Plus, where to get the best ones in Lima.
It’s late morning on a Sunday in Lima, the coastal capital of Peru. The sky is a dull gray color, which the locals call panza de burro—"donkey's belly"—typical of the city's skyline for all but maybe three months out of the year. Most residents of the “thrice-crowned city of kings,” as it was known in the colonial era, are filing out of one of its many, many Catholic churches. After all, the Church (always with a capital C) holds a legally privileged status in this country. Those who aren’t religious may just be waking up from a pisco-fueled, all-night jarana.
On these days, limeños—whether religious or secular—are united in a nearly singular hunger for one particular type of dish: sánguches. In Lima, sandwiches are closely associated with breakfast, not lunch. You can get a sandwich almost any time of day in the city, which makes them rather unique in the Lima food world. Food is on a very strict schedule here. Good luck trying to find good ceviche past lunchtime, for instance, and you may want to say a little prayer to El Señor de los Milagros if you want to savor anticuchos (grilled beef heart skewers) before sundown. But Lima’s many sangucherías are often some of the first food businesses to open, and many still serve their meaty, hand-held specialties well into the night.
Now, locals might not consider a sandwich substantial enough for the main meal of the day. If your abuela were to ask, for instance, if you'd eaten, and you said a sandwich, you could've just as well said a bag of chips. The Peruvian sandwich might feel a bit minimalist compared to a Mexican torta (and its regional cousins), with its many layers of brightly colored, intensely flavored fillings. But the sánguche reflects a distinctly limeño appreciation for a quiet, almost restrained elegance in food.
The focus of a sánguche is the quality of the meat and its often complex preparation—but the sandwiches themselves are simple. They require only a little bit of ají sauce and some gossamer strings of lime- and cilantro-marinated red onions (sarsa criolla) to cut the richness. (Perhaps we owe this intricate, balanced approach to our significant nikkei community, the Japanese immigrant population living in Peru, who may be responsible for upgrading Peruvian ceviche to what we know today.) Lima boasts several types of these deceptively simple sandwich fillings:
Roast turkey seasoned with ají amarillo chile, plenty of cumin, and a splash of soy sauce is a perennial favorite. Asado is also popular: fork-tender beef pot roast drizzled with its braising potion that carries almost chocolaty notes of ají panca chile and sweetness from carrots. Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the Andes brought their love of roast suckling pig—called lechón—to Lima. Now you can see street carts and humble sandwich counters throughout the historic center of the city displaying a roasted pig’s head watching over dainty sandwiches filled with its tender meat. Some more old-school limeños are devoted to relleno—a spicy, savory filling of fried chicken's blood. Others gravitate toward huachana: This filling is also spicy, made with a bright orange sausage that's the specialty of a town called Huacho, just north of Lima. It’s crumbled, fried, and mixed with scrambled eggs to form a sort of Peruvian sausage and egg McMuffin (there's just no English muffin).
Despite the variety of sandwich fillings available in Lima, the bread always remains the same: pan francés. These rolls are the de facto daily bread here. It's what strolling vendors announce to the neighborhood first thing in the morning, what mothers scurry out to buy hot from the oven, what you have with your café con leche, and a requirement for every single limeño sandwich. In fact, one could argue that without pan francés, the sandwich isn’t truly authentic. Although its name implies a French origin, pan francés might be closer in form to a Portuguese water roll, except that it has a noticeable slash in the middle. (My father used to tell me that pan francés is often used to describe a perfect posterior: a deep crease dividing two round, firm globes.) The rolls have crunchy crusts that provide structure to sánguches and soft, slightly chewy insides that can soak up the juices of whatever meaty filling a limeño fancies.
While limeños can fancy any of the fillings I described above, there is one particular filling that might be considered the reigning viceroy (because Peru was a viceroyalty of Spain): jamón del país. This translates to "country ham," but bears little resemblance to conventional deli meat, except for the pork. It's made by brining a butterflied pork loin or shoulder, spreading it with a mixture of ají chiles and spices, rolling it up, trussing it, and poaching it in a flavorful broth. It's then rubbed with a deep ochre-colored oil infused with annatto seeds to give the “ham” its characteristic orange exterior. Every bite reveals tiny bursts of flavor from the ribbons of seasoning spiraling through.
If boiled pork sounds unappealing, then I cannot stress enough how magical jamón del país is and how difficult it is to make correctly. There's a reason you can only get jamón del país from eateries that specialize in sandwiches: It's an art. I'm currently on my sixth attempt at creating my own recipe for it and still haven’t gotten it right. The brining and gentle poaching actually help the pork retain its juiciness, and the decades of experience that many of its cooks have means that they know exactly when it's at its optimal succulence.
While other sandwiches are called “pan con...” (“bread with...”), the combination of pan francés and jamón del país is so beloved in Lima that it has a specific name: butifarra. This name—like many other Peruvian food names—confuses people throughout the Spanish-speaking world, especially Spain, where a butifarra is a type of sausage. It's unclear why we Peruvians decided to repurpose the name of a sausage for our most popular sandwich, but like our use of the word palta for avocado, it's one of the things that makes our cuisine unique.
Every sanguchería has its secret seasonings that gain it loyal fans. Perhaps one of the first places a visitor should sample a butifarra is at one of its oldest and most iconic purveyors, Cordano, which is located just catty-corner from the rear of the presidential palace in the colonial center of the city. It's been around for over 100 years, and during this time has been a popular hangout for politicians and political journalists. The focal point of the wood-paneled dining room is the glass-enclosed carving station that enshrines the jamón del país. The salt and seasonings in the ham allow the restaurant to keep it at room temperature and carve thin slices whenever a diner orders a butifarra. Refrigeration would actually dull the flavors of the pork and diminish its succulence. Similarly, heating it could damage its nuances. If you're really concerned about pathogens, then wash down your sánguche with one of the bar’s excellent pisco sours, Peru’s official cocktail. The potent drink is sure to kill off any bug (or at least get you buzzed enough to no longer care).
A more modern addition to the roster of sangucherías in Lima is La Lucha, which has a few locations throughout the city. La Lucha features a few innovations that have set it apart from other more traditional sandwich shops in the city, like the inclusion of smoked meats cooked in steel barrels and a selection of Amazonian fruit smoothies. The butifarras, however, are faithful to tradition, lest the owner upset denizens of Lima who hold this sandwich close to their hearts. The quality of the pork here is its greatest distinction, because it yields a jamón del país that's almost buttery without being greasy. The complete La Lucha experience includes a side of its famous French fries made with huayro potatoes, an heirloom variety whose daffodil flesh is interspersed with seams of purple. Dipped into one of the sanguchería's creamy sauces, the fries can almost make you forget about your sandwich.
Butifarras are enjoyed in the mornings, but many Limeños enjoy them for dinner or as hearty snacks in between meals. Miniature butifarras also feature on buffet tables at many social gatherings. They're essentially an anytime food. But if it's breakfast you're after, Lima does have a very good, very traditional one: the desayuno Lurín (or "special breakfast").**
There are two main components in a desayuno Lurín: a chicharrón sandwich and a tamal. Although the sandwich in this breakfast doesn’t get its own name like the butifarra, it rivals it in popularity. A pan con chicharrón consists of the requisite pan francés roll and slices of pork belly that's been slow-braised, then deep-fried in its own fat. As with the butifarra, the pan con chicharrón causes confusion among other Latin Americans. For many, "chicharrón" is pork rind, the outermost layer of pork belly that includes the skin. Peruvians, however, don't include the skin in their chicharrón and incorporate more of the meat that lies beneath the layer of belly fat. As a result, chicharrón in Peru is leaner, meatier, and less chewy than in other parts of the hemisphere.
Because this sandwich filling is so rich, it requires the extra starch of fried sweet potato slices along with the sarsa criolla and ají sauces. When ordered on its own, the sandwich comes pre-assembled. But as part of the desayuno Lurín, the components are neatly laid out on a plate for the diner to assemble. I like to make sure there's more pork in my sandwich than sweet potato, and I save any extra slices to dip into the spicy ají sauce (although every limeño has his or her perfect proportions).
What completes the desayuno Lurín is the red tamal. This particular type of tamal is attributed to Lima’s Afro-Peruvian community and is steamed in banana leaves. It's much larger than Mexican tamales and is made with ground mote, a type of processed corn akin to hominy. The corn dough is seasoned with ají chile, and the cook embeds pieces of spicy braised pork, a wedge of hard-boiled egg, a botija olive, and roasted peanuts. It's truly one of the more unique tamales in Latin America, and one of the most filling.
You can now see why this breakfast is reserved for Sundays, when most families in Lima rest.
You can often get an assembled pan con chicharrón at the same places that offer butifarras and other types of sánguches. But there are places that specialize in chicharrón, and these are the eateries that pull in limeños on Sundays like iron fillings to a magnet. One of the most popular places to get a desayuno Lurín on a Sunday in Lima is also a perfect representation of the city’s cosmopolitan food culture: El Chinito. The restaurant owner is Peruvian-Chinese, and what makes his chicharrón so appealing is that he uses Chinese seasonings like soy sauce, along with more traditional Peruvian ones, to give his fried pork extra flavor. El Chinito also features other Chinese influences throughout the menu, including char siu sandwiches. Everything else about this sanguchería is quintessentially limeño, down to the café pasado (filtered coffee) that the city’s residents sip with their desayuno Lurín. The caffeine helps to keep diners awake enough to make it safely back home (or to a park bench or movie theatre seat).
As late Sunday morning fades into early afternoon, the residents of Lima slowly trickle out of the city’s many sangucherías and finish the last hours of their weekend languidly. Memories of savory, meaty sandwiches are still fresh in their minds’ palates. The satisfying meal encourages them to slow down and enjoy the sensory pleasures that the city offers in spite of its grey, donkey-belly sky—the historic architecture, the parks and plazas, the dramatic cliffs abutting the Pacific Ocean, and the deliciously unique food.
Have you ever had a Peruvian sandwich? Let us know in the comments below.