South American Cuisine

“The manner of their living is very barbarous, because they do not eat at fixed times, but as often as they please”…”Those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet . . . we may rightly call a New World . . . a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa; and, in addition, a climate milder than in any other region known to us.”

Amerigo Vespucci in 1502, the first explorer to recognize North and South America as distinct continents and not part of Asia.

Even though one of six oldest independent civilizations in the world, the Norte Chico, had already existed on the continent for 26+ centuries, it was Amerigo Vespucci who first “discovered” the continent. He also was the first European to realize upon reaching Brazil, that they had discovered a brand new land and thusly named it the “New World”. In 1507, a German cartographer created a new map, naming the territory now known as South America in Vespucci’s honor. For the first time, the word “America” was in print.

Was it blind religious ambition, greed, or just the evolution of civilizations? Either way, the effect of the 15th century papal’s push to “convert” non-Christian lands like Africa and the Americas to Christianity changed the course of both human and culinary history. More specifically, the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had the two great maritime powers of the time agreeing with themselves to split all the land outside of Europe. This “saving of the souls” of the indigenous peoples of the Americas basically led to upwards of a 90% decline in the native populations due to their non-existent immunity to new strains of diseases and brutal forced labor in gold and silver mines.

This story, however, isn’t all about the incredible century of damage the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors brought to South America. It’s the story of Mestizo, the Spanish term for “mixed” that refers to the merger of native Americans with the Spanish interlopers. The integration of Spanish and Portuguese cuisines, ingredients, and techniques led to many new and sophisticated dishes. Once the doors were opened, immigrants from Europe, especially Italy, Germany, Africa, and Asia flooded in, adding even more flavors to each country’s cuisine. South American cuisine is the beneficiary of, much like Mexico, the merger of the old with the new…mestizo.

What makes South American cuisine unique from its neighbors in Central America and to a lesser degree Mexico, is its sheer size. As the 4th largest continent in the world, the cuisines of its countries are dictated by the topography, climate, and history of each. With the huge Amazon basin running down its middle, it is bounded by North America to the north and surrounded by large oceans like the Pacific and Atlantic, and the Caribbean sea.


Argentina is a big country and a cultural capital of South America. The country is widely famous for its fantastic wines and marbled beef. Local food was strongly influenced by diverse European cuisines, especially from Spain, and Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants. It is common to see dishes like French pastries, Italian pizza and pastas, and Spanish chorizo throughout the country. Argentinians add their own special charm to these dishes, turning them into true gastronomic masterpieces. The strong “Gaucho” (cowboy) culture is ever-present in Argentinian’s love of meat and dairy.

Notable Argentinian DishesAsado (A grilled feast of meats, sausages, sides and desserts), Empanadas (baked pastries filled with ground beef, chicken, cheese, spinach), Carbonada Criolla (beef stew of dried fruit and sweet potato), Matambre Arrollado (thin beef rolled-up, stuffed, and grilled), Argentinian Chorizo (fresh pork sausage), Chimichurri (a parsley-cilantro sauce), Provoleta (cheese grilled with chili flakes and herbs), Choripan (grilled sausages in a crusty roll, split and topped with chimichurri), Alfajores (cookies filled with jam or dulce de leche), Yerba Mate (ancient herbal infused tea)

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Bolivian cuisine stems from the combination of Spanish cuisine with indigenous ingredients, Amyra tribe traditions, and later influences from European and Arabic immigrants. The traditional staples of Bolivian cuisine are corn, potatoes, quinoa, and beans. These ingredients have been combined with a number of staples brought by the Spanish, such as rice, wheat, and meat. Bolivian cuisine differs by geographical locations. In Western Bolivia in the Altiplano, due to the high, cold climate, dishes tend to use a lot of spices. Dishes in the lowlands of Bolivia’s Amazonian region consist of ingredients abundant in the area: fruits, vegetables, fish, and yuca.

Notable Bolivian DishesPapas Rellenas (egg-stuffed, deep fried mash potato balls), Saltenas (baked meat-filled pastries), Pique a lo Macho (chunks of beef, sausage, onion, hot pepper, egg and fries), Silpancho (layered rice, boiled potatoes, meat, egg, and salsa), Llajwa (spicy salsa), Sopa de Mani (hearty soup with beef ribs or chicken).

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Brazil is a massive country that is made up of many different cultures. Each region has a different food specialty. Famous for its fragrant cuisine, Brazilian cuisine combines its own flavors from its indigenous roots with influences from different parts of the world. In addition to being influenced by the Portuguese, you can find dishes with a German heritage in the south, and African inspired dishes and tropical fruits in the tropical northeast. Even the Lebanese gave Brazil “Tabule.” Like the US, the African slave trade had a major impact on Brazil’s cuisine as did the more than one million Italians who migrated to Brazil before 1880. Each immigrant group layered on their own style of cooking to contribute to a cuisine that is distinctly Brazilian.

Notable Brazilian DishesFeijoada (National dish, stew of black beans and pork parts), Chourico (Portuguese sausage), Farofa (ground manioc), Moqueca (Thin dish of palm oil and coconut milk with herbs, and shrimp or fish), Vatapá (spicy mixture of bread, shrimp, red pepper, ginger, peanuts, coconut milk, palm oil and onions), Coxinha (fried chicken dumplings), Virado a Paulista (collard greens, rice, manioc flour, and pork chops), Brigadeiro (condensed milk and cocoa balls rolled in chocolate), Quindim (pudding made with butter, egg yolks, coconut, and sugar), Romeo y Julieta (layered guava paste and fresh queijo minas cheese).

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The climatic, ecological and cultural diversity of Chile is reflected in the cuisine of this South American country. Chilean Creole cuisine was created under the influence of local traditions and enhanced by foods from Europe and the Middle East. Dishes are often based on corn, quinoa, potatoes, and seafood. The grapes grown in the center of the country are favorable for wine making. Chile is also the longest country in the world.

Notable Chilean DishesPastel de Choclo (corn pie with minced beef, onions, raisins, olives, chopped eggs), Curanto (shellfish, fish, beef, chorizo, potatoes, and vegetables cooked in an underground stone oven), Cazuela de Vacuno (broth with beef, potatoes, pumpkin, corn, and rice), Chilean Hot Dog (“a complete”- long bun with a frankfurter smothered in mashed avocado, mayonnaise, and ketchup), Milhojas (cake with Dulce de leche caramel), Cuchufli (rolled airy waffle filled with sweet dulce de leche), Torta Tres Leches (sponge cake soaked in 3 kinds of milk).

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Colombian Cuisine is very diverse and varies depending on the region. In some areas you will find specialties like roasted ants or guinea pigs, while in other areas Colombians wouldn’t go near those dishes. Colombia is not particularly a paradise for vegetarians as the Colombian diet includes a lot of meat. In the coastal areas there is a good variety of fish, lobster, and shellfish that are often prepared with sauces made from coconut milk. The quantity of fresh tropical fruit is overwhelming and many of the varieties unknown outside of Colombia.

Notable Colombian DishesBandeja Paisa (platter of grilled steak, fried pork rind, chorizo sausage on rice and red beans topped with a fried egg and sides of avocado and banana chips), Sudado de Pollo (chicken stew), Banana Leaf Tamales (steamed cornmeal and meat filled banana leaves), Pescado Frito (fried tilapia or red snapper), Chuleta Valluna (pork milanese cutlet), Arepa (cornmeal pancake with butter), Hormigas culonas (fried humongous ants).

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The evolution of Peruvian cuisine began with the Spanish conquest of the Incas in the 16th century. Later, in the 1800s, immigrant workers from China introduced their ingredients, woks, techniques, and recipes which became a major component of the Peruvian cuisine called chifa. This interesting combination of the ancient grains, produce, and potatoes (3,800+ kinds) with European and Chinese cooking creates a cuisine totally unique to Peru.

Notable Peruvian DishesPotatoes, potatoes, potatoes, Ceviche (raw sea bass cold-cooked in lime juice, onion, salt and chilies), Lomo Saltado (soy-marinated alpaca meat strips, stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, aji chilies, and spices), Pollo a la Brasa (marinated whole chicken roasted on a spit to crispy), Salsa Aji Amarillo (dipping sauce of aji peppers, mayonnaise, cilantro and garlic), Arroz con Pato (roasted duck over green rice), Cuy (crispy skin guinea pig), Papas a la Huancaina (Potatoes in spicy cheese sauce), Rocoto Relleno (hot pepper stuffed with meat-olive-raisin, topped with cheese, and baked in egg-milk sauce).

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The influence of Europe and the cattle culture from the Spanish plains is on full display in this small coastal country that sits between two giants- Brazil and Argentina. Italian and French foods populate restaurants and cafes, but the smell of meat cooking is in the air. cooked over passadillos (grills) with their sloped grates that allow assadoros to navigate between meats and temperatures, meat is ever-present in Uruguayan cuisine. In this land of gauchos where 80% of its land is available for grazing livestock, it makes sense that grilling meat is king.

Notable Uruguayan DishesAsado (BBQ of assorted grilled meats, organs, salads, and sides), Asado con Cuero (whole cows or sheep cooked over fire), Chivito (sliced steak, ham, cheese, egg, and mayonnaise sandwich), Empanadas Gallegas (tuna, onion, bell pepper mini-pies), Bizcochos (classic sweet or savory pastry), Chaja (sponge cake topped by whipped cream and crushed meringue), Garrapinadas (caramel covered peanuts).


Located at the top of South America, Venezuela’s distinctive regional cooking is a reflection of its European, African and geographical influences. On the hot coast, you will find high quality fish, like red snapper and dorado, shellfish, crayfish, along with fish soups and stews. In the mountainous Andean region further from the equator, the food is very different. Arepas here are made with wheat rather than the cornmeal used elsewhere. Not too dissimilar to Switzerland, cured meats and sausages are widely eaten in many rural villages. The famous fresh trout (trucha) dishes of the region come from its many Andean streams and lakes. The food in the Amazon region is completely different from the rest of Venezuela. Besides staples like yucca, corn, beans, turtles, and bananas, equally enjoyed are tapirs, monkeys, birds, and deep fried ants.

Notable Venezuelan DishesArepa (cornmeal cakes, split open and filled with cheese, egg, and bacon), Casabe (Yucca bread, possibly oldest bread in the Americas), Chivo al coco (shredded goat in coconut milk), Pabellon Criollo (shredded beef and black beans on rice), Guasacaca (spicy avocado sauce), Bien Me Sabe (“tastes good to me” is a sponge cake soaked in liquor and layered with coconut cream filling, topped with meringue).

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