One year ago (to the date), I wrote about finding vegetarian food in Taiwan. Taiwan is notoriously difficult for herbivores and the whole exercise of me writing that post was to make it easier for vegetarians like me to survive on trips to the Asian superpower-in-progress.
This post on the other hand is about searching for, savoring and enjoying vegetarian food in Peru. Peru is not a place where the vegetarian has to try and survive. It is a country of vast beauty, rich history and a cornucopia of grains, vegetables and fruits. It is a country that prides itself on its culinary importance (the word gastronomia was used quite frequently by waiters and bartenders and this guy is their biggest “rock star”).
Five thoughts on Peru though before I dive deep in to specific vegetarian recommendations:
1) Orders across the country in every city I was in (Lima or Cusco or Mancora) take a little more time than I am used to in the U.S. This is true of any place that does sit-down service and is not a fast food or chain food outlet. A typical order for two took about 20-25 minutes to be processed. Do keep this in mind and make sure you get to your place of choice before the hangry pangs set in.
2) American fast food chains are plentiful. Even in the remote corners of the country, a Subway or a KFC or a Mcdonald’s is not far away. If you wanted to survive on comfort American fast food you could easily do so outside of the 8 hours you spend at Machu Picchu.
3) Pizza is the national dish or at least it should be. I am still trying to figure out how and why this is the case but there are more restaurants selling Pizza than there are restaurants selling Peruvian food. The pizza was ubiquitous. Whether it’s Papa John’s at the Lima airport or a 100 square feet street food store, the pizza was the most popular dish in Peru. You’ve been warned!
4) People in Peru eat late. Breakfast service is available till 11 and lunch doesn’t start until 12:30. Dinner is usually eaten past 20:30. So if you are craving the company of Americans, make sure to eat at American times ‘cos the only folks at dinner tables across Peru before 8:30 PM are American tourists.
5) Peruvians do not seem to have a tongue or craving for spicy food. I craved politely and admonished loudly for “Mucho Picante” or “Aji Aji” but chefs across the country had trouble reaching the spice level that someone who likes spicy food is comfortable with. Carry your own Sriracha if you can!
Now on to the fun parts!
Arroz Con Verdura
Spanish for Rice-with-vegetables, you cannot go wrong asking for this simple yet fulfilling dish in kitchens across Peru. Red peppers, Green Peppers, Onions and Tomatoes are sauteed for 5-7 minutes & mixed with local seasonings and spices. This is then served hot and fresh with a cup of white rice. I found this to be worthy of a daily lunch several days in a row. If and when coupled with the ubiquitous Cusquena, you get a lunch that is the very essence of Peru – simple, tasty and filling.
Inka Grill in Cusco
Cusco is 11,000 feet above sea level. It is a deviated septum’s worst nightmare and on an unrelated note, a shockingly good source of vegetarian yumminess. Inka Grill situated along the edge of the Plaza De Armas at the center of the city boasts of fine decor and stunningly tasty Peruvian fusion food. The wife and I sampled most of the vegetarian menu here across two meals and you really cannot go wrong. Our favorite dish was the Piqueo peppers shown below. These soft well-cooked local peppers stuffed with quinoa and herbs have an incomparable after-taste. I didn’t find the side of cream or local sauce to be required at all. The peppers by themselves were very tasty.
I also highly recommend the Risotto here. It is chock-full of vegetables including asparagus and thyme. It is rich without being overloaded with cheese or butter and is just the right kind of filling. A plethora of appetizers including Huacataya (Andean potatoes) and Tamales make for great conversation accoutrements as you wait for the Ravioli, Risotto or Pesto Quinoa (shown below) to be prepared by the chef.
Chifa food in Lima
Lima is a beautiful city with diversity in its neighborhoods and outstanding food everywhere. The tourist-friendly Miraflores and Barranco neighborhoods are home to 100s of restaurants per square mile and the ones they are loudest and proudest about are the local Chifa restaurants. Chifa is a term used to describe Peruvian-Chinese food. It is the amalgamation of years of immigrants from Guanghzhou assimilating into Peru.
I tried Chifa dishes in Lima, Mancora and Cusco and one place that stood out was the ‘Restaurant Chifa Asia’ in Barranco. Their vegetarian noodles and fried rice were to die for. The restaurant is very bare-bones-y and the service absolutely sucks. These however tend to be the characteristics of restaurants that survive for a long time based purely on their tasty food and that is absolutely the case with Chifa Asia.
In a refreshing turn, the dishes here are not overloaded with salt the way similar dishes in several Chinese restaurants across the US can be. The portions are plentiful, the veggies are cooked really well and the noodles even come garnished with tasty roasted cashewnuts. For less than 8 dollars-per-head, Chifa Asia offers a killer vegetarian meal.
Pizzeria Antica is an Italian chain that has outlets across Peru. We visited the one in Mancora twice and were very satisfied customers. Antica offers one of the biggest menus I have seen allowing patrons to choose from seven kinds of Pasta, 30 sauces, 20 toppings and Pizza crusts. The options are overwhelming and no number of Mojitos make the decision-making process any easier. Trust me, I tried!
The good news in all of this is that the vegetarian options are plentiful. I tried the Gnocchi with Pesto sauce and a simple pizza with cheese, olives and peppers. The chef took nearly 40 minutes to get these out but they were both great. Again, the dishes were less salty than comparable US dishes and were very filling and tasty. The service staff here was great and the whole place had a great relaxed vibe which made it one of our favorite jaunts while in the beautiful wind-swept beach town of Mancora.
The only Indian restaurant in Lima
As far as I could
tell google, the only Indian restaurant in Lima was the Mantra. The wife and I visited Mantra for dinner one night wondering what sort of Peruvian flair this meal had in store for us.
In spite of the music which was most definitely a 1999 Shah Rukh hits on infinite loop, we left satisfied customers. Our meal of Gobi Manchurian (Wet/Gravy), Aloo Gobi and Coconut Burfi was authentic, flavorful and satisfying. The restaurant owner chatted us up for a bit explaining how he procures many of the ingredients from the US while actually preparing the spices and powders in-house. The service was great and the crowd started to trickle in well after 10 PM. For those having Indian cravings, Mantra is a must-stop.
The Chocomuseo has branches across Peru and conducts 2 hour sessions and workshops on chocolate making and chocolate history. We made time for this in our first 24 hours in Lima and are very grateful we did. The folks here are as sweet as the dessert they work on every day and the 2 hour session involves roasting, grinding and tasting chocolate beans. The place offers up a variety of ways to eat or drink your chocolate. You can try chocolate flavored Pisco, jams or even tea.
We made a bunch of chocolate in shapes and sizes we liked and enjoyed them after. In a land renowned for chocolate and the cacao, Choco Museo is the must-see dessert spot.
Peru is a land where you are never too far from either the mystical or the modernest architecture. Peru is home to the potato, cacao and Pisco. Peru is a land of plenty and home to extraordinary food. Fusion, Italian, Chinese, Indian and local cuisines work hard to sate the vegetarian palate. The people are friendly and proud and I hope you have as funa culinary adventure in this great country as I did.