South America is a vast continent with a very tumultuous history. This is clearly evident in its food, which is rooted in a mix of ancient indigenous cultures and more contemporary European influences from a variety of colonial settlers – even Welsh! This list provides a country-by-country guide to the best food and drink South America has to offer that will ensure you are well equipped for a truly eye-opening culinary adventure.
Arepas are Colombia’s quintessential street food snack and can be found on almost every street corner of this vast and beautiful country. In its simplest form, the arepa is a thick, round unleavened flatbread made from ground maize flour, grilled over hot coals and slathered with a generous helping of butter which melts, coating your hands with a rich, glossy oil. Cheese is a popular addition, but there are endless regional variations available for every time of day and night – just follow your nose! Try the arepa con huevo in the country’s capital Bogotá. Quite simply an irresistible combination of a deep-fried arepa encasing a perfectly cooked, runny egg – pure breakfast heaven with a pinch of salt or adorned with a dollop of spicy aji picante!
The fertility of Ecuador’s diverse landscape is overwhelmingly apparent in the mouthwatering abundance of exotic fruits that fill the market stalls in the bustling central mercados. The fruit even comes to you! Mobile street vendors criss-cross the cities and don’t be surprised to be offered granadilla (a relation of the passion fruit) and slices of fresh pineapple on the buses. Aside from eating the fruit as is, Ecuadorians are experts at creating an unfathomable array of jugo naturales (pure fruit juice, water and sugar) and batidos (fruit smoothies mixed with milk). Certain fruits are particularly suited of being blitzed up into these thirst-quenching drinks: mora (blackberry), guanabana (custard apple), maracuya (passion fruit), naranjilla (meaning ‘little orange’), tomate de árbol (literally meaning tree tomato), mango, etc.
The three key ingredients for a truly authentic Peruvian ceviche, or cebiche, are fresh fish or shellfish, salt and limón. Limóns are neither a lemon or lime but a cross between the two. Their acidity effectively ‘cooks’ the raw fish and is what gives this dish its unique sharp yet delicate flavor. Ceviche can be found in many other forms in Chile, Ecuador and Colombia (the Colombians use cooked shellfish and top their version with hot tomato sauce), but the best by far has to be that from Lima, where you can find a deftly prepared bowl of perfectly balanced ceviche – and from the humblest of cevicheria carts. Classic garnishes include sweet potato, sliced red onion, choclo (corn on the cob) and crisp fried corn. The moreish marinade, leche de tigre, is the real star of this dish and is a popular accompaniment on its own.
Salteñas are a Bolivian comfort food with an appeal that traverses the entire country. Perhaps one of their main draws is the unique combination of flavors: baked sweet pastry encasing a spicy aji amarillo (yellow pepper) broth and savory filling typically prepared with beef or chicken, potatoes, vegetables, sliced hard-boiled egg and an olive or a handful of raisins. The shape of this hand-held pie resembles more of the Cornish pasty than that of the empanadas that dot the rest of the South American continent, with their oblong, upright stance and twisted top. Eating them without spilling any of the piping hot juice is somewhat of an art form, so beware!
Pebre is a staple of the Chilean dinner table and is the condiment of choice for sopaipillas (fried disks of pumpkin dough), bread, meat and fish (of which there is a bountiful supply due to Chile’s extensive coastline). The key ingredient for this spicy salsa is Merquén – a spice blend of dried, smoked chili peppers that are toasted and crushed with coriander seeds – originating from the indigenous Mapuche people. This heady mix is then stirred through chopped vegetables, chili, herbs, lemon juice and vinegar. A glass of refreshing Pisco sour is perfect to take the edge off the ensuing heat! This cocktail is synonymous with both Chile and neighboring Peru, the basis of which is Pisco (a grape brandy produced in both countries), egg whites, lemon juice and sugar.
The Argentine asado is much more than a barbecue; it’s a celebration of the country’s iconic gaucho culture and its most prized product – meat. Every weekend, Argentine households gather together to share in a feast of fire-cooked meats washed down with plenty of Malbec and Fernet. The preparation and cooking of the asado are taken extremely seriously, and it’s all down to the appointed asador to deliver the much-anticipated feast. First things first are the brick-built parrilla with an adjustable grill to precisely cook the meat, hot coals and a generous selection of meat – 500 grams per person to be exact! Popular cuts are tira de asado (short rib), vacio (flank) and entraña (skirt), as well as achuras (offal), morcilla (blood sausage) and chorizo. All that is added to the meat before it goes on the parrilla is salt – nothing else. However, you will find chimichurri on the table, which is the ultimate topping for the chorizo sausage, sliced in half and stuffed in a crusty bread roll to make choripán.
Brigadeiros are bite-sized Brazilian delicacies traditionally combining condensed milk, cocoa powder, eggs and butter. Apparently they were first created in the 1940s as a means of raising funds for presidential candidate Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes. While he may have lost, the Brigadeiros triumphed, and these velvety smooth little morsels are a mainstay of birthday parties and celebrations to this day. The sweet has evolved to encompass a variety of different toppings and flavors, including nuts, fruits and chocolate, many of which now adorn the windows of Brigadeiro shops throughout Brazil. Just be careful as their small size make them incredibly addictive!
Once tasted, you’ll be instantly hooked! Indeed, the whole continent seems to be obsessed with this sticky, caramel spread that crops up squished between alfajores biscuits, served at breakfast with bread and medialunas, swirled into ice cream and stuffed into churros and any number of baked goods. If you have a sweet tooth, this is a must-try and one you’ll be cramming into your luggage to remedy your inevitable cravings on your way home.