familiar and unfamiliar in creative ways to make dishes that are both strange and comforting.

Take, for example, the sweet potato doughnuts. Each culture has a delicious fried dough recipe that they hold dear. Here a sweet potato dough was slowly poured out into boiling dough like a churro or funnel cake. They were served with a bit of maple syrup, a modern, new world ingredient for Peruvian communities in America; one they've happily adopted.

-Peruvian food is awesome.-

Right across from the sweet smell of doughnuts the hot sizzle of vinegar and oil in cast metal pans echoed outside. Here bits of skirt steak were tossed with onions and tomatoes in a blazing hot pan. A few quick turns in a pepper vinaigrette and the mix was laid atop of fries and rice with a small dollop of neon green chili sauce. The flavor was epic, sour and savory it burst with flavor while the chili provided a subtle heat that enhanced with pungency of the flash-cooked vinaigrette.

-Alfajores. A shortbread cookie sandwich filled with dulce de leche.-

Inside, away from the smoke and oil, other dishes bubbled away. Lamb layered with cilantro and culantro. Next to that piles of empanadas sat steaming; you could hear their crispy skins crunching underneath the weight of each other. The next table over had piles of roast Guinea Pig slathered in chili sauce. Potato dumplings in a molten aioli so spicy you were compelled to drink the morro fresca, a drink of boiled red corn and apples that's sweetened and strained, in order to cool your fiery tongue.

Potato dishes of every kind were readily available from smashed to mashed, boiled to fried, in desserts to drink and each was new and different.

-A sort of Peruvian stir-fry. Seasoned with vinegar and black pepper. Crazy tasty.-

Desserts were there in plenty, another red corn and apple pudding mixed with cinnamon was the most popular treat, but alfajores, bread and rice puddings, and even small Napoleon like desserts were available.

It was as educational as it was tasty. I, sadly, can't recall the names of most of these dishes. I wasn't writing it down and the Peruvian names to these dishes were for the most part so foreign to me that I won't even try to recreate them for you out of fear that I may simply butcher them so badly that I'll accidentally utter some strange and forgotten Lovecraftian curse. Furthermore it was one of those situation where I was so focused on the flavors and the eating that the details are all lost to me in the ether of deliciousness.

Regardless, I came away from the festival with this: Peruvian food is too unknown and under-appreciated. If you find the opportunity to go to a Peruvian restaurant, do so. You'll find a riveting new cuisine that's just bound to surprise you.

-Red corn and apple pudding. Incredibly rich. The red corn isn't so much a flavor, but rather makes the pudding thick and gives it the deep burgundy color.-

P.S. Vanilla Garlic has a new fan page on Facebook. Be sure to become a fan to show your Vanilla Garlic support and get updates. Thanks! ~Garrett


  1. Fried stuff and dulce de leche, sold! Love your Hadron Collider reference and at least you actually understand the premise vaguely - my brother worked there on and off for a couple of years and I still have to smile and nod when he's talking about it because my brain...well, he got the brains in the family, let's say ;P

  2. You gave me a good chuckle this morning. I, too, knew very little about Peruvian cuisine beyond the penchant for potatoes. I can now consider myself more informed and I'm certain I would devour each dish you pictured here.

  3. Wow this makes me hungry. Have you ever tried Argentine alfajores? My friend's mom makes them. The shortbread cookie is lemon scented, the dulce de leche is the same, but then they roll the edges in coconut. They're to die for.

  4. I just came back from a volunteering trip to Peru and you're right, unknown and underappreciated it is! Most of what we ate was made by the women in the small villages we were working. What I was most amazed with was the utter simplicity of ingredients and the purity of the food. Lomo fino seasoned purely with salt and pepper and grilled... yum!
    And then of course there's the pisco sours which are delicious and deadly.
    I've been trying a new Peruano recipe at least a few times a month ever since I got back and it's so exciting to see others appreciating it too.

  5. any thoughts on where i could get a good recipe for said "crazy good" peruvian stir-fry?

  6. Your blog's as beautiful as ever Garrett!

  7. Hi: I am peruvian and i would write the name of those dishes. The sweet potatoe dough is mixed sweet potatoes with pumpkin. The name is picarones ( pee kah ro nes). The stir fry beef is called lomo saltado. The purple corn refreshment is called chicha morada, amd the purple corn dessert is called mazamorra morada combined with the rice pudding we use to call it combinado.
    The culantro beef stew is called seco de carne usually it's served with mashed and refried lima beans rice and/or potatoes. The traditional is made with sheep meat so we use to call it seco de cordero.
    I loved your post and it made me proud to know more people in the world are enjoying our cuisine.
    In the 30's the renowned french chef Auguste Escoffier said the peruvian cuisine is a hidden treasure and he placed our cuisine at the same level of the french and the chinese.


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