You’ll find coca marmalade and giant corn in the ancient Incan Empire’s capital city.

Cusco, Peru
Credit: © Carey Jones

Nestled in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco is a city of spectacular architecture and long history. And today, the capital of the ancient Incan Empire has become an interesting food destination. “Cusco’s diverse gastronomy is inspired by traditions and culture,” says Rely Alencastre Lazo, executive sous chef at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco. Here, the best traditional dishes and neo-Andean innovations to seek out.

  1. Supay Quinoa Pale Ale. This delicious beer is brewed locally in Cusco by one of the city’s small handful of craft breweries (which work together under the newly formed Cervecerías Artesanales del Perú association). Named after the Incan ruler of the underworld, it’s only available within Cusco and is made using local quinoa instead of barley or wheat.
  2. Pachamanca. This traditional dish of slow-cooked meat, corn, cheese, and potatoes nods to an ancient Incan style of cooking (pachamanca means “earth oven” in Quechua). Although you can find upscale versions at restaurants, the best way to experience pachamanca is to book an excursion to the Sacred Valley and dig in for yourself.
  3. Caldo de Gallina. Every morning, Cusquenians line up at the food stands inside the San Pedro Market for a steaming bowl of Caldo de Gallina. This power breakfast consists of a rich broth loaded with boiled chicken, spices, vegetables and noodles. Top it with local hot sauce and you have the perfect Peruvian hangover cure.
  4. Choclo. More popularly known as simply “giant white corn,” this Peruvian crop is one of the country’s first foods to get Protected Denomination of Origin status. Choclo has the largest kernel in the world and is grown only in Cusco’s Sacred Valley, where it dries in the sun for 45 days before ending up as anything from choclo con queso (boiled or roasted ears served with a slice of cheese, a popular street food), crema de choclo (cremed corn soup) or the ever-so-amazing giant corn nut snack called Inka Corn (look for it con chile picante).
  5. Salsa de Soya. When Chinese immigrants came to work the farmlands of Cusco in the early 1850s, they not only introduced a new type of cuisine (“chifa,” a Chinese and Peruvian fusion), but also the soybean. Today Peru produces its own soy sauce called salsa de soya that carries a distinctly Andean terroir. The Peruvian version’s darker color and heftier aroma may only be noticeable to super-sensitive palates in a taste test, but there’s no substitution when it comes to preparing authentic lomo saltado.
  6. Alpaca Burger. Cusco is alpaca central. You’ll find scarves, hats, shoes, steaks and at least one seriously great burger. While chef Gaston Acurio’s tasting menu inside Casa Moreyra at Astrid y Gaston in Lima focuses on the pure flavors from the country (his latest menu including 30 courses over the span of three hours), his menu at Papacho’s in Cusco takes Peruvian flavors into the realm of bar food. His alpaca burger is amazing, with spicy pickled peppers and solterito.
  7. Coca Marmalade. Coca leaves are synonymous with Cusco. Typically consumed as a tea, the leaves are an ancient Incan remedy used to ward off altitude sickness. (In a city that sits 11,000 feet above sea level, help in any form is welcome.) The city produces coca candy, coca gelato, and a very delicious coca marmalade that adds an earthy essence of sweet honey and leafy coca to buttered toast.