All manner of adjective-laden treatises have been written about the wonders of Peruvian food: the earthy taste of the countless varieties of potato, the lemon-y tartness of the local seafood ceviches, the subtle mingling of Spanish, indigenous and Asian flavors—not to mention all that roasted guinea pig. Missing from all that breathless coverage? Peru’s industrious array of bad-for-you foods, including hot dogs wrapped in waffles and hamburgers stuffed with fried eggs and plantains. Together, these unsung foodstuffs not only come in a rainbow of hallucinatory colors, they offer a bonanza of unusual textures and taste experiences. Plus, they couldn’t get more local. Try finding a non-Peruvian who’ll eat cake that’s been suspended in Jell-O.
Herewith, my handy guide to the best and the weirdest:
Peru takes the idea of the corndog and elevates it to the level of Churrigueresque sculpture. The basic formula consists of an unnaturally pink hot dog baked into a savory waffle crust. The whole package is then embellished with a careful application of ketchup, mustard and mayo in patterns worthy of Joan Miró. In its most extreme variation, the Yogui is also stuffed with hunks of mild, white cheese. Depending on the quality of the wiener — which can range from good to nefarious — it can be an excellent post-beer snack. It is found in most big cities, with the one above hailing from a street stall on the Calle Marques in Cuzco.
The Tamale Sandwich
In a country where almost of a third of the population lives under the poverty line, it is no surprise that someone would invent a carbohydrate bomb like “pan con tamale” — aka the tamale sandwich. (A good way of keeping the belly filled while tending to the needs of the fair-skinned oligarchy.) Somehow, it all works: the greasy moistness of a pork tamale is balanced by the crustiness of a French loaf, all of it cut by a bracing pile of onions marinated in lime juice. And since Peru is a place where too many ingredients are never enough, some sandwich makers have started piling on the add-ons. See Exhibit A, above, from Juanito’s in Cuzco, where the humble pan con tamale is stacked with grilled chicken, fried cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, marinated onions and chilies, along with various sauces, including chimichurri. Welcome to starchy paradise on a bun.
Peru is a country that adores Jell-O. Ladies ply cups of it at the mercados and it appears regularly as a dessert item on local menus. The torta helada is the most psychedelic manifestation of this deep affection: a slab of cake (chocolate or vanilla or both) suspended within two layers of gelatin — one a dense, gummy sheet of transparent, fruity Jell-O; the other, a fluffy gelatin parfait. Flavor-wise, it is a mystery wrapped in an enigma entombed in frosting. Or like eating a piece of cake with a slab of Jell-O on top. It is inexplicable, yet attractive — and downright miraculous if you’re five years old. As a general rule, the best, moistest tortas heladas can be found in Arequipa (at the bakeries on Calle Mercaderes) or in Lima (Wong supermarkets sell good ones by the slice — as in the one above).
Hamburguesa a lo pobre
For late-night pisco benders, the Peruvian fast-food chain Bembos (which has branches in Lima, Cuzco, Arequipa and Puno) has devised the country’s most remarkable booze sponge: a hamburger, topped with shaved onions, tomatoes, plantain bananas and a fried egg. Though the meat has the consistency of a hockey puck, it’s the generous application of the chain’s proprietary hot sauce — a salty-delicious crème of yellow Peruvian chilies — that makes this a must-try. Altogether, a taste bud-defying blend of the sweet, the sharp and the searing — the sort of thing that makes a Big Mac look dour by comparison.
Fried dough. Every culture has a version, and the Peruvian edition is crafted from wheat flour that is dotted with anise and blended with sweet potatoes or pumpkin (or both). This produces a tempura-like fritter with a light, earthy taste, which is then topped with a liberal dose of molasses syrup. In other words, sheer greasy glory when they’re fresh out of the fryer. Even more so at 1am, when you’ve been partying your way through every last cumbia-blaring bar in Barranco, Lima’s nightlife hub. While most joints in the neighborhood sell picarones, you’ll find the lightest and crispest at El Tio Mario, within view of the Puente de los Suspiros — a small wood bridge where young Limeños go to get romantic.
Bus Station Food
Any trip of significant length to Peru at some point requires some ungodly bus ride. And unless you’re thinking of dipping into the cleavered hunks of roasted lamb sold out of buckets by some altiplano entrepreneur, snacks are essential. NatuChips’ sweet potato chips are the perfect bus food: a light blend of salty and sweet that won’t require gallons of water to digest, thereby avoiding a visit to the dreaded bus station bathroom. Likewise with the brilliantly simple ChokoSodas (at center) — aka a saltine cracker dipped in chocolate; aka the poor man’s salty chocolate — which is as filling as it is subtly sweet. For dessert, there are Glacitas (buttery vanilla cookies drizzled in chocolate) and Cua Cuas (a super light vanilla wafer dipped in an even lighter layer of chocolate). While these snacks are excellent under any circumstances, do note that they pair especially well with the Jean-Claude Van Damme film festivals that are regularly held on all Latin American buses.
Okay, so Peruvians didn’t invent candied apples. And they certainly don’t have a monopoly on them. But Lima street vendors have taken the dips to new Pop Art heights. Shown here are apples dipped in candy coats that purport to be grape (purple), spearmint (green) and custard apple (blue). To be certain, custard apples aren’t blue. (They’re green and white.) And lord knows that no actual grapes were harmed to make that gleaming coat of purple, which tasted like equal parts sugar and FD&C food dyes. But who cares when the end result is so garishly sculptural? Which brings me to flavors: I would never recommend actually eating these. I do, however, suggest taking one home and simply admiring it.