This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Peru

As a vegetarian, the traditional foods in Ecuador and Peru presented a challenge, as they focus heavily on meat. The national dish of Peru is “cuy chactado,” or fried guinea pig. Most Peruanos and Ecuadorianos who live in the highlands raise guinea pigs in pens beneath their homes in order to have a ready supply of this delicacy, which is served for special occasions and on holidays. In one such home I picked up one of the fuzzy little creatures, which promptly crawled onto my shoulder and nuzzled my ear. After that, even if I hadn’t been a vegetarian, the idea of eating guinea pig would have been appalling, however I’m sure Hindus feel the same way about Americans who eat beef, so I make no judgments.

Guinea Pigs (hamsters) raised in pens beneath homes in the highlands of Ecuador and Peru are used in the preparation of the national dish of Cuy

Guinea Pigs (hamsters) raised in pens beneath homes in the highlands of Ecuador and Peru are used in the preparation of the national dish of Cuy

Fortunately, I discovered plenty of vegetarian choices, as well as seafood options, which I will eat if absolutely necessary:

Mora berries, found throughout Ecuador and Peru, make delicious juices and desserts

Mora berries, found throughout Ecuador and Peru, make delicious juices and desserts

Mazamorra Morada, a classic Peruvian dessert made with purple corn and cinnamon cloves, accompanied by Rice Pudding

Mazamorra Morada, a classic Peruvian dessert made with purple corn and cinnamon cloves, accompanied by Rice Pudding

Puffed corn kernels, perhaps the most famous Peruvian snack

Puffed corn kernels, perhaps the most famous Peruvian snack

My favorite drink in Ecuador and Peru, Chicha Morada, made from purple corn

My favorite drink in Ecuador and Peru, Chicha Morada, made from purple corn

Create your own mix of fresh fruit juices at a street vendor

Create your own mix of fresh fruit juices at a street vendor

Corn on the cob - Choclo - served with a chunk of cheese, is available from street vendors throughout Ecuador and Peru

Corn on the cob – Choclo – served with a chunk of cheese, is available from street vendors throughout Ecuador and Peru

In Cuenca I discovered a tiny little pastry shop that specialized in Alfajores, which consist of two or more layers of baked pastry, filled with either manjar blanco (a caramel-colored, sweet, creamy filling made with milk and sugar) or molasses.

Traditional pastries at a shop in Cuenca, Ecuador

Traditional pastries at a shop in Cuenca, Ecuador

Got a hankering for something sweet? Buy a hunk of sugar cane and chew out the cane juice

Got a hankering for something sweet? Buy a hunk of sugar cane and chew out the cane juice

The seafood on the coast of Ecuador was some of the delicious I’ve ever tasted. It is sometimes served with a “Maní” sauce, which is made from peanuts, another local staple. Maní was also incorporated into desserts and salad dressings, and each version was delicious.

Fresh fish on the coast of Ecuador, served with rice and fried ripe plantains

Fresh fish on the coast of Ecuador, served with rice and fried ripe plantains

Fried calamari with rice and platanos (fried green plantains), a favorite on the coast of Ecuador

Fried calamari with rice and platanos (fried green plantains), a favorite on the coast of Ecuador

Chinese restaurants ("chifas") all over Ecuador and Peru serve a dish known as Chaufa, which is fried rice mixed with seafood or meat

Chinese restaurants (“chifas”) all over Ecuador and Peru serve a dish known as Chaufa, which is fried rice mixed with seafood or meat

Peru is famous for its Ceviche, which contains bite-size pieces of raw white fish marinated in lime juice and spicy chiles. The varieties are endless, but often contain giant steamed corn kernels, raw onion slivers, and boiled sweet potatoes (camote). I was fortunate to sample two of the more popular Ceviche recipes, as well as the traditional dishes of Tacu Tacu and Causa, when friends from Lima invited me to spend the day at their private club, the Rowing Club of Lima:

Traditional Ceviche of Peru

Traditional Ceviche of Peru

Peruvian ceviche with a twist: with sweet potatoes, corn, and a spicy red sauce

Peruvian ceviche with a twist: with sweet potatoes, corn, and a spicy red sauce

Tacu Tacu, a Peruvian loaf of molded rice, beans, and eggs topped with baked seafood and melted cheese

Tacu Tacu, a Peruvian loaf of molded rice, beans, and eggs topped with baked seafood and melted cheese

Peruvian Causa: Mashed yellow potato dumpling molded around crab on a bed of avocado sauce, topped with a Quail egg

Peruvian Causa: Mashed yellow potato dumpling molded around crab on a bed of avocado sauce, topped with a Quail egg

In Cusco, after a slow start during which I nearly starved, I discovered two restaurants that had delicious vegetarian cuisine, such as this Verduras Revueltas Cuscano (Cusco scrambled vegetables), which was made with 100% organic vegetables from local gardens and eggs from free-range chickens:

Verduras Revueltas Cuscano - literally scrambled organic vegetables and eggs, a specialty of Cusco, Peru

Verduras Revueltas Cuscano – literally scrambled organic vegetables and eggs, a specialty of Cusco, Peru

Potatoes originated in the Andes regions of South America. Today, an unbelievable 8,000 varieties are still grown in the Andes and the myriad shapes, sizes, and colors of potatoes available in local produce markets are absolutely mind-boggling. No surprise that much South American cuisine relies on this staple, such as this Papas a la Huancaína (Huancayo-style potatoes):

Papas a la Huancaina, Huancayo-style potatoes sliced and boiled, with a slightly spicy cheese sauce, topped with olives

Papas a la Huancaina, Huancayo-style potatoes sliced and boiled, with a slightly spicy cheese sauce, topped with olives

For the longest time I didn’t know what Habitas were; I just knew I craved them. Vendors would board the buses I rode around Ecuador and Peru, hawking plastic packages full of these popular snacks for what amounted to about 50 cents. I later learned that they are Fava beans, usually deep fried in peanut oil and then lightly salted:

Habitas, deep fried Fava beans sold by vendors on buses and street corners - delicious!

Habitas, deep fried Fava beans sold by vendors on buses and street corners – delicious!

Huge rounds of whole wheat bread at the San Pedro Market in Cusco, Peru

Huge rounds of whole wheat bread at the San Pedro Market in Cusco, Peru

Ecuador produces the world's finest chocolate

Ecuador produces the world’s finest chocolate

Some days I was so hungry that I forgot to take photos of my meals before eating, so you will just have to take it on faith (without a mouth-watering photo) that visitors to Ecuador and Peru should also try the following:

  • Guanabana juice, squeezed from a semi-ugly, bumpy globular fruit with milky white flesh. It’s absolutely exquisite
  • Pan de Yuca (cassava): bread made from this starchy tuber is moist and full of good things for the body; I found this bread mostly in Ecuador. In Peru, cassava is used to make a soup known as Yuca chupe.
  • Lúcuma ice cream, made from the exotic Lúcuma fruit that is almost exclusively found in Andes regions. Not to be missed.

Happy eating!

Series NavigationShining City By the Sea – Lima, Peru
Traditional Foods in Ecuador and Peru