I've been cooking quinoa all wrong. 

Credit: SOPA Images/Getty Images

I came to Peru with vague ideas about its complicated hyphenated culinary marriages. I expected to find European-indigenous hybrids like the ubiquitous pollo a la brasa (spicy rotisserie chicken invented by a couple of Swiss entrepreneurs) and pisco sours dotted with Angostura bitters (the creation of an expat Mormon from Utah). And I knew, of course, about ceviche, having tasted some version of the flash-marinated dish in every country I’d ever visited. But I was astonished by Peru’s actual, immense catalog of native ingredients and crazy overlapping of cultures and cuisines.

From Lima and Machu Picchu to the Sacred Valley and Cusco (and I do recommend that order, for acclimation sake), each stop was a lesson in connecting the hyperlocal food to its history and terroir. But no food lover visits Peru just once. Thank goodness the shaman who read my coca leaves told me I’d be coming back.

1. Sweet potato is a normal thing in ceviche.

Jane sigal
Credit: Jane Sigal

For someone who’s been eating ceviche for the past 20 years, I ... know nothing. At a cooking class at Lima’s contemporary art–filled Belle Epoque Hotel B, in the groovy seaside Barranco neighborhood, I think the little bowls of orange juice–braised sweet potato and two types of corn (Peru has something like 35 varieties) are my instructor’s little Andean twist. But as I toss the salted chunks of corvina (a relative of sea bass) with citrus, ice cubes (to tame the acid), red onion slivers and dill, I learn these are foundational elements of ceviche clásico. This new-to-me OG version is a ménage à trois of influences: Japanese (superfresh, raw Pacific seafood), Spanish (lime juice), and Peruvian (hot red limo and mild yellow chiles, potato and corn). Countless more regional, mestizo and personal variations exist in this country, from hot stone, Creole and Chinese to Amazonian, Italian and Venezuelan (Peru’s newest immigrant cuisine). I’m not an expert on ceviche yet, but now I eat like one.

Hotel B, 204 Jiron Saenz Peña, Barranco, Lima; +51-1-206-0800; hotelb.pe

2. Potatoes fed Peru’s War of Independence.

Credit: Jane Sigal

Causa (for the cause!), a glorious multitiered whipped-potato salad, was originally combat rations. Fortifying and portable, it sustained Peru’s freedom fighters as they battled Spanish rule from 1811 to 1826. But this revolutionary food is still much appreciated, and by civilians. To feed a crowd, home cooks spread mayonnaise-y salads like chicken or tuna between two silky layers of vivid yellow mashed potatoes in a lasagna-type pan. An edible adornment, usually composed of hard-cooked eggs, fresh tomatoes, black olives and avocado, allows for artistic expression. Elite chefs see the dish as open to interpretation. At Maras Restaurante in Lima’s Westin Hotel, for instance, Rafael Piqueras revamps the homely classic as a polished hors-d’oeuvre. Deploying a plastic-covered sushi mat, he rolls the soft potato around the filling into a long rope and slices it into two-bite pieces. In both home and restaurant variants, the potato’s natural ochre color is boosted with a paste made from ají amarillo, a medium-hot yellow chile. And its starchiness is simultaneously enlivened with lime juice and smoothed with oil, which also moistens the mixture, adds a little shine and holds it together. According to Peruvian agronomist Manuel Choqque, who wants to blow up what he calls the myth of the potato’s poor nutritional value, it’s actually high in antioxidants. Maybe causa has a new mission.

Maras Restaurante 339 Calle Amador Merino Reyna, San Isidro, Lima; +51-1-201-5000; marasrestaurante.com.pe

3. There are more than one million Peruvians with Chinese ancestry.

Credit: Jane Sigal

Chinese workers came to Peru in the 1850s, to replace freed Africans on plantations after slavery was abolished here in 1854, and many stayed on. Today, unassuming Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) storefronts line Lima’s colonial center and Barrio Chino, and their specialties, like sopa wantan, lomo saltado (stir-fried beef, a cornerstone of the Peruvian dining vernacular) and pato asado pekines (Peking duck)—served with Inca Cola, a supersweet, fluorescent-yellow soda—are embraced by all Limeños. Even at the coolly understated Barra Lima, in the city’s chic San Isidro neighborhood, nostalgic Chifa cooking is a huge inspiration for chef John Evans, who also reimagines other retro favorites like sanguches (roughly, sandos), ceviches and causas (layered potato salads). Sitting at one of the spare wooden tables, I note the modern handmade ceramics and small bar where you can eat, drink and watch the cooks at work—international signs of the ambitious restaurant in a bistro. But Evan’s ode to chaufa (here, a mountain of seafood fried rice augmented by a thatch of wispy wonton noodles) and pesca entera (whole catfishlike doncella, deep-fried to a crackliness that turns the entire carcass into the best marine chip you’ve ever tasted), plus housemade chicha morada (a sweet nonalcoholic brew of purple corn and pineapple) create a menu mix that could only coexist in Peru.

Barra Lima, 904 Avenida Conquistadores, San Isidro, Lima; +51-963-160-474; facebook.com/barralimaperu

4. Peru’s massively influential Nikkei cuisine was created by a tiny population of Japanese immigrants and their descendants.

Maido, Lima
Credit: © Pocho Caceres

In the fluted porcelain bowl with delicate stripes, the chawanmushi looks exactly like a classic Japanese savory custard, but the wobbling egg mixture is infused with ají negro, potent fermented yuca from the Amazon. I’m at Maido in Lima’s elegant Miraflores district, a repeat winner of the World’s 50 Best top restaurant award in Latin America, to sample chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s ultramodern take on Peruvian cooking by way of Japan. So for a Nikkei classic like pulpo al olivo, Mitsuharu reworks the original purplish olive mayonnaise into a block of black olive “tofu” topped with crispy quinoa. He also puts a hard sear on the boiled octopus, gaining some necessary crunch and smoke. Although today Japanese-Peruvians make up less than one percent of the country’s population, their cuisine has triumphed globally in recent years, with risk-taking chefs opening Nikkei restaurants beyond Lima, in L.A., Las Vegas, New York and Barcelona.

Maido, 399 Calle San Martin, Miraflores, Lima; +51-1-313-5100; maido.pe

5. Peruvians eat a lot of pasta and pizza.

On Inca Rail’s First Class train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, as the rural highlands of adobe houses, cornfields and soaring snowcapped mountains unspool out the panoramic window, lunch is served. I would be less surprised by a whole grilled cuy (guinea pig), llama jerky or chuño (freeze-dried potato, a product of pre-Hispanic technology) than I am by the neat rectangle of panko-stubbled chicken milanesa set before me. For the rest of the ride, which includes drinking pisco sours with corn nuts in the club car while leaning perilously over an open balcony and listening to Andean musicians, I’m mystified. I realize Italian food is the world’s most popular cuisine, but, in fact, here, the craving is, at least partly, historical. Italian settlers arrived in droves in the mid-19th century, and Peruvians, having always recognized the gastronomic value of immigrant cuisines, readily adopted this pleasure-focused cooking. It’s often altered, improvised from what’s on hand, as in tallarines verdes (the local spaghetti al pesto, with queso fresco and spinach) and Peruvian pizza (strewn with any number of native ingredients). Inca Rail’s commissary is not trying to do anything foreign or fancy. It’s just serving something true to Peru’s identity.

Inca Rail incarail.com

6. Syncretism, the mixing of different religions, cultures and ethnicities, often ends up creating entirely new ones.

Credit: Oleksandra Korobova/Getty Images

Through the luxurious Sumaq Hotel in Aguas Calientes, the base camp for travel to the magnificent Machu Picchu sanctuary, I tour the ancient Incan ruins with a shaman. According to general manager Anibal Clavijo Begazo, a Catholic, having an Incan spiritual guide is nothing unusual, and his heartfelt respect for indigenous traditions permeates the hotel’s activities. So after my morning pilgrimage, I learn about corn beers—the dry ancestral chicha de jora and lightly sweet, pink frutillada, infused with red fruits. Both fermented drinks are essential companions to pachamanca, a special-occasion Andean feast that reminds me of a New England clambake. I watch as Sumaq cooks in fireproof gloves unpack the earth oven, removing dirt, potato sacks, leaves and rocks from a pit to reveal steaming leaf-wrapped packets of Andean tubers, beans, corn and meat that’ve been marinated in local herbs like huacatay (a kind of marigold) and mintlike muña. If I had an extra day, I would definitely join Sumaq’s visit to the Maras salt flats that includes a seasonal lunch near the Moray agricultural terraces and a tutorial by ancient-foods expert Manuel Choqque. Instead, I’m going to marvel at the pointy green mountaintops outside my window from the perspective of a soothing in-room Jacuzzi. Then I’ll float downstairs to a six-course flavors-of-the-Andes tasting menu.

Sumaq Hotel, Avenida Hermanos Ayer, Machu Picchu; +51-518-421-1059; sumaqhotelperu.com

7. Coca tea really does keep you from being lightheaded.

Credit: TammyVet/Getty Images

As a F&W food editor for nine-plus years, I introduced celebrity chefs, renowned winemakers and epicurean insiders at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Cooking demonstrations! Wine tastings! Panel discussions! And, in my case, the queasy fog of mountain sickness. So I’m astonished when I arrive at the Tambo del Inka hotel in oxygen-deprived Urubamba, at more than 9,400 feet, and then, without so much as a headache, take off on an epic ebike ride, scaling ancient Incan walls and the Urubamba River embankment. Check-in at Tambo del Inka, as well as at every other hotel in the Andes, comes with a restorative drink, often an herb tea, such as minty muña, or slightly bitter coca, the raw leaves of the coca plant, the same one used to make cocaine. Coca is a mild stimulant, and after drinking cup after cup of it for a few days, I’m not affected at all by the thin air. Which means I have a good appetite. Happily, since Tambo del Inka has a terrific breakfast buffet—an eclectic combo of Western classics (eggs benedict), Peruvian-accented healthy-vibing carbs (amaranth bars, quinoa-and-chia muffins) and, daringly, for an upscale hotel, a spread of proletarian fare, including clay pot pork stew with chiles and corn beer. Although the Urubamba Valley produces exceptional coffee, I prudently wash my bounteous meal down with more coca tea.

Tambo del Inka, Avenida Ferrocarril S/N, Urubamba; +51-84-581-777; tambodelinkaresort.com

8. The rotisserie chicken and French fry chains are threatening Peru’s 4,000 types of potatoes.

Credit: Courtesy of César del Rio

Overlooking the ruins of Moray, the multiple arena-like circular terraces built by the Incas to study crops at different altitudes, Virgilio Martínez of award-winning Central in Lima has created Mil, his own food lab-slash-austerely elegant restaurant. I feel like a grad student on a field trip as I tour the offices, where jars of rices are lined up on shelves next to tables of more strains of corn and tubers than I’ve ever seen. Per staff anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo, local farmers prefer to grow the large, simple-to-peel, eyeless potatoes prized by pollerías, because they’re an easy sell, but he’s working to shift the thinking to varieties at risk of extinction. A few of the small craggy specimens appear in Mil’s eight-course tasting menu, which highlights Peru’s extremely diverse ecosystems and native ingredients. Course No. 5 brings a huatia, traditionally, an oven dug into the ground and lined with rocks; here, it’s carved out of a glossy onyx-colored stone, in which four heirloom potatoes nestle. They come with two dipping sauces, one bright with tomatoes and chiles, the other verdant and grassy. Martínez likes to bring Peru’s disparate creative traditions into conversation with one another, so my plate for the potato course is a trencher of handmade clay in a swirl of earthy tones. And when I start shivering in the 12,000-foot altitude, my server wraps me in a shawl, woven from soft gray alpaca wool. The four-hour lunch seriously curtails my shopping time slot in the nearby weaving village of Chinchero, but Mil is the kind of experience you build an entire South American trip around.

Mil, Via a Moray, Maras; +51-926-948-088; milcentro.pe

9. Even at 10,000 feet, salt comes from the sea.

Credit: Wilhelm Bénard/Getty Images

Making salt is simple: you evaporate saltwater. So it’s fascinating to see the countless site-specific ways it’s done. On the southeast coast of Brittany, water from the Atlantic Ocean is channeled into increasingly smaller and shallower clay pans until the dual action of sun and wind causes the mineral to crystallize. In southwestern France, extremely salty spring water from the Pyrenees Mountains is heated in Olympic-sized pools to induce crystallization. Maras salt, from the Sacred Valley, shares something geology-wise or technique-wise with each yet is entirely its own thing. A salt-infused underground stream—scientists have found marine fossils in sediments in the Andes, indicating that the mountain chain rose from the sea—surfaces here and is diverted to more than 5,000 terraced ponds, some pre-Incan, carved into the steep slopes. The ponds reflect the natural contours, forming a plunging, curvy, checkered landscape. Fabrication is completely unmechanized; saltworkers fill their ponds repeatedly after each evaporation, creating three layers: the bottom salt next to the clay is brown and mineral-rich, best for healing baths. The coarse pink middle layer (sal rosado) is used in everyday cooking, while the fine brilliant white top layer (flor de sal) is saved for finishing salt. When the ponds are full of rock-hard dry salt, workers pry it out with pickaxes, then carry out sacks of it on their backs, sure-footed on the network of narrow gravel-and-mortar pond walls that also serve as vertiginous pathways.

Salineras de Maras, Maras, Sacred Valley

10. I’ve been cooking quinoa all wrong.

quinoa peru
Credit: VW Pics/Getty Images

As El Convento Cusco executive chef Heivel Bedoya Schwartz and I crisscross the city’s San Pedro Market, we pass aisles dedicated to mixed-fruit-and/or-vegetable smoothies; to chocolate bars, wrapped in Machu Picchu-themed paper (from divided plastic containers, vendors offer samples—flavored with mango, toasted quinoa, Maras salt, coca!); and baked goods, including what looks like Pop Tarts dotted with colored sugar sprinkles. The food court is also sorted by specialty, scratch-made, like escabeche, soups (corn, potato, chicken), rice dishes, chanfainita (lung stew) and fermented-corn brews. But we’re not eating here; next up is a cooking class. I feel deprived—until I spot a quinoa stall. All the quinoa I’ve tasted in Peru has been basically perfect. Even at more than two miles above sea level, it’s been unaffected by the lower air pressure, tender yet with intact grains, unlike the mushy specimens at home. Schwartz insists the secret is technique and grabs a package. “You’re cooking your quinoa too long,” he says. Back at the hotel, the chef gives a tutorial: Cook quinoa, separated by color, in plenty of boiling salted water, like pasta. Simmer until the little “tails” come out in about half the quinoa, then start tasting—the grains should be firm-tender—and drain well. Pro tip: cooking time varies by color: white cooks in about 12 minutes (most recipes indicate 15 to 20 minutes), slightly longer for red and black.

El Convento Cusco, 432 y Esquina de la Calle Ruinas, Cusco; +51-84-582-200; marriott.com/hotels/travel/cuzmc-jw-marriott-elconvento-cusco

11. Peru’s seco de res (dry stew) is actually saucy.

By chasing down Lima’s top chefs, I realize I’ve missed out on the entire category of cocina criolla, Peru’s coastal home cooking, which blends native food with European, African and Asian influences (lomo saltado!). It’s too late to book a table at a taberna, but I get to partly rectify the situation on the flight back to New York, when I find seco de res on LATAM’s dinner menu. With English peas, carrots and potatoes for garnish, this Lima-style beef stew very much resembles the fall-off-the-bone masterpiece of cozy pubs and bistros. In fact, the technique is the same: a tough cut of beef is browned in fat with aromatics like onion and garlic, then moistened with stock and cooked low and slow until meltingly tender. But here’s the thing: in Lima, cooks spice it up, letting fragrant cumin and yellow pepper paste bloom in the hot oil until the kitchen starts smelling amazing and, in place of Guinness or red wine, they add chicha de jora (corn beer). To make the recipe more pleasingly green, more mouthwatering, more Peruvian, fistfuls of cilantro are tossed into the mix before serving. And to soak up all that splendidly flavored braising liquid, there’s always rice, which Peruvians cook into perfect separate grains at any altitude.

LATAM Airlines; latam.com