Eat your way through the top food of Latin America, Part I.

Eat your way through the top food of Latin America, Part I.

Tacos from a street cart. Melt-in-your-mouth steak.  Off-the-boat fresh ceviche. Stews fragrant with African and Latin American flavors you never knew existed. We travel to see new sights and experience foreign lifestyles, and food is at the heart of every culture.  And if you don’t speak the same language, it’s a bridge to engaging with the locals—your smile and audible ‘Mmmm’ translates to delicious happiness in every country.

Here’s a roundup of what we think is some of the top food across Latin America. We know we can’t list all our favorites in one go, so stay tuned for part 2 in the coming months.

Oh, and you know this will make you hungry for a trip to Latin America (yeah, yeah, a wee bit corny but we couldn’t resist J ). The full inventory of our Latin American tours lives here. That empanada is closer than you realize.

 

Empanadas, the ultimate snack

An empanada is a baked or fried pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings. It’s available across several Latin American countries, but, thought the filling and pastry dough varies depending on the country, you can expect anything from ground beef and eggs to chicken, ham and cheese. There are regional variations within each country too. It’s a popular snack sold often sold from a street vendor or at a casual spot where you can perch on a beach and get it to-go.

Melt-in-your-mouth Ceviche

Ceviche is what happens when you take fish and shellfish, at an acidic citrus juice like lemon or lime, and let it marinate for a few hours. The acid in the juice changes the structural makeup if the proteins: if you monitor it closely, you’ll notice the fish morph from translucent to opaque as it cures the fish. It’s a common dish served in many coastal parts of Latin America and is especially popular on the Eastern side of South America in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, as well as across Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. As with empanadas, it varies depending on where you eat it and is most commonly associated with Peru, where its typically cured it with Peruvian lime (similar to key limes) or bitter orange juice and served up with onions, chili, salt and pepper. Sweet potatoes, cilantro (coriander), parsley, garlic, cumin or evaporated milk also often join the mix.

Endless cuts of steak

While South American steak is most commonly associated with Argentina and Brazil, it’s a huge part of Uruguayan and Paraguayan cuisine, too. The flavor-packed high quality, the encyclopedic selection of different cuts, and gargantuan portion sizes will blow you away wondering “Why, why, WHY can’t taste this good back home?!

Most steak restaurants will serve their meat a la carte, and in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay it’s served with a side of chimichurri, a sauce made with oil, parsley, garlic, oregano and vinegar, and in many versions, sweet crushed chili pepper is added to the mix. In Brazil, huge chunks of meat are presented on tall skewers and servers revolve around tables and slice the meat off with large knives right in front of you. You’ll have a choice of various different cuts and end up with a mix on your plate.

 

Give me a side of fried plantains

A plantain is a type of starchy banana. In Latin America, fried plantains are ubiquitous throughout, and it is cooked with so the edges get a bit crispy and caramelized with the middle turns soft. They’re served warm or room temperature. When they’re made with green, unripe plantains, they’re more savory, but ripe plantains yield a sweet flavor.

Will your favorite be northern or southern? Brazil’s Moqueca

Moqueca is a Brazilian fish stew and generally comes one of two ways: Moqueca Baiana originates from Bahia in the northeast) and Moqueca Capixaba comes from the Espirito Santo in the southeast. The big difference between the two is that in Bahia they add coconut milk and palm oil, but in the south, they use olive oil and generally leave out the coconut. But both version use fresh local fish or shellfish (or both), tomatoes, garlic, parsley, cilantro (coriander), lime, salt pepper and often a hunk of spicy chili peppers.  The stew if often served with rice and pirão, a thick sauce made with yucca flour.

Spicy, hearty, Rondon

Rondon, or spicy coconut soup, is a Caribbean staple and exists in hundreds of variations, but at its core is coconut milk, the whole head of a fish (and if you’ve got it, some fish and shellfish, too) plus a tuber like yucca or sweet potato, cooked for hours over an open fire with a local chili pepper thrown in.

 

The sweet bliss of Dulce de leche

Super sweet and oh-so-addictive, dulche de leche is a creamy caramel-esque concoction made by simmering milk with sugar (and sometimes a touch of vanilla).  The thick concoction comes in a jar and is often spread on bread or crackers, and added to cookies and cakes. Its most commonly found in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia and Uruguay and of its most famous iterations is as Alfajor (or plural Alfajores). A huge number of variations abound, but the most basic version is a thick smear of dulche de leche is sandwiched between two butter cookies and sprinkled with coconut flakes.

Caroline Sieg

Caroline Sieg is a half-Swiss, half-American writer, editor and content marketer focusing on travel, food, art, design & the outdoors. She's traveled throughout Latin America, is addicted to empanadas and tacos, and loves outdoor adventure, from trekking in Patagonia to zip lining in Costa Rica.

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