Whilst traveling through Peru and neighboring countries such as Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia you will experience many different types of food, some of which will be familiar to you whilst others are found nowhere else in the world. Chile is renowned for its seafood whilst Peruvian fusion cuisine is becoming more and more well-known throughout the world thanks to chefs like Gaston Acurio. Ecuador and Colombia has a diverse cuisine due to the wide range of eco-regions within them whilst even Bolivia offers surprising, and tasty, local delicacies.
Peru, Ecuador and Colombia are split into three distinct geographical regions – to the west is the coastal region, in the middle is the sierra (the Andes mountains) and to the east is the Amazon jungle or grasslands. Fish and seafood are obviously the most important part of the coastal comida criolla cuisine. Encebollado is a fish and onion stew from Ecuador which is a traditional cure for hangovers. Sopa marinera and chupe de pescado (seafood soups) are found throughout the coastal region
In the highlands potatoes, grain and corn form the major part on the diet along with meat such as llama (who were also used for milk and cheese), alpaca and guinea pig (cuy). Soups and stews are an extremely important part of the highland diet and come in countless varieties, including caldos (brothy soups), sopas (thicker broth-based soups), sancochos and locros (a thick, hearty stew-like soups usually containing beef and vegetables) and secos (stews that are usually served over rice). In the central Peruvian Andes pachamanca is a style of cooking in which an earthen oven called a huatia is filled with hot stones and used to prepare a mixture of meat (either lamb, pork, chicken or cuy, which have been marinated in spices) and vegetables such as potato, lima beans, sweet potato or cassava.
In the eastern Amazon regions freshwater fish such as the paiche, the catfish or the piranha and exotic meat such as turtle, caiman, agouti and monkey are often found even though many of these animals are endangered and protected. Amazonian cuisine also uses local delicacies such as plantains, yuca, bananas, peanuts and coconuts.
Bolivian cuisine mixes indigenous Aymara cooking styles and ingredients with foreign influences, particularly Spanish. As it is a very mountainous country with high altitude its staples including typical highland foodstuffs such as beans, corn and potatoes. Soups and stews featuring grains such as quinoa, rice, wheat, potatoes and other vegetables are very common on Bolivian menus and many of the main courses are immersed in spicy sauces made from peppers such as the aji or the locoto. As it is landlocked and has no access to the ocean freshwater fish are used in place of the saltwater fish used in the coastal plains of the region.
Because Chile is such a long, thin country it is often broken down into three regions which cover the north, central and southern parts. The cuisine of the northern section, dominated by the arid Atacama Desert and the Andes mountains, is very similar to that found in the sierra of Peru and Ecuador with potatoes, corn and llama featuring strongly. In the central section – which has a temperature, Mediterranean type climate – there are more European influences in the local cuisine as well as from native people
In the mountainous, rainy south of Chile there are many influences from Mapuche and Chilote. The latter inhabit the Chiloé peninsula cuisines and traditionally have used earthen ovens to create dishes like the curanto, similar to the pachamanca of Peru, which contain shellfish and potatoes, both staples of the Chilote diet.
The cuisine of this region has been tinged by a number of influences. The Inca Empire, which stretched across Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and even parts of Colombia and Argentina at its height, made great use of tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams, root vegetables like ullucu and arracacha and grains such as maize were particularly important. For meat the Incas used domesticated animals like alpacas, llamas and cuy.
After the Spanish conquest of the Incas in the mid 16th century foodstuffs like rice, wheat, lamb beef, pork and chicken and the preparation of fish which would later become used in ceviche were introduced into the region. The Moorish dominance in the Spain at the time of the Conquest also meant that aspects of Middle Eastern cuisine such as adding almonds, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, and fruits -either dried or fresh – to meat dishes was brought to Latin America. Later immigrants brought their own tastes of home with them, particularly in the larger cities like Lima, Arequipa Quito, Guayaquil, Santiago, Cali and Bogota The Italians brought pasta, the Chinese merged their own style of cooking and spices with the local ingredients to create the fusion cooking style of chifa.
Particularly in the northern part of the region, in Ecuador and Colombia, but also in parts of Peru there are Caribbean and African influences in the local cuisine with the use of bananas, plantains, peanuts, avocados and coconuts. Esmeraldas province in Ecuador, which has a large Afro-Ecuadorian population, is home to some interesting African-influenced specialties like encocado, shrimp or fish cooked in a rich, spiced coconut sauce. Sopa de bolas de verde is a thick peanut-based soup with seasoned, mashed-plantain balls floating in it.
Today potatoes, rice, corn and beans, are still staples of the region and combinations of them are found in almost every dish. They are an important source of protein and carbohydrates for the poorer sectors of the population who are unable to obtain meat. Another common grain is quinoa which is indigenous to Peru and whose nutritional value and health benefits has led to it becoming a trendy “superfood” in the past few years.
Typical Foods – Part One
Potatoes are particularly prevalent Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador – this being the region in which they originated – and there are thousands of different varieties available in all sorts of sizes, shapes, flavors and colors. They have been used as food in Peru and Bolivia since 400BC and had religious significance to ancient tribes such as the Nazca and Chimu. Regional potato varieties include the superchola from Ecuador with red skin and golden flesh, the papalisa from Bolivia with white flesh and skin ranging from red, pink, orange, purple, yellow and brown, criollas – the tiny yellow potatoes common in Columbia and the Papa Amarilla and Purple Peruvian from Peru. Ocas are delicate, purple, potato-like tubers, which taste best roasted or boiled. They are particularly popular in Bolivia
Typical potato dishes from Ecuador include Llapingachos (Ecuadorian fried potato and cheese pancakes) which can be eaten either as a main course or as a side dish, locro de papa (a thick, warming soup made from potatoes, cheese and pasta) which is very popular in the sierra where it can get extremely cold.
Peruvian potato-based dishes include Papa a la Huancaína (an appetizer of boiled potatoes covered in a creamy, spicy sauce), causa – usually made with the yellow Papa Amarilla which is mashed and layered with other ingredients like egg, avocado, chicken or tuna and papa rellena, a potato stuffed with veggies and then fried. Chuños are freeze-dried potatoes from the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands which are very much an acquired taste. Chuños are used in the traditional Andean soup chairo along with carrots, onions, corn, beef and cilantro.
Corn was once revered by tribes such as the Incas and today is used in a variety of ways. Corn kernels are roasted to make cancha which is a typical ingredient of the Peruvian ceviche. The kernels can also be boiled in alkali-rich water to make mote, a popular side-dish. When corn is ground it forms masa (cornflour) which is used to make meat or cheese-filled pasties such as tortillas, empanadas, humitas or salteñas (particularly popular in Bolivia) or the Ecuadorian sweet snack quimbolitos. Pastel de choclo, a pie filled with beef or chicken and topped with pureed sweetcorn, is often referred to as Chile’s national dish. Boiled corn on the cob is often served with queso blanco (white cheese) to create choclo con queso.
Beans are often used in Chile and Bolivia as an alternative form of protein when meat is scarce. Porotos con riendas (beans and spaghetti) is common in Chile whilst plato paceño is a Bolivian dish which combines the all common carbohydrates, very useful for those who live at such high altitudes. Common varieties of bean include the Lima bean (named after the capital of its country of origin, Peru), garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) and black-eyed beans which are used in northern Colombia to make fritters called Buñuelos de Fríjol de Cabecita Negra.
Rice (arroz), typically white long-grain rice, accompanies almost every meal in Latin America. It is often used to bulk up soups or mixed with egg to create the simple snack arroz con huevo. Arroz fermentado is a drink from Ecuador made from fermented rice.
Other typical vegetables of the region include sweet potatoes, yams, cassava (or yuca), squash, peppers and tomatoes. The high altitude, and lower atmospheric pressure, found in the sierra (highlands) means that water boils at a much lower temperature than on the coast and so the cooking of vegetables can take longer Peruvian cooking makes much use of the spicy aji pepper whether to make a sauce or to serve whole. Rocoto rellena is a rocoto pepper stuffed with vegetables and meat;
The fish and seafood available in this region are amongst the best in the whole thanks to the Humboldt Current which brings nutrient and plankton-rich, and very cold, water up from the Antarctic to the coast of Western South America. The best country to experience the fabulous seafood available is probably Chile. Its abundant shellfish such as crabs, clams, mussels and giant barnacles are used alongside meat and potatoes in a traditional dish known as curanto which is prepared in a leaf-lined hole using hot rocks.
Ceviche is extremely popular throughout the whole of Latin America, and increasingly the rest of the world. It is considered the national dish of both Peru and Ecuador whilst it is also highly prized in Chile and Colombia. The most traditional Peruvian recipe calls for the fish or seafood within the ceviche to be marinated for a short time in lemon or lime juice whist orange juice is preferred in Ecuador and Colombia and grapefruit juice (with the marinating often lasting for many hours) in Chile. Ecuadorian ceviche also typically includes tomato sauce and takes the form of a kind of soup, with sides of tostado (toasted corn) or chifles (plaintain chips), as opposed to the seafood platter form of the Peruvian cerviche served with onions, aji peppers, sweet potatoes and corn.
The main ingredient of the ceviche also depends on which country you are in. Peru and Ecuador tend to prefer halibut or corvino (sea bass) and ceviche de camarones (shrimp cooked in a tangy lemon juice and served with onions and cilantro) is found on the menu of nearly all seafood restaurants in Ecuador. In Chile Chilean sea bass, is the obvious choice as well as the Patagonian toothfish whilst landlocked Bolivia uses freshwater fish from Lake Titicaca such as trucha (trout) or pejerrey (kingfish) or lowland river fish like surubí and pucú. Colombia has both a Pacific and an Caribbean coastline which offers access to fish and seafood not found in the Andean countries to the south.
Typical Foods – Part Two
Away from the coast other animal proteins are used. Chicken (pollo) is very common, whether served with rice in the ubiquitous pollo con arroz, in a soup (seco de pollo- Peru & Ecuador) or cazeula de ave – (Chile), roasted (pollo a la braza – Peru) and as a stew (sajta de pollo – Bolivia). Escabeche, a stew in which vegetables are pickled in vinegar and then mixed with chicken is one example of a popular Bolivian meal that originated with the Spanish Conquistadors of the 16th century
Beef dishes are also popular with examples including lomo saltado (a salted-beef stir fry served with fries and rice – Peru and Ecuador), charquicán (a Chilean stew) and caldo de costilla (a Colombian soup made with beef ribs). A popular meal served throughout Bolivia is pique a lo macho, a massive plate of chopped beef and sausage fried together with potatoes, onions, tomatoes and chilies. Ch’arki (jerky) is dried, salted meat that is found through the Andes and is used as either a snack or as an accompaniment to other dishes. Beef is the usual ingredient nowadays but in Bolivia llama meat is still widely used.
In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and Colombia the domesticated guinea pig (cuy) is a traditional dish either fried (chactado), roasted (al horno) or in a soup (locro de cuy – Ecuador). Cuy meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol and was originally eat for ceremonial purposes by local tribes such as the Incas but nowadays is a more-or-less everyday dish with an estimated 65 million guinea pigs being eaten in Peru every year. The meat from other domesticated animals such as the llama and alpaca have also been traditionally used in the Andes and alpaca especially as becoming more widely used in other regions.
Chugchucaras is a local specialty from the central Ecuadorian sierra town of Latacunga which combines fried pork, mote, potatoes, plantains, tostada, fried egg and accompanied by a spicy aji sauce. Chicharrón (died-fried pork) and lechón (roasted pork) is common throughout Latin American. Seco de chivo (goat stew) is a popular dish from Ecuador. Conejo Guisado con Leche de Coco is a Colombian stew made with rabbit and coconut milk. In the jungle regions of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia more exotic meat sources include turtle, monkey, caiman, catfish and piranha.
Many of the region’s dishes also make use of offal, the cheaper parts of the animal which includes organs such as the heart, brain, stomach as well as extremities like feet and heads. Caldo de pata (a pig’s foot soup) is found in Ecuador whilst guatita and sopa de mondongo (stew-like soups made from tripe – cow’s stomach) are popular in both Ecuador and Chile. Anticuchos are a Peruvian snack in which ox hearts are sliced, marinated in vinegar and spices and then grilled on skewers. Ají de lengua (a stew of cow’s tongue in a spicy sauce) is a common dish that is served throughout Bolivia.
A number of different herbs and spices are used in the local cuisine to enhance the flavor of various dishes. Cilantro, or coriander, is a prominent ingredient through the region, especially for seafood dishes. More locally palillo is an indigenous Peruvian herb that is similar to turmeric that is mainly used to give dishes like Papa a la Huancaína an attractive golden color. In Colombia the herb guascas, with a taste quite similar to fennel, is used in one of the national dishes, ajiaco, a delicious chicken soup. Huacatay is used as a culinary herb in Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Chile and Bolivia where its pungent flavour is very much an acquired taste.
As well as fruits known world-wide such as apples, bananas, limes, pineapples, guavas, etc there are also some fruits that are almost unknown outside of the region and many of them are used in local desserts or even in savory dishes. Chirimoyas, known as custard apples in English, has a white creamy flesh which contains large black seeds and is said to taste like a combination of banana, peach, papaya, pineapple and strawberry.
Tuna, or cactus fruit, has a bright red flesh full of tiny seeds and tastes similar to watermelon. Lucuma has been very popular in Peru since the Moche era and nowadays it is used to make ice-cream as well as in various other desserts. Its taste can be very unfamiliar to non-natives but is often said to be a mixture of maple and sweet potato. Other fruits from the region are pepino dulce (a sweet pepper that tastes somewhat like melon) and membrillo (quince).
There are numerous delicious desserts which tourists to the region often fall in love with and leave full of regret that they are unable to taste them once their vacation is over. Alfajores are popular through the region but each country has their own way of making them. Their usual form is of two small, round cookies with a sweet filling in-between. Peruvian amd Bolivian alfajores tend to be coated in icing sugar and filled with manjar blanco, a thick, caramel like sauce made by boiling sweetened condensed milk. Alfajores in Chile often contain other fillings such as mousse or jam and can be covered in dark or white chocolate. Arroz con leche is very similar to rice pudding which also contains nutmeg, raisins or regional variations such as coffee in Colombia or egg yolk and orange peel in Peru. Ecuador has its own take on the dish, morocho, which is made using the morocho grain instead of rice.
Germans settlers to the central valleys of Chile in the latter part of the 19th century brought with them many delicious cakes and pastries, for example kuchen which are still very popular today. A more traditional Chilean dessert is mote con huesillo, a dessert popular during the summer, which combines dried peaches soaked in syrup and served over barley grain.
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