Franco Noriega was once most well-known for his chiseled physique and piercing eyes. Today… well, he’s still known for those things, but he’s also famous for his love of Peruvian food, the cuisine of his home country.
Noriega began his adult life swimming competitively, even qualifying for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He went on to a successful modeling career, working the runway and magazine covers.
But in 2014, he decided it was time for a change and enrolled in New York’s esteemed International Culinary Center (alums include Bobby Flay and Christina Tosi) to develop his love of cooking into a career.
Today, the former model has transformed himself into a famous chef/ heartthrob/restaurateur. Noriega owns two restaurants in Peru and two in New York City called Baby Brasa. He says the inspiration behind his menu at Baby Brasa was to create the perfect post-workout meal. After years of searching New York for the right place to eat clean and feel full, he decided to create one himself.
“I eat a lot. I cannot eat a salad and think that’s going to be dinner,” he says. “I work with my body—that’s also my money-maker—so I had to always be conscious of food.” His native cuisine turned out to be the perfect answer.
At the heart of Noriega’s cooking philosophy — and at least partially responsible for his admirable physique — is the traditional Peruvian cuisine he grew up with.
“Peru has always cooked with superfoods,” says Noriega. “Without us knowing, Peruvian food is filled with superfoods. It’s being healthy without trying too hard.”
Indeed, many foods we’ve come to call “superfoods” originated in Peru. Superfoods native to Noriega’s homeland include quinoa, maca, camu camu, purple corn, a fruit called aguaje, and pichuberry. This is partially due to the variety of climates in the country, from the cool Andes Mountains to the dry Pacific coasts.
Noriega says he’s been eating quinoa since he was two years old. More recently, he’s made it into a pudding at Baby Brasa. “There are so many ways to look at quinoa. It’s very versatile, so I love quinoa,” he says.
It’s loaded with antioxidants, is a good source of protein, and is coated with saponin, a chemical that research has found can help reduce cancer risks. Research also suggests quinoa may help manage blood sugar, and lower your risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
2. Purple Corn
Purple corn, largely unheard of in the U.S., is a main ingredient of Peru’s national drink, “chicha morada,” a health tonic found in practically every store there. The corn grows in the Andes and has one of the darkest shades of purple found on a plant.
Studies show that the compounds in purple corn have a variety of potential health benefits, and can help prevent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Maca is a plant that grows in the Andes. Its leaves and roots are edible and usually available as a dry powder.
It’s known for its potential to increase sex drive and energy. According to locals, the Incas took maca before they fought wars, says Manuel Villacorta, RD, author of Peruvian Power Foods and founder of Whole Body Reboot.
4. Camu Camu
Camu camu is a berry that grows in the Amazon rainforest. You can’t eat the fruit raw, as it’s extremely sour — that’s because it contains 60 times more vitamin C than an orange, says Villacorta.
Instead, camu camu is often added to foods and smoothies as a powder. There is scientific evidence indicating that camu camu’s high levels of vitamin C could play a role in treating inflammatory conditions.
Aguaje is a Peruvian fruit also found in the rainforest. It’s a yellow palm fruit with maroon scales on the outside. Like camu camu, it’s very rich in vitamin C.
The fruit, which is said to taste like carrots, is also known for its high vitamin A content.
Pichuberry, also called “aguaymanto” or goldenberry, is a small yellow berry that grows in the Andes. In addition to containing a variety of nutrients, one ¾-cup serving of the berries provides 39 percent of your vitamin D, says Villacorta.
In addition to foods designated as superfoods, Peruvian cuisine makes the most of its native produce. The country has the unique honor of being home to the “papa amarilla,” or yellow potato, which is not grown anywhere else. Other tubers including “camote” (a type of sweet potato), purple potato, and yucca are common ingredients. Corn is a mainstay in Peruvian meals, and you’ll find it in a variety of colors.
For these reasons and more, Peru’s delicious and nutritious cuisine is an up-and-comer in the good-for-you gourmet food game. And no one knows that better than Franco Noriega.
Bringing Peru to Your Table
We can’t guarantee that eating Peruvian food will make you look like Noriega. But we do know that the country has numerous healthy dishes that should become part of your culinary repertoire. If you can’t make it to Baby Brasa in New York City, here are a few recipes inspired by traditional Peruvian dishes that you can try at home.
1. Peruvian-Style Roast Chicken
Spit-roasted or rotisserie chicken is a specialty in Peru, and Noriega says it’s a great way to introduce yourself to Peruvian cuisine. In fact, it’s a specialty of Baby Brasa’s! This version of roast chicken from Once Upon a Chef is served with a spicy, tangy green sauce made with fresh peppers, cilantro, and garlic.
2. Chicha Morada
Chicha morada is made from purple corn. The corn is made into a powder, then combined with water, pineapple, and some cinnamon. The infusion is full of antioxidants from the purple corn.
“I grew up drinking chicha morada,” says Villacorta.
3. Peruvian Fish Ceviche
Ceviche is big in Peru. Because traditional ceviche uses raw fish, it’s important you use very high-quality seafood here. Laylita’s Recipes suggests halibut or mahi-mahi. Serve with corn chips or fresh veggies for scooping.
4. Peruvian Quinoa Salad
Quinoa is native to Peru, and this contribution from Global Table Adventure makes the most of the ancient grain. If you’re interested in learning more about quinoa and the Peruvian legend associated with it, check out the blog post that accompanies this tasty recipe.
5. Peruvian Fish Soup
Blogger Greyza Baptista at Qué Rica Vida says this dish is one that’s been prepared by Peruvian fishermen for generations. His version includes fish head, peppers, and parsley. In addition to the rich fish broth’s warming and nourishing qualities, Baptista says it’s good for a hangover!