Arequipa is unique in that it’s a small city of 1 million, but it’s produced enough dishes that it has a bona fide regional cuisine. Arequipa restaurants are called picanterías. Few small cities can boast a lineup like Arequipa’s. Before moving to South America, I was looking for work anywhere. Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, anywhere. I’m only realizing now how lucky I got.
The signature dish and source of Arequipeño pride is Rocoto Relleno. Rocoto is the spicy pepper in Peruvian cuisine. It’s the shape, color, and size of a red pepper. It’s de-seeded and de-stemmed, boiled to soften and removed the spice, then stuffed with finely cut steak, cheese, black olives, ground peanuts, various Peruvian spices, sometimes raisins, then baked. The cheese oozes out from the top. I’m not much of a stuffed peppers guy, but rocoto relleno is amazing. It’s served with pastel de papa – potato cake. Layers of thin sliced potato baked with cheese and eggs. If they skimp on the cheese and eggs, it’s dry. But when they’re generous with cheese and eggs, pastel de papa is the perfect compliment to Rocoto Relleno.
Adobo is an Arequipa soup and standalone meal. It’s only served on Sundays, but some of the tourist restaurants serve it every day. You can’t walk far on a Sunday in Arequipa without passing a sign advertising pork chop soup, making it an Arequipa tradition.
According to tradition, adobo is hangover food. The downtown restaurants serve it starting at 4 AM on Sunday mornings. So all the rumberos and party people finishing their Saturday night benders finish the night off with a hearty soup chock full of pig fat. Adobo restaurants are open all morning, and usually run out of adobo soon after the real lunch hour.
Adobo is the perfect hangover meal. The pork chop is simmered with onions, rocoto (the spicy one from above), the cob of purple corn, peppercorn, garlic, cumin, and Peruvian spices. It’s tangy with a hint of spicy and served with bread to sop up the lard-laden juice. If you like to throw down on swine, you’ll love adobo arequipeño. The best adobo soups I’ve found are on Daniel Alcides Carrion avenue on the first block south of the general hospital.
Chupe de Camarones
Chupe de Camarones is Shrimp Chowder. When family came in for my wedding, two gringas were enthused to hear about a local shrimp chowder and ordered it. They weren’t happy at all that the shrimps came out whole. In American cuisine, shrimp are always shucked before serving. Neither lady finished her plate. When the subject came up in front of my wife, she protested that you lose flavor if you remove the shell. My old man agreed, but also conceded it’s an insurmountable culture gap with gringos. So if you don’t want to shuck your own shrimp, don’t order chupe. That’s part of an overall phenomenon in Peruvian food that I haven’t seen anywhere else – they almost never remove bones from anything. Even in estofado de res and arroz con pollo, the bones are left on. Peruvians love to suck the bones, the juice, the marrow, and give it a chew.
Estofado de Res
Estofado de res is beef in sauce with rice. Generous portions of roast cuts are stewed with chicha de jora juice, carrots, peas, onion, tomato, and bay leaves. It’s almost sweet. Estofado de res is the only dish I’ve seen in the world where the cow’s skin isn’t removed. If you’ve never tried to eat it, beef skin is rather tough. It’s what they make leather out of. So I don’t try, but the rest of this dish goes down great. WARNING: Before ordering it, ask the server what their estofado is like. Some versions come out dry – don’t get that kind! Make sure there’s a lot of sauce / gravy (guiso in Spanish).
Soltero de Queso
I always marvel when I meet vegetarian gringos backpacking through South America. Eating for them must be near impossible because there’s no salad culture. And veggie burgers or tofu – yeah right! Nope, just rice and potatoes for those folks. Arequipa would be a salvation. Soltero de Queso would be considered a salad in the States. It inspired a style of salads I make to this day. Dice up all the vegetables I can find, add olive oil and vinegar. Soltero de queso includes queso campesino, lima beans, tomato, onion, corn, rocoto, parsley. Served with potato. If trying to burn fat, nix the potato and corn.
Ocopa is spicy, peanut-flavored sauce served with boiled potatoes and/or fried cheese. It’s made with peanuts, spicy yellow ají, crackers, milk, and cheese. It’s pretty heavy. Despite it being heavy, I can’t imagine anyone ordering a boiled potato in a creamy sauce and calling it lunch. Some do, but Ocopa is usually served as an appetizer. The most common meal at my Peruvian family gatherings is fried pork served with potato smothered in Ocopa.
Locro de Pecho
Pecho is the chest of a cow, or brisket. It’s boiled until soft and mixed in with a mess of mashed potato, spicy ají, and mint. So this is another heavy item given the sauce is a mashed potato base. There are many different variations of “Locro de Pecho” throughout Latin America, some of which are soups. This is Arequipan Locro de Pecho. Many picanterías serve locro only once a week. So you may have to scope out which day of the week it’s served. Otherwise, hit the regular lunch spots and if you see it on the menu, seize the day.
Americanos, Dobles, Triples
Arequipa picanterías offer doubles, triples, and ‘Americans’. These are combination plates. The double has rocoto relleno, pastel de papa, and baked or fried pork. The triple has those three plus zarza de patitas (pig’s feet salad). The americano is basically everything a restaurant has that day. In the shot on the left, it has rocoto relleno, pastel de papa, fried pork, arroz con pollo, zarza de patitas, and a vegetable medley. The American below has rocoto relleno, pastel de papa, fried pork, estofado de res, lentils, and chicken spaghetti.
Always ask before ordering an American if you don’t want something like mondonguito (tripe stew) or aji de calabaza (squash stew). Because I don’t like zarza de patitas, I always get a double. It’s also what we served at our wedding: doble, cake, Cusqueña beer, and Johnny Walker Red. If the pork is called chicharrón, it’s deep fried. If it’s called chancho al horno, it’s baked.
For a good combination plate, Tradición is the most recommended to tourists.
This is the dark horse of the list. Most people wouldn’t think to eat fish in the desert. But in this desert there are rivers supplied by the melting snow from the snow-capped mountains. In these rivers live trout, so eating fresh fish in this desert isn’t impossible. Trout is the main attraction. To the left is Pachamanca, an Andean style of cooking where they dig a hole, drop meat in the hole, cover it with rocks, and the super-hot sun at Andean altitude bakes the meat underground. This Pachamanca has trout, lamb, pork, sweet potato, white potato, a fresh salad with lemon juice, a tamal, and habas. All these shots are from Don Piero’s trout farm restaurant in Sachaca. Most Arequipa restaurants serve trucha frita (fried trout), but at Don Piero’s the trout is day fresh and there are plenty of serving variations. Photos below include sudado de trucha (trout soup) and trucha al ajo (trout with a garlic cream sauce). Also included are shots of live trout.
Queso Helado and Alfajorillos
These are interesting desserts from Arequipa. Queso helado (frozen cheese) is made from evaporated milk, condensed milk, vanilla extract, and sugar. Cinnamon is added on top. It’s good but I prefer real ice cream. You’ll find queso helado on street corners and outside tourist sites. Just look for an Indian woman in a hat and ankle-length dress mixing up a giant drum the size of a keg.
Alfajorillos are a twist on classic alfajores, which are basically two dry cookies filled with honey. Those suck. Alfajorillos, on the other hand, are a soft breading filled with a generous amount of dulce de leche (known as arequipe in Colombia and manjar in Peru). For about $0.25, these little hockey pucks are the perfect dessert found at any corner store.
3 Things You Don’t Have to Eat in Arequipa
Cuy Chactao AKA Guinea Pig
Colombia has chiguiro (which is delicious), Peru has guinea pig (which is disgusting). Cuy chactao is known as a national dish, but it started in Arequipa. Many people love cuy, excluding me. It has a very gamy flavor, like a filthy pork. The biggest complaint about guinea pig is how much work it is. There isn’t much meat on these little fellas, and they have a ton of bones to get past.
They’re so small they don’t filet them. They just clean them, cut them in half down the chest and belly, and fry them whole. They have a crunchy texture. I once saw a small guinea pig farm and realized how easy they are to keep as livestock. They don’t even build cages because they don’t run. They don’t go anywhere. They just sit in the grass waiting to get slit in half and deep fried. There are restaurants that specialize in cuy, called cuyerías. So if you’re set on getting the best experience in eating guinea pig, go to a cuyería. Here’s a shot of the little fella’s underbelly:
Zarza de Patitas AKA Pig’s Feet
Pig’s feet covered in cebollada: sliced onion and tomato covered in lemon juice and parsley. Cebollada is actually an excellent, simple step to add flavor to any meal. The pig’s feet is the problem for me. Pig’s feet are a common American food, served pickled. It’s stereotypical “soul food.” For one family reunion my uncle brought a huge jar. My cousin and I lost a bet and had to eat one. We tried and didn’t get far, and it was just one pig’s foot between the two of us. After our initial attempt, we tried throwing in on the barbecue. But still no dice.
Habas AKA Broad Beans
Habas in Spanish, boiled broad beans are like boiled Lima beans but bigger. I can’t guess why, but they’re served as an appetizer or side dish in Arequipa. They come with guinea pig. But as an appetizer they are the worst. Just look at them. Does that look appetizing? Stick with my favorite Arequipa appetizer (which didn’t make the list because there are too many delicious dishes), queso frito – fried cheese.
Like this article? Read about the best Colombian food on 10 Things to Eat in Bogota.