Whether you’re looking for a braised chicken recipe or for a dessert containing condensed milk, South American foods and recipes have something for everyone. While certain images come to mind when thinking of the traditional South American kitchen, much of what people consider as standard fare actually varies from country to country.
Whether you’re interested in learning more about the recipes developed by Amerindians, or indigenous people, and want some recommendations on what dishes to try, start by learning a bit of the history behind the food. From the agriculture of the Andean mountain range to some drinks you can make at home, this guide will walk you through the complexities of South American cooking.
South American food shares many similarities and differences with Latin American cuisine
From the Andes mountains to the Amazon basin, from lima beans to hominy – the South American continent has seen a massive evolution in both the food that is served and the language that is spoken inside of each country. While many accounts of South American history begin with colonization or talk about it’s long history before that invasion as a “pre-Columbian” monolith – the truth is more complex.
Without going into the detailed history of the people and food of the region, South American food is a fusion of Amerindian, creole, or criollo, and European food habits. From Uruguayan caruso sauce to Bolivian aji de fideo, countless of dishes considered traditional now have been influenced by the Spaniards, Italians or immigrant groups from Asia.
In fact, many of the ingredients we consider to be integral to the South American kitchen today were actually originally imported by way of the slave trade. Plantain, for instance, isn’t just used in countries like Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela – it has also come to play a major role in Central American and Caribbean cuisine. Originating in Asia, traded to Africa by way of Madagascar, where it eventually was transported in slave ships across the Atlantic – the plantain can now be found fried, grilled, boiled and sautéed in many South American recipes.
Another example of this can be taken through chocolate. While colonizers forced indentured workers to toil on various sugar cane farms throughout South America, the integration of this sugar industry on the continent is actually one of the reasons why chocolate is sweetened today.
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From tenderloin, fish stew, clam chowder, beans and rice – many dishes from the South American continent can be easily recognizable for both European and American countries. While you may associate a classic hot dog, macaroni, or beans and rice dish to typical American restaurants – you can find an incredible variation in dishes in all of the Americas.
From street food to classic comfort food, here are some examples of the recipes you will find varied throughout the region.
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The plantain tells an interesting story about traditional South American food, this narrative can sometimes be best explained through the dishes themselves. One iteration of the plantain, called “platano relleno,” can be found all throughout Latin America – from the Central American countries of Honduras or Caribbean countries like Cuba to South American countries like Bolivia.
In the Central American country of Guatemala, on the other hand, plantains are normally fried in a dish called “platano frito.” While in Guatemala they can be eaten sweet or savory, Colombian “patacones” are usually eaten in a crisp-like fashion.
The banana and the plantain alike have become staples in the South American diet – however, their relatively young introduction into the region’s diet has led to a multitude of different ways in which countries have named the fruit.
Looking to Peru, Peruvian ceviche is often considered the origin of all ceviche – at least, that’s the theory. Not that much evidence exists on the origin of this dish. What is clear, however, is that ceviche has propagated into many different variations both within Peru and throughout Latin America. On the Peruvian coast, the cuisine is rich with seafood that has, over the course of history, been influenced by Japanese, Moor, African and Chinese eating habits.
While images of Machu Picchu come to mind when thinking of the pride of Peru, ceviche is actually so important to their national heritage it has its own holiday. The basis of all ceviche involves raw seafood marinated in citrus and mixed with chili peppers and herbs. While Ecuadorian ceviche can be made up of shellfish like clam and served with patacones, Chilean ceviche is typically made using halibut and served with mint.
The origins of empanadas can be found in Galician Spain, although many empanada recipes can find their roots in Catalan, Italian, French and Arabic cuisine. Today, many variations can be found throughout the South American continent.
Argentine empanada recipes can be made up of meats, corn (known as humita), and cheese. This deliciously varied dish involves wrapping up the filling, made up of vegetables or meats and dairy, into a pocket of dough and baking them.
Looking towards the Andean mountains at Argentina’s neighbor, empanadas in Chile have actually taken on a political role throughout the country’s history and whose filling is normally meat-based.
The origin of the arepa can be attributed to both ancient Colombian and Venezuelan civilizations. While the dish is essentially produced the same way – frying a mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt – the dish varies greatly between the two countries.
The gastronomy of the arepa is very important to both country, having 75 different preparations in Colombia alone and 70% of the Venezuelan population eating it on a regular basis. While Colombian arepas are typically made by stuffing or mixing in foods like eggs, cheese or meat, Venezuelan arepas use ingredients like avocado and black bean.
While drinks like caipirinha and tequila dominate the world food’s vocabulary, pisco is a drink that can be found in both Chilean and Peruvian cuisine. Pisco is a grape fire water that is produced in a similar way to whisky. The difference between the two countries’ preparations is that in Chile the spirit is diluted after the distillation process.
All countries on the continent have both varied landscapes and cuisines
Whether you’re Central American, European and more, trying new recipes at home is a great way to expand your cultural knowledge. While an introduction to food culture is always helpful, a complete guide to south American dishes and foods can enhance what you’ve learned. Here are some of the most popular and accessible recipes from the South American continent.
If you’re looking to spice up your next party or brunch with a few bites and sauces, get started by trying your hand at making chimichurri. Chimichurri sauce is an Argentinian specialty and is made by mixing together olive oil, parsley, and herbs. One of the best and most authentic ways to enjoy this sauce is by spreading them on top of some empanadas.
While dishes like tamales, churrasco and chorizo can be found throughout South America, Brazil’s feijoada is a dish whose origins, like many of the continent’s dishes, explain its widespread use. Variants of this black bean stew can be found in countries like Romania, Spain, Portugal, Cape Verde, Timor and India. Initially spread by the Romans, this dish is a great way to try a dish both unique to the South American continent and that has some important historical global ties.
The preparation of feijoada doesn’t vary much, as it is essentially a stew made up of black beans and meat. Especially popular in Rio de Janeiro, this dish is normally completed with pork and beef products such as bacon or ribs. In the North, some regions also include vegetables into the stew, such as kale, okra, pumpkin or potato.
If you’re looking for something a bit sweeter, these South American treats will make you toss your store bought apple pie or recipe for churros to the side. From Paraguayan kaguyjy to Surinamese bojo cake, the desserts of South America hold something special for every craving.
Starting in Paraguay, kaguyjy is a rice based dessert also called mazamorra. While rice desserts are very common in South America, this particular dish is seen by many as one of the most important and traditional in Paraguayan cuisine. Made by boiling milk, honey and rice together, it’s a hearty dessert that is great in every season.
Exploring Suriname’s kitchen, bojo cake is a flourless delight made of rum-soaked raisins, coconut oil, cassava and coconut milk. While it is a bit time intensive to make, the ending result will be enough to make this recipe your new go-to dessert.
Sometimes, northern and southern cuisine can vary even within the same country
While you may be familiar with cocktails like caipirinha or pisco sour, have you ever heard of the alcoholic beverage chicha? Chicha is typically made from grains or corn and can either be fermented or left as is. Because the origin of chicha is hotly contested, it is often considered a traditional drink in many countries.
While Bolivian chicha is often fermented and made into a beer-like alcohol, Venezuelan chicha is normally served as a sweet rice drink. Whether you’re looking to party or want to sip on something warm during the winter months, chicha is the perfect beverage.