Do you know what language is spoken in Paraguay? Or perhaps what a Churrasco is? While you may have thought you knew many cultural distinctions of the South American continent, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know about South America and their famous recipes.
Whether you’re visiting South American cities or simply want to know about the region, learning through cuisine is great
When you think about the Americas and American cuisine, what comes to mind? What many might consider to be American food, like the classic hot dog, cheesy macaroni and sweet apple pie, isn’t actually representative of American countries. American recipes and American food extends to cover way more than the gastronomy found in the north. In fact, examining what exactly the South American continent is and what South American foods are can give you insight into one of the oldest and diverse cuisines on the planet.
In general, when people refer to South America today, they refer to thirteen countries whose geographical bulk is, for the majority, located in the southern hemisphere. These South American countries include nations like Paraguay, Uruguay Suriname and the Islas Malvinas (also known as the Falkland Islands) – each with their own deliciously diverse food culture.
However, the our current system of classifying continents hasn’t always been in place. The seven continent model wasn’t actually proposed until the 1950s, and is based more on shared culture than the science of tectonic plates. The way we have structured the South American continent highlights both the cultural and societal similarities and differences of the countries that make it up.
While South American food draws up images of Amerindians, or indigenous people, and ancient agricultural goods such as lima beans, maize, passion fruit and the black bean – much of the traditional dishes that we know and love today have been engendered by the various historical evolutions of the region.
From the fish stew and clam chowder recipes of the coast to the tenderloin and vegetable comfort food of inland cities, the South American diet has been forever transformed by three main forces. While this is not a definitive guide to the origins of the food of the region, the basic powers that have influenced South American cooking are: creole, or criollo, culture, immigration and the colonization of European groups such as the Spaniards, Dutch and French.
Whether you’re drinking a caipirinha in Rio de Janeiro, or eating Venezuelan tamales, or hallacas, in Caracas, the amount of food options in South America will be enough to make your reconsider “Columbian” or “pre-Columbian” narratives of South American history.
From Tierra Del Fuego to Peru, South American countries aren’t just unique in the 448 languages they speak, but also in the recipes that they share. The reason why so many countries share similar recipes have to do with their shared history of agriculture, immigration and colonization. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen through the plantain. Whether you’re in Bolivia or snacking on some Argentine chivitos, you’re bound to find a dish involving plantain around every corner. From being a common street food to a prized comfort food, the plantain can be found fried, boiled, sautéed and more.
While many consider this variant of the banana to be a quintessential South American food, the origins of the plantain can actually be found in the slave trade. Plantains originally made it onto the African continent by way of Madagascar, whose shores had been reached with Southeast Asian traders. What quickly became widespread in West and Central Africa was then used as provisions on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. Today, they’re made into crisps called tostones in Venezuela, and patacon pisado in Ecuadorian and Columbian slang. In the Bolivian kitchen, they’re mashed and fried with cheese in a dish called masaco de platano. Using condensed milk, they can also be made into a sweetened desert.
Another example of the wide variation between the same dishes in South American countries can be seen through a drink called pisco. A brandy that is traditional both in Chilean and Peruvian cuisine, the origins of Pisco is said to have begun with Spanish settlers. Now a common cocktail on the South American continent, found even in Uruguayan bars or small cities in Bolivia, it is prepared differently in both Peru and Chile.
Arepas are another great instance of the variations in South American cuisine, found from the Andean mountains to the coasts of French Guiana. A fried, cornmeal dough patty, this recipe can be made either sweet or savoury depending on your cravings. Originating from the ancient civilizations of South America, it is today most predominant in Colombia and Venezuela.
From chorizo and churros to hominy and raisins, the diversity seen in South American food is a product of a range of the historical, economic and political events in the last decades.
Plantains have become important to South American food culture
Now that you’ve gotten a grasp of what you’re likely to find in South American restaurants and kitchens, it’ll be helpful to understand how South American cuisine holds similarities to many different countries around the world. Looking towards Latin American cuisine, one special recipe that has been adopted in both Central American countries and the Caribbean is the Empanada. Empanadas are baked, stuffed dough pastries whose filling and preparation varies depending on what city or kitchen you’re in.
Common in Argentine, Chilean, Paraguayan, Bolivian and Peruvian cuisine, empanadas have become a staple dish in countries like Belize and Honduras. In Honduras, however, these empanadas are known as pastelitos and are actually made sweet. Ceviche is another dish that has been adapted throughout Latin America. Finding its roots in Peru, this dish is, in its essence, as seafood salad. Prepared using fresh fish, citrus and herbs – the large variation in recipes is caused mostly because of the differing availability in sea creatures. In Mexico, for example, ceviche is not only commonly made up of octopus, but it is also served on top of a crisp-like tortilla known as a tostada.
Looking on the global scale, many Asian countries share many of the same food rites and recipes as the South American continent. Recalling plantains, countries like India and Indonesia use the delicious fruit to make savoury crisps or sweet desserts. With regards to empanadas and ceviche, the Philippines have their own version of both dishes. While South American food has influenced many of the global plates we love today, Filipino ceviche and empanadas have actually both developed independent of the continent.
Considering ingredients alone, many of the agricultural goods that South America produces and utilizes in their most common dishes are equally as important to countries in Africa and Polynesia. One of the major examples of this can be seen through the cassava, also known as yuca or manioc. Prepared in both sweet and salty dishes, cassava has become a staple ingredient in many traditional recipes these regions.
Whether you’re backpacking through a sparsely populated natural park or are visiting one of the many metropolitan areas of South America, it’s always helpful to know how some of the locals make their favourite dishes. If you’re also looking to spice up your weekly lunch routine, trying any one of these recipes will be sure to satisfy your taste buds.
A specialty of Rio, you can try feijoada everywhere in Brazil
Feijoada is a bean stew made of black beans and meat. Especially loved in Rio de Janeiro, the Northern regions of Brazil actually tend to toss in some vegetables to the recipe, such as kale and okra. If you’re looking for something hearty that isn’t just your typical beans and rice, feijoada might be the way to go. Here are some of the principle ingredients:
While the dish takes a relatively small time to prepare, the bulk of the time will actually be spent cooking the stew. One helpful tip if you’re working with uncooked beans is to start soaking them the day before in order to shorten the cooking time.
Chimichurri sauce is an Argentinian specialty that is typically served as a condiment. Whether you use it to mix in your salads, dip potatoes in or serve on top of meat dishes, chimichurri will be sure to taste great with just about anything. The main ingredients don’t tend to vary much and include:
The kinds of herbs that you add to the dish will depend on the kinds of flavours you want to use to compliment whatever dish or appetizers you will be eating. For example, while some recipes call for oregano, you can also add mint or fresh cilantro. While the eating habits and recipes of the continent are extremely important, what they drink is equally as appetizing. If you’re interested in a unique drink to try, you can either buy or attempt to make your own chicha, a grain based drink.