I knew ceviche was coming. To many it’s the most famous and exportable dish of Peru, and a requisite part of any tourist’s dining experience in the capital. What I didn’t expect was to be eating ceviche made of sole that had been caught just hours ago a few meters away from our group’s table by the sea in Chorrillos. And that’s when you realize Lima, the bustling capital of Peru, with its imposing size and cacophony of traffic, is perhaps unmatched in its ability to sustain a way of life that centers on tradition and locally sourced ingredients.
The stop here is just one among many on the food tour offered by the local bike company, Lima Bici. Once outfitted with your bike and helmet, the journey starts off in the Miraflores neighborhood, but you don’t stay here for too long. A guide will take you south towards Chorrillos via the Malecon, a pedestrianized pathway full of green parks that borders the Costa Verde, the steep cliffs that drop into Lima’s Pacific coast. It’s a pleasure to find a moment of serenity here in this chaotic city – in a place where motorized transport rules the streets, you wouldn’t think that you could take in the city via bike and breathe in the clean salty air wafting in from the ocean.
If you thought you knew ceviche, think again
After about 40 minutes of cruising via the Malecon from Larcomar, winding our way past the neighborhood of Barranco, we made our way down the cliffside path towards Chorrillos for our first stop at the Playa del Pescadores. If you’ve never been to Lima before and aren’t lucky enough to know a local or two, understandably you might be reluctant to visit a neighborhood like Chorrillos, a true working class district of Lima just south of Barranco. But then you’d miss out on the rare opportunity to eat the classic limeño dish the way it was meant to be eaten, and the even rarer opportunity to see firsthand how it makes its way from the sea to your plate, how it continues to form an integral part of the local economy here in this district.
After parking our bikes, we boarded a boat to take a 20 minute tour. While you take in more views of famous coastline, you can also catch the fisherman at work in their colorful wooden boats and observe the local ecosystem up close – giant pelicans flocking on a bed of rocks and a sea lion or two if you’re lucky. At the playa del Pescadores, the fishermen sell their catch of the day direct on the docks. And where there’s fresh fish there’s ceviche, and you have your pick among a row of restaurants just steps from the water.
We had our first food stop at the cevichería Mary y Papo. As we feasted on their ceviche, made the traditional way with raw white fish (in this case lenguado or sole) marinated in lime juice, red onion, and chilis (usually ají limo) and served with a couple of slices of sweet potato and sprigs of culantro, our guide Tomas shared with us what makes the dish so special. First of all, it’s recommended that you eat it as early as possible in the day. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve usually eaten ceviche at dinner, and while no one will stop you, most limeños know it’s best to eat it as early as possible in the day, as the freshness of the fish dictates the texture and flavors.
Maybe some rules ought to matter for a dish with such a history. One theory says that ceviche goes as far back as the pre-Incan Moche culture, when sour fruits and chilis were used to marinate the fish; this evolved over time with the coming of the Spanish, who brought citrus and onions. The modern-day version has its origins in the North, in Piura, where the limón is naturally cultivated and is now considered essential to making a proper ceviche. I don’t know if it was the experience of eating this right by the sea or hearing these stories, but the symphony of each of these ingredients became apparent as I took each bite – everything about it just seemed so right.
A cuisine rooted in history
With our bellies satiated for the moment, the second and last longer leg of the journey would take us back towards Barranco, where’d we do a bit of exploring on foot of the bohemian neighborhood and yes, continue eating. With our bikes parked near the main square, we crossed over to Juanito, a bodega bar that has been serving drinks and food to locals for over 70 years. As overused as this term is, old-school really is the best way to describe this place and its rustic decor. With bottles of piscos and other liqueurs lining the walls on both sides, alongside a few early 20th century antiques, you get the sense little has changed here over the years – tradition still reigns for a place located right smack in the middle of a very trendy district.
At Juanito we had the opportunity to try some more of Lima’s most famous dishes, including causa and ají de gallina. Like many dishes within the Peruvian cuisine, causa has evolved over time. It’s one of my favorite things to eat yet, on paper, the description of the dish fails to be tempting – a cold dish of mashed potatoes and creamy fish shaped into a cylindrical form not unlike that made famous by nouvelle cuisine. But it’s the lime and ají amarillo (the staple chili pepper) that uplift the creamy yellow potatoes, which act as the bed for the supple morsels of seasoned seafood and slices of ripe avocado tucked into this layered dish. As Tomas told us, causa is said to have originated during the war for independence, when new uses for cheap staple ingredients like potatoes became essential, and preservation a necessity. The name is said to be a representation of the fight for independence, e.g. the ‘cause’. A less grandiose theory assigns the origin to the Quechua word ‘kausay’ meaning necessary sustenance.
Over time, the dish became more adorned, and new ways of preparation incorporate anything from tuna, octopus, or crab, to chicken and vegetables. Luckily we didn’t have to choose just one on this tour – we had a sample of 3 different varieties, including the traditional white fish with mayonnaise; a version with grilled octopus seasoned with bright green huacatay (an Andean herb), ají limo, and garlic; and finally a tiradito version. Tiradito is a close cousin of ceviche, where the fish is pounded flat, similarly to carpaccio, before being marinated in an acidic, usually spicy, juice. While it almost pains me to write this, causa for me is the near perfect marriage of surf and turf.
This was followed by a tasting of ají de gallina. Ají de gallina has its origins in comida criolla, influenced by colonialism and the influx of French creole traditions. I’ve had versions of this dish many times but was struck by the sweet and spicy richness of this one. It was then brought to my attention that Juanito’s version incorporates a unique ingredient – ground peanuts or maní. Along with stale bread, soda crackers, and evaporated milk (yes you read that correctly), the peanuts add essential body to the sauce, but, like many other Peruvian dishes I’ve been trying on this tour, also work in harmony with the ají amarillo and the parmesan cheese that are used to flavor the shredded chicken. While I’ve always appreciated the combination of spices and cheese in the version I’m used to, Juanito’s take on the dish added a welcome layer of complexity and smokiness.
Let them eat cake!
Now you didn’t think we’d have a food tour without something sweet. La Panadera is a small bakery and cafe about 5 mins walk away from the main square on Jr. Alfonso Ugarte. With locations in Lima and Urubamba, the site in Barranco is a simple unadorned shop where you can stop in for a range of organic baked goods, including cakes, cookies, brownies and bread.
They aim to use as many ingredients as possible that are cultivated in Peru and purchased directly from local producers. There are many gluten-free and vegan options too so no excuses not to indulge your sweet tooth on the tour. I sampled the maracuya loaf cake, moist and studded with passion fruit seeds. Other options include cacao with brazil nuts, platano (banana) and aguaymanto (gooseberry). And if you needed another reason to visit, they were featured in this year’s Mistura, so no need to doubt their credibility.
You will not drink yet another pisco sour
A perfect way to cap off this arduous day of eating was with a tasting of cold beer. Although you’re probably used to seeing pisco sours touted as the Peruvian beverage, and you’d be right to try a few when here, limeños also appreciate a cold brew, and are perfectly happy with Pilsen Callao. But when you can also have the opportunity to sample beer made in small batches, it’s not unwelcome, as the thriving craft beer scene here can attest to. We stopped by the Barranco Beer Company just down the street from the main square.
Opened only in 2013 by two cousins whose grandfather once worked at the aforementioned Pilsen Callao, it’s a large modernized brewpub serving food, but still brewing its beers onsite. We had our pick among their range offered that day and I went for the Lupulo, their take on a lager. Normally I view lagers as unadventurous but was intrigued by the fact that it was described as a “hoppy lager.” Ok I might have also been convinced by the fact that it is touted as their award winning beer. While lagers tend to be characterized as quite clean, drinkable and, to many, bland, I found that the addition of hops to their version added character and body; and at 5% ABV you can probably swill down a few without getting into too much trouble.
Following the last stop, we made our way back to Lima Bici’s office in Miraflores. It was the early evening by this point, but in a less than a day I managed to come away with a nuanced understanding of what’s integral to life in Lima today, and how that’s best translated via its food. If you find yourself in Lima, making an effort to incorporate a food experience like this into your schedule is arguably as important as fitting in a visit to the Museo Larco or a stop by the Plaza de Armas. And if you have any qualms about the calorie intake, at the very least, getting some exercise by a bike ride was a guilt free way to do that.