What to Order at a Menú in Lima, Peru
By: Zach Diamond
Walking into a menú for the first time as a foreigner can be stressful. There’s no hostess to seat you nor printed menus to read, nobody speaks a lick of English, and it’s typically all around chaos. If you wait for instructions, it’s going to make it all the more confusing. So, go ahead and seat yourself. If there are no empty tables, sit with some strangers. This is totally normal as most people there are on a quick lunch break and don’t have time to wait for an opening.
As soon as you sit, the server will bring a beverage, a dish of spicy salsa de rocoto, and some limes. If your drink is yellow, it is likely emoliente, a Peruvian sweet tea made by boiling barley and flax with herbs and spices. If it’s purple, then it’s chicha morada, a delicious drink prepared by boiling purple corn with fruits like pineapple and quince.
After placing these in front of you, the server will expect you to order your entrada, or your first course. I find it best to know what you would like for your entrada before sitting down, so take a look at the menú del dia as you walk in and have what you are going to order in mind.
Most places only offer two options for your entrada, typically soup or salad, but some offer more. It is also common for places to offer ceviche as an entrada for a small upcharge, but I would make sure it’s a clean establishment before going straight for the raw fish. Below are some common options you will see offered.
Caldo de Gallina/Pollo (Chicken Soup):
Probably the safest option in terms of ordering something delicious, caldos (soups) are the most common entrada at los menús. Both caldo de gallina and pollo are chicken soups, the only difference being that gallina is an older chicken previously used for eggs. Served with chopped vegetables, noodles, and bits of chicken, this soup is reminiscent of the chicken noodle soup from your childhood. Maybe the only difference is the surprise element of which chicken part you will receive. Because the soup is made from the leftovers of the chicken, it most frequently contains necks, hearts, gizzards and feet. However, this doesn’t make it any less delicious. If you can embrace it, it can become somewhat of a fun game: “Which part of the chicken am I going to get today!!” If you order caldo de gallina, you can get particularly lucky as gallina is sold with the unborn eggs left in the body. If you find a super creamy and dense yolk in your soup, you hit the jackpot.
Another chicken soup, aguadito is made with large amounts of cilantro giving it a green color. I most often saw it served with rice instead of noodles in the soup, but still contains chopped vegetables and various chicken bits. This soup is a bit more refreshing than caldo de pollo/gallina because of the fresh cilantro flavor. I enjoy eating it with a squeeze of lime and dash of spicy rocoto.
In Peru, avocados are called palta. Ensalada palta is an avocado salad made with tomatoes, red onion, and lime. A great option for a light, healthy entrada.
If you’re looking for something not so light, try and find some tequeños. Deep-fried wonton dough stuffed with melty cheese, tequeños are the Latin American mozzarella stick. Served alongside guacamole for dipping instead of marinara, you can’t go wrong ordering these.
One of the more uniquely-Peruvian entradas, huancaína is a creamy cheese sauce that takes on a yellow color from the use of ají amarillo, Peruvian yellow peppers. The sauce is poured over sliced, boiled potatoes, served cold, and garnished with black olives and boiled eggs. I only ordered this dish once, and, quite honestly, didn’t care for it that much. But, if you’re looking for something different to try, huancaína could be it.
At some point during your entrada, your server will ask you what you’d like for your next course, the segundo. Because there are so many dishes offered as segundos, it would be impossible for me to explain each one. However, here are some key dishes and terms that will help you get somewhat of an understanding of what you are ordering.
Seco - Stews
All in all, the secos were my favorite segundo at los menús. Most often seco de res (beef), de pollo (chicken), or de cordero (lamb), these were pretty much always amazing and incredibly flavorful. Served with rice, beans, and sliced red onion and tomato, these are hearty dishes that will get you through the day. My favorite segundo, seco a la norteña, is a dish from Northern Peru, cooked in a spiced, cilantro sauce and traditionally made with cabrito (goat). It’s absolutely delicious and achieves an insane amount of flavor.
Ají de Gallina
A traditional Peruvian dish definitely worth trying, ají de gallina consists of shredded chicken cooked in a creamy ají sauce. Made from ají amarillo, the dish is vibrant yellow but not spicy. Served with boiled potatoes, white rice, and garnished black olives and boiled eggs, ají de gallina is a unique and tasty staple in Peruvian cuisine.
Fish is found served a variety of ways at menús. Two common dishes are pescado frito, fried fish either whole or filleted, and sudado de pescado, fish simmered in spices. At some menús, pescado frito is most definitely the move. Before ordering, I like to ask what type of fish they are frying. At one place, they were serving whole fried cabrilla, a Peruvian sea bass, that was outstanding. Most places serve fried bonito fillets, served with rice and beans. Sudado de pescado is a traditional Peruvian dish in which the fish is simmered in a broth of onions, garlic, ají, cilantro, and spices, and served with rice. The first time I tried the dish was in Mercado San Martin de Porres, where they used fresh bonito. It was spicy, complex, and the fish was cooked perfectly. The second place I tried, however, used canned mackerel, which was greasy and full of bones. Moral of the story, when it comes to pescado, try and get an idea of the quality of fish before ordering.
Literally meaning jumped, saltado is the word for stir fried in Peru. One of the most famous dishes in Peru, lomo saltado, is made with beef loin, however, many other saltados are also popular such as pollo (chicken), higado (liver), and mollejas (gizzards). Despite the different meats, all saltados are basically cooked the same. Stir fried with onions, peppers, tomatoes and soy sauce, the Chinese influence in Peruvian cooking really shows through in these dishes. Right before serving, papas fritas (French fries) are tossed into the pan and it is poured over rice.
A traditional Andean dish, carapulcra is made by stewing dehydrated potatoes with pork, ají, peanuts, and spices. The result is an intense, hearty brown porridge that’s delicious over rice. Carapulcra is another dish worth trying, since you might not get the chance outside of Peru!
Key terms to know:
Tallarin - pasta, usually similar to fettuccine
Milanesa - breaded and fried
Picante - a dish stir-fried with chilis
Al horno - roasted
Guiso - a stew
Estofado - pot roasted
Trigo - a wheat grain, similar to farro
Higado - liver
Mollejas - gizzards
Con frijoles - with beans
Garbanso - with garbanzo beans
Con yuca - with yuca
Con papas - with potato