Best Peruvian food: 9 dishes you’ll want to try on your trip

Story highlights

Peru's modern-day cuisine features influences from Japan, China, Italy and Spain

Cebiche, made of raw fish, is one of Peru's most popular dishes

Japanese migration spawned Nikkei cuisine, which blends Japanese culinary techniques with Peruvian ingredients

CNN  — 

It’s been influencing global cuisine for centuries, but Peru’s culinary scene is finally getting the attention it deserves.

And for foodies, it’s a destination worth checking out.

Since pre-Columbian times, ingredients have been sourced everywhere from the lofty heights of the Andes to the depths of the Pacific ocean and the eastern Amazon region.

Besides taking inspiration from the Incas, Peru’s modern-day cuisine features influences from Japan, China, Italy and Spain.

And while Lima’s top restaurants such as Central and Maido serve up some of the world’s finest fare, you don’t have to pay through the nose to sample fantastic cuisine laden with flavor and texture.

Street food also pulls rank in Peru, with tiny carts specializing in dishes such as hard-boiled quail eggs doused in hot sauce, cebiche, pork crackling sandwiches and anticucho beef heart skewers ensuring taste buds are tempted at every crossroads.

Not sure where to begin? Here are nine of the country’s most popular foods to get you started.

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1. Cebiche

Indisputably Peru’s flagship dish, visitors can try this versatile cured raw fish classic pretty much anywhere in the country, from humble huarique street carts to fancy restaurants.

Taking full advantage of an extensive 1,500-mile coastline, cooks marinade fresh seafood such as sand smelt, sea bass, tuna, octopus, sole, black clams or sea urchin in lime juice before turning up the heat by adding limo or rocoto chillies.

Seafood bathes in this spicy yet creamy concoction, called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), for a few hours: it’s even said to cure hangovers.

Fine slivers of red onion, sweet potato, cancha crunchy corn and cilantro balance out the acidity in this heavenly, fresh dish.

Where to try it: Prepare for a show before tucking into the cebiche at Chez Wong. Owner/chef Javier Wong fillets whole fish with a huge blade like he’s slicing through butter.

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2. Anticuchos

The quintessential Peruvian street food.

Beef heart is seasoned with a garlic, cumin, panca chili and vinegar adobo, then slapped on a brazier like a shish kabob.

Succulent, tender and zinging with flavor, when Peruvians find a preferred purveyor of this filling and hearty snack, they’ll line up as long as it takes to get their hands on it.

Anticuchos are usually served with boiled potatoes and corn on the cob.

It’s also worth looking out for mollejas de pollo (chicken sweetbreads) and chinchulines (tripe) anticuchos.

Where to try it: La Tía Grimanesa – which started out as a huarique (food cart) but now has a fixed abode in Miraflores – is a benchmark for Lima’s traditional anticuchos.

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3. Nikkei cuisine

Maido's take on Nikkei cuisine is widely regarded as the best in Lima.

When two peoples as passionate about food as Peruvians and Japanese are come together, the only possible outcome is a culinary firework display of epic proportions.

The prominent Japanese migration to Peru in the early 20th century spawned Nikkei, which blends Japanese culinary techniques with Peruvian ingredients, fusing the best of both worlds.

An exciting and refreshing cuisine comprising many hybrid dishes, standouts include tiradito, a mixture of sashimi and cebiche, and pulpo al olivo, octopus drenched in a vibrant olive sauce.

Where to try it: Peru-born chef Mitsuharu Tsumura has given Nikkei the haute cuisine treatment at Maido: his glorious 15-step tasting menu earned him a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015.

4. Quinua

A food staple that’s formed part of Peru’s diet since pre-Hispanic times, this grain crop is considered so beneficial the United Nations named 2013 International Quinoa Year.

Highly versatile and revered by people with celiac disease given that it’s a tasty substitute for wheat, this superfood grows in the Puna and Andean regions, finding its way into any number of dishes such as tamales, soup, picante de quinua stew, and solterito salad.

Where to try it: For a taste of the Andes in Peru’s capital, San Ceferino serves up paiche fish skewers with tacu-tacu, replacing rice with quinoa.

Central’s Virgilio Martínez also uses it in his Mater Elevation tasting menu.

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5. Sanguche de chicharron

A fast-food staple for Peruvians at any time of day, the perfect pork crackling sandwich is deemed both succulent and crunchy in one mouthful.

Each sangucheria has its own secret method of preparation, starting with the meat – some might boil up ribs before sealing flavors in a frying pan, for example.

The bread itself is of equal importance: some like a soft bun while others prefer a baguette.

It’s usually topped with homemade salsa criolla, a combination of Peru’s ubiquitous lime juice, yellow chilies, red onions, white vinegar and cilantro.

Tasty sandwich alternatives include sanguche de pavo (turkey) and another Peruvian classic, butifarra, which is made with jamon del pais (ham).

Where to try it: El Chinito is a family-run sangucheria that’s been whipping out mouthwatering sandwiches for 55 years.

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6. Cuy chactado (deep-fried guinea pig)

Don't knock it till you've tried it -- deep-fried guinea pig is delicious.

While chicken or beef is farmed in the northern hemisphere, guinea pig (cuy) is traditionally consumed in Peru’s Andean region.

Eaten before, during and after the Inca period, this is a low-fat, nutritious meat that you might actually enjoy.

While a single cuy won’t exactly feed a family of four at Sunday lunch, there’s ample meat for a decent starter.

Deep-fried whole – cuy chactado – is a popular way of serving this rodent, which tastes similar to rabbit. You can eat it with your hands, much like eating a chicken drumstick.

Where to try it: If you can’t get to the Cuzco region, book a table early at Gaston Acurio’s Tanta restaurant, as cuy sells out fast. Maido also crosses into Andean territory, serving up cuy confit.

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7. Causa rellena con pollo

Taking advantage of the Andean nation’s 4,000-plus varieties of tubers, causas is a classic supporting cast member to cebiche.

Another dish dating back to pre-Colombian times, causa was traditionally made by mashing yellow potatoes with chili.

These days, lime juice is added to the mix for extra zing.

Rather like a sandwich where potato substitutes bread, causas are filled with chicken or tuna salad and topped with mayonnaise.

Served cold, this colorful, starchy food tower is perfect for mopping up leche de tigre juice.

Where to try it: The causa limena at La Mar Cebicheria in Miraflores neighborhood is made with avocado, chicken, boiled egg and tomato.

8. Picarones

Even better than donuts.

In need of a sugary pick-me-up? These doughnut-like rings are fried up freshly in front of you from huarique food carts and served hot.

But picarones are no ordinary doughnuts.

Made from sweet potatoes and a large green squash called zapallo macre, they are also spiced with aniseed and cinnamon then drizzled with fig, passion fruit or sugar cane syrup – a deliciously exotic combination that beats the pants off lesser fried dough rings.

Where to try it: There are huariques dedicated to making picarones under the Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros) in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood.

9. Suspiro de limena

This dessert’s name translates as “the lady from Lima’s sigh.”

A double-layered treat you’ll likely want to share given its exorbitant high sugar content, suspiro a la limena’s gooey base is made from manjar blanco caramel (also known as dulce de leche) then draped with port-infused meringue and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Fruitier versions are enhanced by chirimoya (custard apple) and lucuma egg fruit that’s native to the Andean region.

Where to try it: You’ll gasp with pleasure or pain depending on your sugar tolerance after your first bite at Dolce Capriccio in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood.

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Sorrel Moseley-Williams is a British journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She specializes in culture, food and wine and luxury travel in Latin America.