American cuisine and American recipes tend to only be viewed as those that originate from the North American continent. However, the history of food in the Americas is filled both with heavily diverse ingredients and history.
A testament to this are the many South American recipes, from chicha to stewed meat dishes, which can find their origins in ancient, domesticated agricultural ingredients, European imports and the food habits and traditions of the various immigrant groups that have moved to the continent.
From braised meats to the use of palm oil, this guide will walk you through how the food from the continent has been influenced by and inspired other dishes around the world.
With the majority located in the southern hemisphere, South America is geographically diverse
In order to truly appreciate the deliciously varied gastronomy of South American countries, you can start by understanding both the historical and cultural aspects that have shaped eating habits and customs. Typical narratives of South American history often start with western concepts such as the “pre-Columbian” Americas – this brief history lesson will instead start by putting the very notion of a continent into question.
From the Andean mountains to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, from countries like Paraguay and Bolivia to Peru and Uruguay – you might think you know what the continent of South America is. However, the seven continent model the majority of countries around the world teach in their curricula wasn’t actually proposed until around the 1950s. While the countries that constitute the South American continent share many differences, including the language that is spoken in each, the geographical term that binds them depends more on their cultural similarities rather than precise science.
These intra-state differences can be staggering – just looking at how many languages are spoken on the continent can give you the right picture. While Brazilians communicate in Portuguese, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana’s primary languages are English, Dutch and French, respectively. Besides the various indigenous languages that can be found throughout the region, many of the countries which speak the same language hold major differences. Chilean Spanish, for example, can be much different from Colombian Spanish.
The reason why it is so important to highlight the disparities between these countries is because it has contributed to the wide variation of dishes in the region. Not only is it home to dishes influenced by ancient American peoples, but also by differences in biodiversity, colonizers and immigrants.
Because of the variation in culture and language, food culture on the continent spans from seafood dishes like Peruvian Ceviche all the way to the delectable Uruguayan sandwiches, chivitos.
Make sure to try some plantain dishes during any South American tours
In order to explore the food in the region, it’s easiest to start by looking at the regional variations of South American cooking. Whether it’s street food or comfort food, South American countries often hold some of their most prized recipes in common.
One of the best examples can be seen through arepas. Arepas are a cornmeal patties that are fried and typically mixed or served with cheese, beans or meats. You’ll be able to find the best arepas in either Venezuela or Colombia, where it is often hailed in both countries as the national dish. While Venezuelan arepas are typically served similar to a sandwich, filled with ingredients like avocado, cheese and beans – Colombian arepas are usually mixed with cheese and meats.
While that is by no means an exhaustive list on the regional variations of dishes on the continent, it’s enough to give you a sense of how the many countries of South America tailor many dishes according to their unique diet and agricultural needs.
What can also be helpful to understand in your journey to learn more about South American food is how the continent has influenced the rest of Latin America. Looking to Peru, ceviche is to Peruvian food what Machu Picchu is to Peruvian history. The dish is so prized, it has its own national holiday.
While you may have tried ceviche in many of the American countries, the dish stands out amongst the standard seafood fare of clam chowder, fish stew or oysters. While the origins of the dish are hotly contested, the recipe is pretty standard, involving a medley of fresh fish, citrus, chili and herbs.
Mexico, Caribbean and Central American countries have all drawn inspiration from this delicious dish. In Mexico, the fresh seafood mix normally utilizes octopus or shrimp and is served on top of a large, circular tortilla chip known as a tostada.
Variations of this dish that use black conch can be found in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while in Costa Rica it can often be served with ketchup or mayonnaise. Looking towards the Caribbean, both Cuba and Puerto Rico prepare ceviche with tuna or even coconut milk.
Empanadas are another great example of how South American food has spread throughout Latin America. While the origins of the empanada can be found in Spanish, Italian, French and Arabic cuisine, its early proliferation in South America also led to its spread throughout Central America.
In Bolivia, they are actually considered by many to be the national dish. Called Bolivian saltenas, these empanadas are made of wheat flour and filled typically with beef, chicken, and olives. Another variation can be seen with Argentinian empanadas, which can be baked or fried, filled with meat or cheese, and can even be made sweet.
Both of these South American empanadas stand in stark contrast with those made in Belize, where empanadas are actually known as “panades” and are, instead, made up of a corn dough called masa. Here, they are normally deep fried and served cabbage and salsa.
While the popularity of South American food has risen around the world, form Ecuadorian churrasco to the Argentine dulce de leche, many of the dishes that have made the continent notorious around the world haven’t so much been adapted by the locals as they have been celebrated for their uniqueness.
The fact of the matter is that much of food that is celebrated as typical of South America has actually been brought about by a mix of ancient food practices with the forces of colonization and immigration. This, however, makes it extremely interesting to compare how different dishes around the world have developed in a similar fashion to the iconic dishes we eat today.
Looking back to the wildly delicious and popular empanadas, this dish a diverse number of preparations around the world. In the Philippines, for example, the filling is often enhanced by adding potato or raisins and can even be found in a flakier, fried variety.
Looking towards Sicilian cuisine, the preparation is usually sweet and is often referred to as an “impanatiglie.” On the other side of the world, empanadas can often by found in American restaurants in US cities with large, Hispanic communities. Sometimes, it can even be compared to the Middle Eastern fatayer because both dishes can be considered a meat pie.
Moving on towards ingredients, while many tend to think of plants like cassava or preparations like hominy when thinking of traditional South American agriculture, plantain probably has the most interesting origin story.
Eaten fried, sweet, with beans and rice or with sugar – the endless variations of plantain recipes that can be found in South America has solidified the food as a staple ingredient of the continent’s diet. However, the fruit actually made it into the homes of South American families through the African slaves that themselves originally imported them from Southeast Asian countries.
Luckily for everyone who loves the starchy fruit, this banana can be found prepared in many different ways throughout the world. While in Central America and the Caribbean, plantain is eaten as a side and prepared by either being fried or boiled, South American countries typically cook it in a crisp-like fashion known as tostones or patacones.
In West Africa, however, the plantain can be served with cabbage or fish stew. In the Ivory Coast, aloco typifies a popular way of preparing the banana, fried and mixed with tomato sauce and served with grilled fish.
Looking towards India, the plantain chips are actually fried with coconut oil and is a popular snack in the south. Similarly, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all have a fried version that is usually served as a dessert.
From Lima to Copacabana, South American food and topography is extremely varied
While this is by no means a definitive list of the recipes you should try, this simple list can give you a better idea of the kinds of food you can incorporate into your weekly diet. From Lima to Rio de Janeiro, here are some of the tastes of South America.
While Peruvian cuisine tends – from pisco to ceviche – to be highlighted on the world stage, its neighbors to the south are beginning to get international recognition for the beautiful traditions and delicious food they deliver. While Paraguayan and Chilean food are especially creative, it’s Argentina’s chimichurri sauce that earns a spot on this list for the ease in which you can prepare it. Here are some basic ingredients:
Many of the foods typical of South America, like tamales and chorizo, are easily recognizable on the global level. However, Brazilian feijoada is not only simple but has many variations around the world. The basic ingredients for this black bean stew include: