Peru Offers Adventure for the Palate

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “Southern Living: The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

The spiritual draw of Machu Picchu combined with the gastronomic fame of Peru’s cuisine lured me to Lima and the Andes mountains.

I joined grazing llamas to explore the stone structures throughout the mysterious “lost city of the Inca.” Archeologists still do not know why the Inca built Machu Picchu. It’s a reminder that civilizations of the world — ancient and modern — have much to share with visitors from afar.

Quinoa just the start

The popularity of quinoa in the U.S. has people talking about Peru where it’s a staple of the traditional diet. Though technically a seed — not a grain — quinoa is nutritious and high in protein. It can be served like rice and comes in a variety of colors including black and red. A crunchy quinoa salad with fava beans and corn at La Huaca Pucllana is chef Marilu Mandueno’s contemporary spin. “I want to keep tradition to show where the modern interpretations come from. It’s my way of rediscovering ingredients,” she said.

Peru is perfect for potato lovers where there are 5,000 types including purple, red and yellow and all shapes, sizes and textures. Causa is a delicious Peruvian recipe which combines mashed yellow potatoes with olive oil, lemon juice and chili. Moray, an archeological site, is believed to be an ancient agricultural experiment station where the Inca bred potato and corn varieties for varying altitudes.

A dish called “Diversity of Corn” is presented on the “elevations” tasting menu at the ultra contemporary Central restaurant in Lima. Another course, called “Dry Andes” is a tiny bite of gray clay with citrus flower garnish. “Peruvians like impactful flavors,” said Gregory Thomas Smith, formerly of Atlanta and now wine director at Central. “If they eat an orange, they want the most passionate orange they can find.”

Ceviche, the art of marinating raw fish in citrus juice and chili peppers, is not to be missed.

Culinary adventure

Peru’s bounty from the ocean, plains, mountains and jungle is celebrated at Lima’s Astrid & Gaston, recognized as one of the finest restaurants in the world. Roasted potatoes are served tableside here, unearthed from steaming black dirt.

Peru is a foodie field trip. Get ready to discover fish and fruit from the Amazon, the flavor of cuy (guinea pig) and learn that alpaca isn’t only for sweaters. Alpaca is a lean meat and tastes a bit like venison. Tambo del Inka Resort in the Sacred Valley elegantly serves grilled alpaca with native potatoes, lavender flowers and cocao sauce. Not so daring? Have an empanada and a Pisco sour.