When visiting the Cusco region there are several ways in which you can dine, from a home cooked meal to McDonalds and almost anywhere in between, you can browse a buffet lunch while on a group tour or enjoy an evening of fine dining. Peru has become a strong player on the food scene and Cusco is no exception to this, while the buffets tend to keep to traditional Peruvian food, the large touristy restaurants tend to lean towards the fusion side and may not do as much traditional Peruvian cooking as some of the smaller restaurants.
My theory when traveling has always been to eat local, When we traveled to Italy I wanted to eat Italian food, I have no interest in eating Chinese food in Italy or Italian food in Mexico, don’t get me wrong, if you are away from home long enough you may want some variety, or feel the need for some home town flavor. When it comes to Peruvian food there is a wide variety so sample, as each region has its own specialty and, like the US, immigrants have added to the existing diversity.
Here are a few things that I would recommend to put on your radar if you plan to visit. The first is Chifa, now I know you are probably thinking ‘I can eat Chinese food at home, why eat it in Peru’, at least that’s what I kept saying on my first trip, but Chifa is a little different. Chinese immigrants came to Peru in the late 19th and early 20th century’s, being unable to find all of the ingredients they were used to, they had to make substitutions for ingredients they could find in Peru, which of course changed the flavor of the dishes. I have always enjoyed the sweet and sour dishes so a few of my favorites are Kam lu Wantan, Pineapple Chicken and pretty much any citrus Chicken.
Another dish to try while you are visiting Peru is ceviche, while available in many countries, including the US, each country and sometimes region has its own unique flavors. The best place to sample Peruvian ceviche is while you are in Lima, as this is a coastal city and offers the freshest and widest varieties of this popular dish, while this falls outside my topic of dining in Cusco, I thought it appropriate to include as Lima is where your flight to Cusco will most likely originate. Lima is scattered with cevicharias, restaurants specializing in ceviche, so finding a place to enjoy this popular dish should be no problem.
For those brave souls, a visit to Cusco should also include cuy. I will save you the trouble of looking it up and tell you it is guinea pig, yes in the Peruvian Andes they eat guinea pig. Not just in Peru but several of the countries that have an Andean population eat cuy. The use of cuy as food in the Andes has a history that extends back to before the Spanish came and introduced larger animals. In the high altitudes of the Andes large game is scarce; the main animals being camelids (llamas, alpaca, etc.) which were sacred to the native population. This meant that another source of protein was needed, cuy was a perfect choice as they are small and easy to raise, can be feed leftover vegetables and greens, breed like rabbits, and are lower in fat and higher in protein than chickens. Yes I have tried cuy and I found it quite tasty and no, it does not taste like chicken. The only thing that I did not care fore was that it was fried, this made it a bit greasy for my tastes but I look forward to trying it again with a different preparation, maybe roasted next time.
To sample some good Peruvian comfort food, get a few blocks away from the main tourist areas and look for a place with a 5-7 soles menu, yes you can get a meal in Cusco for under $2 dollars which should include a drink (usually chicha). A menu usually consists of a soup or salad, main dish, drink and occasionally desert. The one thing I would advise when trying one of these smaller eateries is to apply a little common sense, if the place and staff look clean, smells clean and there are a few people eating there it is probably safe to try, on the other hand if it smells bad or looks dirty, I would avoid it, being sick on vacation is no fun.
My final recommendation is to (here comes the advertisement) try the Lechon or roast pig in Huarocondo, the town of Huarocondo is 30min from Cusco and known as the Capital of Lechon, every November there is a festival celebrating this local specialty as well as the city’s founding. The process of making lechon involves seasoning the pig and then roasting it in an adobe oven for 4-6 hours, this slow roasting makes the pig juicy, tender and very flavorful. Lechon is sold by street venders around the plaza and costs around 10 soles for a large piece of meat and a piece of local bread, drinks are extra.