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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Peru

Historic Diet

Peruvian Food - Papa rellena
Papa rellena

Peru shifts from rainforest in the east to mountains in the central region and coast line in the west, giving the lands an incredible variety of plants and animals, both of which made up a significant part of the historic diet and many of which are still common foods today. However, due to the differences in geography, there is also great variation on what plants and animals thrive in each region so the historic diet from one region to the next is fairly different.

Today many of the foods associated with Peru were from the Andes Mountains, including the potato and quinoa, a hardy grain. However the potato species were vast and other tubers, such as oca and mashua were also common in the mountains and made up a significant part of the historic diet. Reaching outwards, fruits and vegetables were more common and more important in the historic diets of many people at lower elevations. Beans were (and still are) common, including the later named Lima bean. Some lesser known species of peppers were present as were numerous fruits including dragon fruit, papaya, gooseberries, prickly pear, lucuma, camu camu, cocona, guanabana, pepino, and others.

Due to the vast plant diversity the consumption of meats, poultry, and fish were a less significant aspect of the diet, but still important, especially along the coast. The people along the coast and in the Amazon River basin relied relatively heavily on the sea food from these sources. Pike and catfish were common food sources in the rivers, while sole, cod, salmon, tuna, squid, prawns, clams, and others are all common to the diet of the people along the coast.

Culinary Influences

Peruvian Food - Chupe de camarones
Chupe de camarones

As people arrived to the lands that are now known as Peru, new foods arrived as well. These plants came with the winds, waters, animals, and with these early settlers. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, vanilla, avocado, and others. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including Peru, although few of them can grow at elevation.

With a vast array of foods available, these early settlers used plants and animals to form their diet, including both the plants native to the region as well as those later introduced. However, as most of the people lived at elevation in Peru, and few plants can grow in these regions, the diet of the people was more limited than it was at lower elevations. In the mountains the diet remained much as it had for centuries, based on potatoes, quinoa, and beans, but the addition of corn was quickly adopted. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

The Europeans arrived and settled the region in the 1400-1500s and most of them demanded the same foods they ate in Europe. This led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Some dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these dishes required ingredients that weren't present in Peru so these settlers found local foods to use as substitutes, while at other times they introduced new plants and animals to the region.

Much of this European influence came from Spain as the region became a Spanish colony and most settlers were from Spain. This led to the introduction of Spanish-styled soups, stews, desserts, and other dishes. Even today the heavy Spanish influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in Peru use local ingredients so they are quite different from Spanish cuisine.

Despite adopting many local plants and animals for dishes, including the European-inspired dishes, the Europeans also introduced many new plants and animals to the region. Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced to the region by the Europeans, a few of the most important of these were wheat, rice, pigs, chicken, and cattle. Others were also introduced and are now common in Peru, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance, including onions, cilantro, black pepper, limes, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, and oranges.

Even today the base of the people's diet is a combination of local ingredients and European-introduced ingredients. The people maintain a plant-based diet with potatoes, beans, and corn at the core, but rice is now very common and most meats consumed are from the Europeans, including pork, chicken, and beef.

Since the late 1800s the diet has changed substantially for a number of reasons, but primarily due to technological improvements. Better transportation and storage techniques have allowed for the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, although few people can afford these foods outside the major cities. More importantly, better preservation methods have increased the shelf life of foods and have given the people foods that are not in season. Despite the technological changes, few people have truly altered their diets in Peru.

In the capital of Lima, a more influential change in the diets of the people has come with the more recent immigrants. Since the arrival of the Spanish immigrants to Peru and into the 2000s the diversity of these immigrants has risen. Today Lima is quite multi-cultural as Japanese, Africans, and Chinese have immigrated and call the capital home. These groups and others have opened ethnic restaurants in Lima as well as in other large cities. Of these groups, the Chinese have made the strongest culinary impact as Chinese restaurants are now common. These restaurants, called chifa, are very popular among the immigrants and the local alike, although the lack of Chinese vegetables means they are a true combination of Peruvian and Chinese.

When & Where to Eat

Breakfast in Peru is based on bread or pastries and bakeries tend to be busy from about 6:00 am until the end of the breakfast rush, which ends at about 9:00. This meal is very small though as it wakes the people up, but does little else. Coffee or tea is almost also consumed with bread or a tamale as well. Breakfast is often served at home, but in some places coffee houses are growing in popularity as there is typically a morning rush.

The Peruvians often have a snack mid-morning, but again this tends to be small as they prepare for lunch, the largest meal of the day. Many shops close at about noon for workers to return home for lunch, which can consist of a soup, meats, potatoes, rice, beans, and other staple foods in Peru. Following this, the largest meal of the day, many people will take a nap, called a siesta prior to returning to work at 2:30-3:00 pm. In the cities and tourists locations the long lunch and siesta has ended in favor of a solid workday. Some people in these locations still go home for lunch, but it tends to be limited in time, while others eat at work and some even go out to eat, although this is only common among the minority.

Much like the morning, the afternoon is often interrupted for a snack, generally just coffee or tea, but bread is usually served as well. Sometimes people also grab a snack from a street vendor, which is a great place to try a tamale and other local foods, such as anticuchos, which are marinated beef hearts served with vegetables as a shish kebob.

Dinner is usually late and tends to be smaller than lunch, although this is slowly changing in places where people don't go home for lunch. Dinner is usually eaten between 9:00-10:00 pm and is typically served in the home with family, but can also be a good time to have a large gathering to celebrate or for a business meal. If this meal is at home with family the amount of food served tends to remain very small, but for large gatherings and business dinners it tends to take place in a restaurant and the amount of food will likely surpass that of lunch.

Staple Foods

Beans: beans are served with numerous dishes as a side
Corn: corn is used to make a number of dishes
Potatoes: a common side dish, usually potatoes are not served with other starches
Rice: a common side dish that replaces quinoa, usually rice is not served with other starches

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ceviche: this fish dish is made from raw seafood marinated in citrus juices, spices, and vegetables
Chupe de camarones: this soup is made from shrimp stock, potatoes, milk, and chili peppers
Empanada: meat or fish with spices and vegetables enclosed in dough
Jungle region: freshwater fish and seafood are common due to the rivers, including the local fish paiche, which is very popular
Mountainous region: the diet is heavily based on potatoes, corn, and meats including alpaca and guinea pig
Papas a la huancaína: sliced potatoes served with a spicy cheese sauce and olives
Papa rellena: mashed potatoes wrapped around meat, hard boiled eggs, olives, and spices, then deep fried
Tamale: many styles exist, but the most common in Peru is corn meal stuffed with meat and cheese

Dining Etiquette

If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Peruvian's home be sure to come with a gift such as wine, chocolates, or a cake. Also dress nicely if you are meeting locals in their home or are meeting business acquaintances. If you are simply eating at a restaurant with friends the dress is a bit more casual, but should still be nice clothing.

Most dining with Peruvians will take place in restaurants, but no matter the location, be sure to arrive about 30 minutes late and up to an hour late for a party. Be sure to greet everyone when you arrive; men generally shake hands, while women may kiss each other on the check, but this varies based upon the relationship. As you begin socializing avoid sensitive subjects like religion, politics, money, or even business, although you may be at a business meal (let your host bring up business prior to discussing this).

When you are directed to the table, let your host seat you as they may have a seat for you; be aware that men and women generally sit on opposite sides of the table. Stand beside your chair until your host sits, then let women sit first (in fact men should stand whenever a woman enters or leaves the room). In a restaurant you may be seated at the same table as other people; politely ignore them, although some people may engage you in conversation if they notice you are foreign.

The host will often begin the drinking with a toast, generally just the word "salud" and he or she will serve you, as a guest, first, but don't eat until your host indicates you may begin with the words "buen provecho." If you are drinking and wine is the beverage of choice, try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules when pouring, two of the most important being that you should only pour wine with your right hand and always make sure when you pour it, the bottle is facing forward.

As you are about to begin eating, place your napkin in your lap, keep your hands on the table by resting your wrists on the table, and never place your elbows on the table. Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits and pizza among others. You should try everything offered and if you enjoy something compliment the host and you will be quickly offered more, but if you are offered additional food, initially turn it down then accept it after your host insists.

When you are done eating, place your fork and knife together with the tines down pointing to the 10:00 position. Once everyone is done eating expect at least a half hour of conversation either at the table or elsewhere. Your host will dictate the location, but don't get up or excuse yourself until your host does and invites you to do the same. The end of the meal may also be accompanied with a drink.

If you're eating at a restaurant, the host, or you if with other foreigners, should call the server over by making eye contact and saying "mozo"; if you need the bill you must specifically ask for it. The host is expected to pay for everyone present, but guests should offer to assist, something that will likely be turned down. If you're the host, be ready to pay for the entire meal and add a tip of about 10% for good service. Sometimes this is already included in the bill as a service charge, but if not tip at your discretion as many locals don't tip and you aren't expected to in local restaurants.

Celebrations & Events

During many celebrations or events, including many personal celebrations, a feast called pachamanca is common in the mountains of Peru. This feast demands a large audience and it consists of various meats, vegetables, and spices cooked in an earthen oven with hot stones. This is traditionally only found in the mountains during festivals or celebrations that demand a large crowd or the entire town so it is rather rare. However, today some restaurants are serving this food every day, most of which are found in Lima.

Of course if you don't know any Peruvians it's difficult to get invited to a personal celebration so if you want to try the local foods attend the Mistura Food Festival. This ten day event in Lima brings out street food vendors, restaurant stands, and markets as both farmers' markets and chocolate markets are opened.


Peruvian Food - Herbal tea
Herbal tea

Peru boasts all the world's popular beverages from tea and coffee to juices and soft drinks. Among the locals their favorites tend to be soft drinks and a couple other drinks. Soft drinks are popular in Peru, but the local varieties are more common as the lemon-flavored "Inca Kola" tends to be the industry leader. "Leche de tigre" is a juice made from the ingredients of ceviche, which includes fish and citrus fruits, typically drank after eating ceviche. Another non-alcoholic drink found in Peru is chicha morada, which a drink made from maize (corn), cloves, sugar, cinnamon, and ice.

Peru offers nearly every kind of alcoholic drink, but also produces a great number of alcohols themselves. There are a few wines grown in the country, but they are still growing in popularity and quality; imported wines are also readily available. Beer is also very common; perhaps the most popular local brews include "Pilsen," "Cristal," "Cuzquena," and numerous regional beers. Peru really stands out in the form of liquors with pisco being the national drink. This is essentially a brandy as it's distilled from grapes, but is not a wine. Another local drink is chicha, which is a fermented drink made from corn. It was invented by the Incans and was regularly used in religious festivals, but today can only really be found in certain parts of the Andes.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Peru, but check with locals for any particular regional differences, especially in more rural areas. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013