Since we’ve eaten alpaca meat and drank coca tea, we’re now experts on Peruvian food, obviously. You gotta love a country where the food is so good and the prices of food in restaurants are this low. Have you heard about Peruvian Hulk corn?!
We, Karin and I, love to eat well and Peru filled our stomachs’ desire and then some. We’ve already written about the best restaurants in Peru, so you know where to eat, but now let’s take a look at what to eat.
If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know I’m also the meanest coffee critic. Does Peru’s coffee rise up to its reputation? We’ll touch on this caffeine-filled staple as well as some other Peruvian drinks, too. Like corn beer and coca tea.
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Peru is the place to eat. It has won the title of World’s Leading Culinary Destination at the prestigious World Travel Awards in 9 out of the last 10 years. We can turn a blind eye to that one year that the food of Italy made its way to the top. Karin and I wouldn’t even put it in the top 3 of the world, though. It’s good, but not out of this world.
(In 2021, Peru also won World’s Leading Cultural Destination and Machu Picchu got the title of World’s Leading Tourist Attraction. Not trying to brag, but Machu Picchu topped our list of the top places to visit in Peru, too.)
In general, you can buy food in a restaurant for as little as s/10, which is about USD 2.50, or splurge and eat in a Michelin-level restaurant for s/60. You read that right. A gourmet meal for USD 15!
As a bonus, serving sizes are massive, and if you love meat, you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t love meat, you better love corn and potatoes.
There are over 3,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, the country where potatoes were first domesticated (this designation spills over the boarder to Bolivia as well). The oldest findings (8,000 years old!) were made around Lake Titicaca.
The Incas basically survived on potatoes, and were the ones who, in their terraced agricultural laboratories, like the one at Moray, ended up growing thousands of different types of potatoes, most of which only grow in Peru to this day.
Another familiar crop has benefitted from the Incas’ research: Peru has the biggest corn I’ve ever seen! Throughout Sacred Valley, which was the Inca Empire’s stomping grounds, you can get corn cobs with kernels the size of raspberries. Eat one cob and you’ve had your lunch!
Other ingredients you will often encounter in Peruvian food are quinoa and legumes.
Meat is part of almost everything. Chicken, beef and lamb are the most popular meats in Peru, with guinea pig and alpaca being consumed in the Andean regions. Fish are the main part of Peru’s national dish, ceviche, as well as plenty of other Peruvian meals. You can get a good steak just about everywhere in Peru.
Tip: One of the restaurants we had some amazing fish at was a basic place right on the beach in Paracas National Reserve. La Tia Fela had plastic chairs but the fish were out of this world! Paracas is also where the epic DoubleTree Resort by Hilton is located, otherwise known as our favorite hotel in Peru.
So what Peruvian foods can you make out of all the potatoes, corn and meat?
Any list of Peruvian food has to start with the national—though not officially—dish, ceviche. It’s raw fish marinated in citrus juice. Add sliced onions and chili peppers on top, some sweet (or other) potato on the side, and tadaaa, you’ve got yourself some Peruvian ceviche (sometimes you’ll see it in menus as cebiche).
Ceviche is admittedly not the most visually pleasing dish, but it‘s absolutely delicious.
I loved eating ceviche in Peru. But remember these two ceviche tips before you do:
Hotel tip: We have only good things to say about the Hilton Hotel Miraflores and loved our 3 days there. The rooftop spa, spectacular staff and glamour-style rooms were a treat to stay in. The fantastic Social Restaurant just adds a cherry on top.
[If you click through our booking.com link to make a reservation at any hotel in world, whether we mention it here or not, we get a small commission. You don’t pay anything extra for that, it’s just between us and booking.com. Thank you if you do!]
An empanada is a fried or baked folded tortilla filled with a savory filling, which is usually some type of meat and vegetables.
Empanadas originated in Spain. When the Spaniards invited themselves over to the Americas, they brought not only horses, diseases and slavery, but were kind enough to bring empanadas, too.
Nowadays, empanadas are omnipresent everywhere from Mexico to Chile. They fillings vary from country to country. The typical Peruvian variety usually includes fried ground beef, onions, olives, hard-boiled egg and, strangely, raisins.
That said, every Peruvian grandma will have her own special recipe, so you don’t really ever know which empanada type is The One.
As for how much I liked them: For me, you get two empanadas and you can be done. Been there, emapanada'd that. More ceviche please.
We tucked into a cozy-looking restaurant in Cusco called Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse and tried the peruano kebab. Instant love. The three chicken bits per skewer were larger than you’d normally see on a kebab, and they were amazing!
The Peruvian kebab can be chicken or beef, but it’s always full of flavor. The meat gets marinated in a herby, spicy mix. It’s usually a concoction of garlic, cumin, chili powder, paprika, sugar, soy sauce, lime juice and fresh ginger, making it taste almost Asian. Add the wonderful charred smokiness once you grill it over the fire and voila!
Chicharron is pieces of pork meat, which isn’t very popular in Peru, cooked and then fried in its own fat. Only seasoned with salt, it’s delicious just the way it is—crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.
This simple meal is often eaten as part of a sandwich, Pan con Chicharron, which also includes sweet potatoes and red onion. Every region has its own twist on chicharron, so you can do taste tests while you travel through the top spots in Peru and see which one you’re a fan of.
Fun fact: chicharron sandwiches are commonly eaten as a breakfast food. But I think they’re perfect for any time of day.
There are even restaurants that specialize just in chicharron, called chicharronerias. You’ll find a bunch along the beach are in Lima, or in Poroy village outside of Cusco. Stop by on your way to or from your Sacred Valley tour for a quick and filling Peruvian meal.
Again, as was the case with Empanadas, the conquistadors are to thank for bringing the food over to Peru. This time from Andalusia in Spain.
Our top tips for enjoying Peruvian food and drinks: Ceviche is epic in Peru. Eat it in Peru’s best restaurants, but don’t have it for dinner. You don’t want to be eating raw fish if they’ve been lying around all day. Be prepared for a lot of meat. Yes, you can eat alpaca and guinea pigs. Actually, be prepared for a lot of everything, since serving sizes are massive in Peru. And cheap! Peruvian beer sucks. There are craft breweries popping up that might be able to save the day, but just go in prepared. Or try chicha, the Peruvian corn beer. Peru’s coffee beans are top class, but don’t expect good coffee everywhere in Peru. They can’t make a good espresso!
The white city of Arequipa is a fantastic base for visiting the extremely deep (but somewhat disappointing) Colca Canyon, the magical landscape of the Laguna de Salinas or for conquering El Misti volcano.
Naturally, all of these activities will leave you hungry.
Enter rocotto relleno, a popular Peruvian food consisting of a small pepper stuffed with minced meat and topped with cheese, then baked. Sometimes it also includes a hard-boiled egg and raisins (seriously, what’s up with all the raisins!?).
Rocotto peppers are naturally extra spicy, so before the rocotto relleno is made, the peppers get soaked in water and vinegar so that the resulting meal doesn’t burn your tongue off. Or not, in which case get ready for a spicy punch in the mouth!
Rocotto relleno is also what gave me food poisoning, so I do have a love—hate relationship with this particular Peruvian food. It was good while it lasted though.
Shout out to Hotel Sonesta, the delightful 5* hotel in Arequipa where we had a great night’s sleep and fantastic massages. It’s also where I got food poisoning. Do what you want with that little piece of information.
Sopa Criolla is a beef noodle soup that is eaten all over Peru but is especially loved in Lima. Every family has a recipe for this staple meal, but it mostly includes beef, thin noodles, milk, tomatoes, and a fried egg on top.
Soups are a staple Peruvian food in general and are often eaten at breakfast. Otherwise, Creole soup is a comfort food good for any occasion and is also treated as chicken soup for battling a cold or flu.
Not something most of us are used to seeing in the kitchen, much less eating for dinner, guinea pig meat—cuy—and alpaca meat are foods popular in Peru whether we think it’s yummy-looking or not.
These meats are much more popular with locals than with visitors, obviously. But it is such an anomaly that even we had to try some alpaca… not bad! Tastes kind of like pork but less fatty.
But also not so good before setting out on a high-altitude hike. Guess how we know. We decided to have alpaca meat and then hike to Rainbow Mountain. Good times. A great way to remember that eating meat of any kind is not recommended if you think you might be experiencing mountain sickness any time soon.
We didn’t go down the cuy path, but you’ll see this little guys impaled and barbequed whole all over the Andes regions. Cusco and Sacred Valley will present you with plenty of opportunities to indulge in some bony, rabbit-tasting cuy. Just head to a market and take your pick.
The head of the guinea pig is considered the best part. I wonder if it’s the part that Jesus and the apostles fought for when having the Last Supper. You can go check out the decidedly Peruvian variant of this famous painting in the Cusco Cathedral.
Lacuma is a fruit native to the highlands of Peru and parts of Chile. It’s having its 15 minutes of fame in the superfoods world lately. Though if you asked the Incas, they’d tell you all about the lacuma’s health benefits centuries ago.
A lacuma looks like a cross between a mango and an avocado, just smaller and rounder. It has a green outer skin and an orange inside.
It ripens during the months of January to April in Peru, when you can find lacuma in all markets and grocery stores.
The interesting part is the taste: lacuma tastes like slightly fruity caramel. But while it looks enticing, don’t go biting into a lacuma just yet. It’s actually pretty dry, so the preferred way to consume lacuma is in everything from ice-cream to smoothies. You get the yummy goodness without the weird texture.
Thanks to lacuma’s great taste and health benefits, you can find it in specialty and health food stores around the world in powdered form.
Speaking of smoothies, it’s time to make our way from Peruvian food to Peruvian drinks.
At some point during your trip to Peru you’ll most likely make your way to Cusco, which, with an elevation of of 3,400 m (11,000 ft), is considered a high altitude destination. And you’ll be offered coca tea or even chocolate-covered coca leaves to alleviate the symptoms you might develop due to the lack of enough oxygen. Or you can just chew them raw if you’re in a pickle.
Coca tea looks and tastes kind of like green tea, just with a little more sweetness to it.
Fun facts: The amount of oxygen in the air is the same at all altitudes. But the air pressure is smaller the higher up you go, effectively leading to the oxygen molecules not being pushed together with the same force as in lower altitudes. Since they have all this room to spread out, they do, and with every breath you take, you suck in less of them than you normally would. That’s why you’re constantly out of breath at high altitudes (among other things that happen to your body—read our article about altitude sickness for more fascinating facts).
Why coca helps with altitude sickness hasn’t properly been studied, but it seems that is helps with the absorption of oxygen, which is great since you’ll be struggling with not getting enough of it. It’s also a mild stimulant, helping with fatigue. Another great side effect, because guess what—not breathing enough makes you feel like a 98 year-old grandpa on any hike!
Case in point: Our hike to Rainbow Mountain. Were it in any other (lower) altitude, it would be considered an easy hike. But at 5,200 m (17,000 ft), you see your life flash in front of your eyes and try not to step in the throw up of your fellow travelers. Coca tea is offered by many kind locals along the entire route of the trek. We drank buckets of it.
Coca leaves contain cocaine. Not crazy amounts, just very little, but enough to get all the authorities in the world all wound up about it. It is illegal to take coca tea leaves or tea bags to your home country as a souvenir (unless you’re from another South American country).
Another fun fact: If you really want a coca drink while reminiscing about Peru when you come home, have a glass of Coca Cola. The exact recipe for it is a trade secret, but it started out as a coca drink and still contains coca leaves to this day. Just ones with only trace levels of anything in it, but still coca leaves.
I love coffee and a lot of places on this planet have me scrambling to find a decent cup during our travels. Looking at you, Spain! That was tough.
And Peru, well, you have amazing, great quality coffee beans, but you don’t know how to cook the damn things! Every “expresso” (that’s how they spell it) I tried tasted like a baby Americano. A watered-down version of real coffee.
For a good coffee, check online reviews and aim for the more hipster places. They might even have a real espresso!
Peru ranks 5th in the export of Arabica in the world. It’s always being overshadowed by Colombia in coffee fame, but it’s not too far behind. These days, Peru is one of the highest fair-trade coffee distributors in the world.
Despite producing 260,000 tons of coffee per year, Peruvians don’t actually like to drink coffee that much. Only 10% of their production is meant for domestic consumption.
The stats: In Peru, they consume only 800 g (1.7 lbs) of coffee per person per year, whereas in the US it’s 4.5 kgs (9.7 lbs). And then there are places like Finland where they have coffee breaks mandated by law. They drink 9.5 kgs (21 lbs) of coffee per capita per year.
Another favorite beverage of mine is beer. Unlike my high standards for coffee, I’m pretty lenient with my beer expectations. I can drink it anywhere in the world and just appreciate the diversity of tastes rather than go looking for what I’m used to.
But Peru. Come on Peru. Peru is the only country I’ve been to where I’ve not liked the beer.
Enter chicha. A pink beer made out of corn that tastes a little like strawberries. It looks like something kids would love to drink, and, to my fascination, they did!
Upon further research I’ve realized that there are fermented and non-fermented variants of chicha, the latter of which do not contain alcohol. I’m hoping that’s the one the children were drinking. Otherwise, someone please get these kids a milkshake!
Even though chicha is so typically Peruvian, it’s relatively hard to get at Peru’s restaurants. Chicha is made within local communities or even just families, usually on the weekends. So if you happen to be there when a fresh batch of chicha is made, you’re in luck. Try out village restaurants as opposed to restaurants in the cities. Otherwise you’re stuck with bad Peruvian beer.
The beer sucks and there’s no chicha available. Now what? Grape brandy! Pisco is Peru’s pride and joy, though they are fighting Chile for the designation of being the country where this strong spirit originated.
The first historical mentions of pisco are from Ica in Peru in the 1600s, which gives Peru the upper hand in the dispute. We ventured out into the Ica vineyards to take a tour of oldest distillery in South America—established in 1684—, La Caravedo. Read more about our side trip to Ica from Paracas.
Tip: La Caravedo also provides stunning accommodation with an incredible looking swimming pool, as well as one of the best restaurants we ate at in Peru. This isn’t France, but maybe a weekend in the vineyards in Peru is just what you need!
Peru enforces strict rules about where and how pisco can be produced, and one of those rules prohibits adding water after distillation, as is the standard in other drinks such as vodka or whiskey. What that means is that pisco packs a punch with 38–48 % alcohol.
If you want to drink something a little less potent and a little more fun, opt for the popular cocktail called pisco sour. It mixes pisco brandy with syrup, lime juice, egg whites and bitters to create a herby, tarty, sweet drink. It’s good!
Pisco sour looks like a little colorless beer with a nice foamy white top.
Again, Chile claims that pisco sour is their national drink, as does Peru. We’re over here tired of all the fighting, wishing everyone would just chill out. Have a pisco sour and relax!
Tip: If you’re a pisco sour-craving vegan, head over to Chile. Their pisco sour is made without the egg whites. Plus, Chile is an incredible country to travel through! Check out our Chile itineraries and off you go.
Hotel tip: I know I’m starting to sound like a Hilton sales representative here, but the Garden Grille Restaurant in Cusco is one of the places we had a fabulous pisco sour. The restaurant is conveniently located in the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco), which is a wonderful hotel that we can recommend.
An institution in Peru, Inca Kola is a yellow soda that is a national pride in the country. It doesn’t look like much with its bright yellow color, and it doesn’t really taste like much either, if you ask me. Unless you like bubblegum flavor.
You’d think that it would have a lemon flavor, not only thanks to the color, but also since the main ingredient is lemon verbena, which is a shrub whose leaves are used to add lemon flavor to everything from salad dressings to jams. But Inca Kola tastes pink.
Other than in Peru, Inca Kola is known in international trade as Golden Kola. The Inca Kola trademark is owned by the Coca Cola Company everywhere except for in Peru where Corporación Inca Kola Perú. It’s a company owned by the family whose member invented Inka Cola in 1935 (a British immigrant). To be precise, it’s a joint venture of the Lindley family and the Coca Cola Company.
There you have it, folks. Have you had a chance to try any of the Peruvian foods or drinks in our list? How did you like them? Any bad experiences?
I have only good things to say about Peruvian food. Not something I can say about, say, Mexican food. Chocolate sauce on meat? Bleh!
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If you only have 3 days for Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some good places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those 3 days in Cusco.
Peruvians are some of the kindest, most helpful and courteous people I’ve met during my travels. Until you put them in the driver’s seat. Then they turn into aggressive, angry, idiotic monsters. Especially in Lima.