One of the greatest joys of visiting a new place is trying the local food and drink. In Cusco, the perfect place to do this is in one of the local picanterias and chicherias. These local gathering places have been where friends and family get together to celebrate life, friendship, and good food and drink for hundreds of years. Friends get together in the chicherias to talk and laugh over a large glass of chicha de jora (local corn beer) or a sweeter, fruitier frutillada (made with wild strawberries). Families gather in the picanterias, enjoying delicious savory dishes such as chicharron or adobo. While similar in set-up, these two gathering places have a significant difference – in a chicheria, you can get some food with your drink; in a picanteria, you can get a drink with your food.
The tradition of the chicheria has very old roots, dating back to the times of the Incas. Back before the Spanish came, the people of the Inca empire had public places where people could gather for food and drink. These places could be found along long roads where travelers could rest as well as within towns and villages where locals could get together, stopping in for a refreshing chicha and a tasty snack. Today, chicherias advertise with a tell-tale red flag (or red plastic bag) attached to a long pole above the door.
Picanterias were born from the tradition of the chicheria but had a different focus. Whereas chicherias were places for groups of friends to gather for a drink, the picanterias were more focused on the food, and as a place for families to get together. Picanterias get their name from the various dishes that they sell, usually being quite spiced, or ‘picante,’ though not necessarily spicy. As with chicherias, most picantarias are woman-owned businesses and are named as such – “La Chomba,” “Las Manuelitas,” and “La Cusqueñita” are some great examples, and some of the best picanterias you can find.
Chicherias and picanterias are not only places for good friends and families to gather but have also been an inspiration to many of Peru’s most famous artists and authors, as well as the setting for many a business negotiation. Due to their important place within Peruvian culture maintaining Peru’s traditional cuisine, the national Ministry of Culture recognized chicherias and picanterias as a cultural heritage and national treasure.
So during your trip to Peru, if you are looking to try some delicious local, typical cuisine, look for the red flag! Ask your guide which is their favorite chicheria or picantaria. Then enjoy a tasty malaya, costillar frita, or a delicious chicharron. Finish off with a sourly refreshing chicha de jora or a sweet and fruity frutillada, while sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying what is truly a unique Peruvian tradition.