Travel

For the Best Fried Rice, Turn to Peru

Amazonian fried rice features plaintains, chorizo, and other local ingredients.

May  6, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland; Anna Billingskog (Food Stylist)

My dad used to joke that Peru is Lima and Lima is Peru. Some people actually do think that the country revolves around its capital city. However, many see the joke as a criticism of Lima’s role in the country’s politics, economy, and culture, as well as its long history of dictating what it means to be "Peruvian." The city that the conquistadors chose as the capital of their viceroyalty is often portrayed as being representative of the whole country, and this often extends to food.

In my hometown of Miami (which is over 60 percent Latino), Peruvians are almost seen as culinary rockstars. Mention that you’re Peruvian in the Magic City, and I guarantee you’ll get someone talking about all of the Peruvian dishes they love, their favorite Peruvian restaurants, and whether or not you can give them a recipe for ceviche.

But the food that everyone seems to love so much is almost exclusively from Lima. Mention dishes like malaya (from Arequipa), puka picante (from Ayacucho), or chinguirito (from the northern coast), and you may elicit blank stares, even from Peruvians. Peru is a very diverse country, home to 28 of the 32 world climates, which includes everything from deserts and verdant hills to snow-capped mountains and dense rainforest. It is also home to a great variety of native peoples who have intermingled with Europeans, West Africans, and Asian immigrants to create uniquely Peruvian dishes.

Yet we hardly get to experience this gastronomic diversity outside of Peru. In fact, even Peruvians don't get to sample dishes outside of those from their own regions.

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Top Comment:
“We share some dishes but there's more in the Peruvian cuisine. So far all I've tried are delicious. This is one of them. Much simpler to make than two other Peruvian chaufas I.ve tried. This is my favorite. I was wondering if you could share your mom's ají sauce recipe. I collect ají sauce recipes from all over the world.”
— Juan C.
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Things are changing, though, at least in Lima. Like many metropolises, Lima attracts migrants from all over the country. As such, you can find regional Peruvian restaurants throughout the city if you know where to search for them. Tucked away outside of touristy areas, there are cozy restaurants that serve herbaceous chowders from Huancayo or pots of rice and duck pilaf from Chiclayo.

Perhaps one of the more unique regional cuisines of Peru is that of the Amazon. The food of this region is sometimes referred to as “oriental cuisine” in Lima because the Amazon inhabits the eastern part of the country (it can be confusing if you don’t understand Peruvian geography). Sometimes it’s just referred to as “jungle cuisine” (for obvious reasons). In Peru, people from different regions have particular nicknames. In the Amazon they are known as charapas, which refers to a regional species of river turtle, and some limeños may even affectionately refer to this cuisine as charapa food.

The cuisine makes use of a lot of the tropical produce found in the Amazon in addition to local wildlife, including paiche, the world’s largest freshwater fish. Plantains are easily one of the chief staples and appear in many forms, even within the same meal. In fact, charapas prepare a beverage from ripe plantains. Amazonian Peruvians are so attached to this starchy fruit that it has almost become a symbol for their cuisine, especially for other Peruvians who might consider plantains "exotic."

Peru has been experiencing a sort of culinary revolution over the past decade. While it is most greatly felt in the capital, las provincias have also felt the effects. As such, charapas have been examining their culinary traditions, interviewing their older relatives, and exploring their lush local environment for inspiration to reinvent Amazonian cuisine.

They have brought this trend to Lima, too, where you can now sample more chef-driven Amazonian food in addition to traditional dishes. Restaurants like Amaz in the Miraflores district are very experimental. El Aguajal, with locations in San Borja and Los Olivos, caters to a broader range of diners with very typical dishes alongside more innovative ones. (To add to the tropical ambiance, El Aguajal also features a courtyard with parrots, pythons, and other critters brought from the Amazon.)

One of the innovative dishes that keeps appearing on modern Amazonian restaurants is chaufa, the Peruvian-Chinese version of fried rice. Peru has a significant Chinese population that has greatly contributed to its cuisine, leading to a fusion cuisine known as Chifa. And although chifas originated in Lima, the concept has traveled to even the most remote corners of the country, including the Amazon.

Amazonian cooks soon began adding their own touches to the Chinese-Peruvian favorite, and before too long, they came up with chaufa amazónico—Amazonian fried rice. At its core, this dish includes all of the usual suspects: day-old white rice, soy sauce, eggs, and scallions. However, things get interesting with the addition of three ingredients that instantly evoke the Amazon’s food culture while giving the dish an appealing mix of savory, sweet, and smoky flavors: ripe plantain, chorizo sausage, and cecina.

Cecina exists in different forms throughout Latin America. In Peru, it is strictly an Amazonian product. Local cecina specialists skillfully slice pork into thin, large sheets that they then salt, air-dry, and smoke. Cecina is so place-specific in Peru that charapas truck it into Lima so that migrants can recreate their favorite dishes in the nation’s capital.

...things get interesting with the addition of three ingredients that instantly evoke the Amazon’s food culture while giving the dish an appealing mix of savory, sweet, and smoky flavors: ripe plantain, chorizo sausage, and cecina.

Peruvian cecina is almost impossible to find outside of Peru, and I spent quite some time trying to find an easy way to recreate it in an American kitchen (or at least to find a suitable replacement). I asked one of my friends, whose mother is from the Amazon, if she had any tips. As expected, she said it was irreplaceable and unfeasible to make at home (I don’t think many people are too keen on air-drying raw pork).

But the solution came to me when I stumbled upon a website devoted to promoting this Amazonian specialty. It suggested replacing your smoky breakfast bacon with smoky cecina. If the cecina authority suggests that cecina is a good replacement for bacon, then bacon in turn must be a good replacement for cecina. Even if it’s not entirely “authentic,” it does make this tropical take on fried rice particularly irresistible.

Have you ever tasted this Amazonian fried rice? Tell, tell in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Annada Rathi
    Annada Rathi
  • Juan Carlos Mendoza
    Juan Carlos Mendoza
  • Emma Laperruque
    Emma Laperruque
  • Carlos C. Olaechea
    Carlos C. Olaechea
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I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.

6 Comments

Annada R. May 9, 2019
Wow, Carlos! Thank you for educating me once again! An Amazonian version of the fried rice. That's what is so lovely and mindboggling about food! Practices, recipes, ingredients intersect forming a unique dish that is so much more than the sum of the parts. Indo-Chinese cuisine is similar, just wildly popular in India. One of the things that I miss sorely here in the US.
https://food52.com/blog/18147-the-sour-spicy-fusion-food-that-s-wildly-popular-in-india-coming-to-a-kitchen-near-you
 
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Carlos C. May 9, 2019
Yes! Chifa (as we call Peruvian-Chinese food) is the Latin American parallel to desi Chinese food. I've had it at a few restaurants here and in Pakistan. I really, really love chicken manchurian! some places do it well where I live in Florida. I just read your article, too. The parallels between indo-chinese food and chifa are strikingly similar. They both started in very cosmopolitan cities and quickly spread to the rest of the country. Like in India, this hybridized Chinese food is the second most popular food after local food (whether it is creole or indigenous regional food). You can find it in the humblest neighborhoods to the fanciest restaurants.
 
Juan C. May 9, 2019
Carlos, I'm from Ecuador. We share some dishes but there's more in the Peruvian cuisine. So far all I've tried are delicious. This is one of them. Much simpler to make than two other Peruvian chaufas I.ve tried. This is my favorite. I was wondering if you could share your mom's ají sauce recipe. I collect ají sauce recipes from all over the world.
 
Author Comment
Carlos C. May 9, 2019
Ah. My neighbor to the north! Ecuadorian cuisine needs more exposure. There are definitely some dishes and techniques that we do not have in Peru. Llapingachos should really be the next food to go viral (i mean, what's not to love?) My mom's aji sauce is very American because she is a gringa and adapted it to her cooking style. here's the link: https://food52.com/recipes/76708-kelli-s-green-spaghetti-with-aji-sauce
 
Emma L. May 6, 2019
Sorry-not-sorry for eating all of this as soon as it emerged from the test kitchen. So good!
 
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Carlos C. May 7, 2019
So glad that you liked it!