Introduction to South American Food Culture
Long before the Europeans came to South America, the native populations figured out how to cultivate an incredible array of plants. They developed elaborate irrigation systems and terraced the steep Andean mountain slopes; to make them more suitable for growing food. They grew corn, lima beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, avocados, peanuts, and chocolate. They also raised llamas and guinea pigs. Each region developed its own traditional dishes.
When the Europeans arrived, they incorporated some of these native dishes into their own cuisine. They took the new foods back to Europe, and they brought European livestock and foods to South America; such as pigs, chickens, citrus trees, wheat, almonds, cows, and goats.
The Europeans learned to make their favorite Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese dishes using local ingredients. The Native American traditional cooking methods adapted and modified, and the newly available foods from Europe mixed in. Asian and African immigrants brought their culinary traditions as well. All of this blended to make this the diverse and exciting cuisine that exists today.
Some native foods not incorporated into the European-style cuisine; that dominates big cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago. But the indigenous populations continue to cultivate and eat them. Recently, these foods have been gaining popularity. Chefs in trendy restaurants now showcase Andean products such as alpaca meat, grains like quinoa and kiwicha (also known as amaranth), and unusual tubers such as yucca and maca in sophisticated new ways.
As more South Americans venture north with their cooking traditions and ingredients in hand; North Americans are getting the chance to sample these new foods and flavors. Nuevo Latino cuisine, a fusion of traditional Latin flavors with global food trends; is one example of the global gastronomic exchange that’s happening today. The rest of the world has become interested in the cuisines of South America, and new combinations will emerge. But the time-honored culinary traditions of Latin America remain intact. If you have not explored them already, new or old, don’t miss out. You will fall in love with South American food.
Key South American Foods
Corn (maiz, choclo):
Cultivated in South America for more than 5,000 years and is possibly South America’s biggest food contribution to the rest of the world. Corn is the key ingredient of many staple dishes, such as arepas (cornbread), tamales, various pasteles (casseroles or savory tarts) and chicha, an ancient yet still popular beverage.
Hundreds of varieties of potatoes still cultivated in the Andes today; so it’s no surprise there’s an infinite array of potato recipes. Potatoes fried, mashed, freeze-dried, baked, and combined with sauces into many beloved dishes. They rival corn as the oldest and most important South American crop.
The most important seasoning ingredient in South American cooking. Both sweet and hot varieties and used in many creative ways; like in the colorful marinades for ceviche.
South American cuisine makes great use of the incredible assortment of tropical fruit available. Coconut, cherimoya, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, lucuma, passion fruit—the list goes on and on. These fruits star in many delicious desserts but also liven up savory dishes and salads.
Queso fresco/queso Blanco:
This fresh cheese is another staple of South American cooking. Queso fresco a lightly salted; unripened cow’s milk cheese that’s added to sauces and crumbled in salads.
Yucca (manioc, cassava):
The starchy edible root of the yucca plant is another very important food. It’s especially popular in Brazil; where the root ground, dried and roasted to make farofa. Farofa is a key ingredient in the famous Brazilian dish feijoada, pork and black bean stew. Other regions use a sweet variety of yucca that can be mashed or fried. Cassava flour often used in baking, as in the delicious Brazilian cheese rolls pão de queijo.
Authentic Dishes in South America Food
1- South America Food – Tamales
a unique Pre-Columbian dish believed to have originated in Mesoamerica; the land between North and South America. Mexican tamales are perhaps the best-known version, however, almost all of the Central and South American cultures have adopted the dish into their own style of cooking.
What Are They?
Tamales are a complete meal in a portable form. In most versions, tamales made from a mixture of corn dough (masa) and filling; wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk, and then steamed. The corn masa becomes firmer when steamed, and the tamale can be unwrapped and eaten on the go.
Archeological evidence points to tamales being consumed by the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. The earliest tamales were simple. They were made with beans and squash and roasted over a fire. When Europeans brought chicken, pork, olives, raisins, and other foods with them to the New World, then tamales became more elaborate.
Tamales have many names and variations like tamals, tamalitos, or pasteles. Venezuelans enjoy hallacas, especially at Christmas. In the Andes, humitas made with ground fresh corn; rather than the usual masa harina (or masarepa in some places) forms of dried cornmeal.
A form of tamales also consumed in several Caribbean islands; like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, and Aruba. Tamales have been widely adopted in the United States, too. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the American-adapted “tamale pie” is what meat pies and casseroles made with a cornmeal crust and layered tamale fillings were called.
The masa, or cornmeal dough, inside a tamale prepared by mixing dried cornmeal with a broth; (usually left from cooking the meat in the filling), lard, and seasonings until it forms as a soft dough. Masa harina the most common cornmeal flour used to make tamales (and also used to make corn tortillas). Made from ground corn that has been treated with lime to remove the skin and hulls; made into a dough, then dried and ground into a fine meal. It has a distinctive flavor, not unlike hominy; as it is prepared with a similar process. The lard keeps the masa from becoming too dry and pasty.
The fillings range from simple to elaborate. In some countries, the masa is filled with a simple piece of chicken or pork. Most tamales have elaborate slow-cooked seasoned meat fillings (usually chicken or pork), sometimes with vegetables (potatoes, corn, peppers, or carrots), cheeses, dried fruits, and olives.
Wrapping and Steaming Tamales
Tamales most often wrapped in dried corn husks (soaked in water to make them pliable); or banana leaves. The wrapper not eaten but imparts a certain flavor to the tamales when they are steamed. Tamales steamed for about 30 minutes; depending on their size, or until the masa becomes firm and the filling heated through.
2- South American Food – Ceviche
A Marinated Raw Fish Dish Is on the Trend List
Ceviche (“seh-BEE-chay” or “suh-VEE-chey) is a hugely popular South American food dish. The basic ingredient is raw fish cut into bite-size pieces and marinated in the juice of an acidic fruit (usually lime); salt and seasonings (usually chili peppers).
The citric acid in the juice changes the texture of the fish without changing its “raw” taste. Ceviche has deep roots in South America, dating back to the earliest inhabitants. The Incas preserved their fish with fruit juice, salt, and chili peppers, and later the Spanish conquerors introduced the now-essential limes.
Common wisdom says the lime juice “cooks” the fish — partially or completely; depending on how long marinated. The citric acid in the lime juice alters the structure of the proteins in the fish; making the fish more opaque and firm; just as if it had been cooked with heat. But the acid does not kill bacteria and parasites as well as heat does; so it’s important to start with the freshest, cleanest fish possible.
When to Serve Ceviche
Typically served at lunch or brunch, and because it is so light and refreshing, it’s popular at the beach. Ceviche restaurants (“cevicherias”) often close around 4 p.m. because the fish caught in the morning is no longer fresh by afternoon.
The Ceviche usually made with sea bass or flounder, but just about any fish or shellfish will work. The other ingredients vary widely.
Ecuadorean ceviche often made with shrimp and ketchup; in addition to the lime juice and served with corn nuts.
In Chile, ceviche made with Chilean sea bass, grapefruit juice, and cilantro.
The Peru ceviche garnished with thinly sliced onions and aji limo; aji Amarillo or rocoto chili peppers. Served with sweet potatoes and large-kernel Andean corn on the cob (choclo).
Only a true ceviche lover would dare try tiger’s milk (“leche de Tigre”); As the leftover ceviche marinade served in a small glass. Brightly colored from the spicy chili peppers and sometimes mixed with vodka; tiger’s milk considered an effective cure for tough hangovers.
Ceviche has become trendy outside of South America, and chefs like to experiment with exotic ingredients such as passion fruit, coconut milk, octopus, shark, avocado, celery, and mango.
3- South American Food – Empanadas
Another popular South American food; Empanadas fried or baked pastries stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. They’re known and loved throughout Portugal, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Philippines. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to wrap in bread.
The History of Empanadas
The empanadas we enjoy today are thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain. The idea of wrapping a hardy filling in pastry dough may well have stemmed from the Moors who occupied Spain for hundreds of years. A cookbook published in Catalan, Spain in 1520 includes empanadas made with seafood.
The first empanadas in Western Hemisphere are credited to Argentina. The U.S. has even given the empanada a dedicated holiday — National Empanada Day, celebrated on April 8. Empanadas are a traditional Christmas treat in New Mexico. Commonly referred to as creoles in the southwest and the south, and as fried pies in the southeast.
Empanadas Across the Caribbean
Cubans fill their empanadas with seasoned ground beef or chicken before frying them. They’re prepared and eaten the same way in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Making an Empanada
Empanadas similar to cut-up pies and typically filled with codfish or chicken. An empanada made by folding a disc of thinly rolled dough over the filling into a semicircle; then crimping the edges to seal it. The dough often made with wheat flour, but this isn’t universal. Corn flour or cornmeal can be used as well, and some countries’ traditions call for a plantain or potato base. The exact content of the dough depends on whether the empanadas will be baked or fried.
It’s said that the art of making a perfect empanada is to hold the dough, spread open, in one hand; while using the other hand to fill it and to crimp the edges. Tradition aside, you can now purchase empanada machines at many appliance stores to make the process much easier.
It’s considered acceptable to eat empanadas at any meal, including breakfast. But usually enjoyed at lunch or as a snack. They can make a full meal on their own and no one will leave the table hungry.
Catibías similar to empanadas and made with cassava flour dough. Some common fillings include ground beef, chicken, guava, and cheese.
Pastelitos similar to empanadas, too, but made with a light pastry dough and they can be either baked or fried.
4- South American Food Arepas
The Venezuelan and Colombia corncakes
Arepas are a staple food in both Venezuela and Colombia. A corn cake, made from a special precooked corn flour called masarepa; (one of the most common brands of masarepa called harina P.A.N.. So some recipes simply call for that). These simple, satisfying corn cakes are delicious with butter or cream cheese for breakfast; or as an accompaniment to any meal. Arepas can also be split sandwich-style and filled with various fillings. There are many clever names for the most popular arepa sandwich combinations.
Arepas in Venezuela are ubiquitous. You will find them everywhere from humble street stalls to sit down restaurants. Just like bread, arepas are eaten as a sandwich or a regular slice of bread. Arepas in Venezuela are thick and stuffed with meat or other savory ingredients; while in Columbia, they are eaten plain with cheese or egg. These delightful stuffed corn cakes an indispensable side dish in any Venezuelan household.
5- Chicha Morada Peru’s Traditional Cold Beverage
Deep purple in color and made from dried corn; non-alcoholic chicha Morada (“purple beverage”) is undisputed as Peru’s iconic refreshing drink. Of humble Andean origins (and rich in antioxidants); consumed nowadays by people of all social classes and in almost all contexts in that country; from a quick drink-on-the-run at a market stall to an elegant state dinner. The flavor is slightly rustic, mildly sweet, and surprisingly invigorating due to the spices used in its preparation.
Nowadays, it is easy to find bottled chicha Morada or powdered mixes in U.S. supermarkets; particularly in areas with a substantial population of people of Peruvian descent (if not, there’s always the Internet). Making it from scratch, however, is much more satisfying—not to mention economical—and will make your house smell heavenly. Prepare it plain from this basic recipe, and then change it up next time with one of the variations mentioned below. You´ll be glad you did.
Ears of dried Peruvian purple corn usually sold bagged, are available in many Latin American markets in the United States. If you are unable to find them at a brick and mortar store, they can be ordered online. Substitutions of other types of corn not recommended.
- 1 pound (about 450 grams) dried Peruvian purple corn on the cob (approximately 4 medium-sized ears)
- one gallon/4 liters water
- 1 stick cinnamon (about 4 to 5 inches long)
- 6 whole cloves
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 3 green apples (or crisp pears; can use yellow apples or pears)
- 4 key limes
Steps to Make It
- Rinse the ears of purple corn under the faucet to remove any dust or foreign matter. Place the ears, plus any stray grains that may have fallen off, in a large pot together with the water, cinnamon, and cloves. Put the pot over high heat on the stove; once the water reaches the boiling point, reduce the heat to medium-low. Allow this to boil for about 50 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool down until safe to handle. Strain the liquid through a fine strainer into a pitcher, setting aside (not discarding) the solids. Add the sugar to the liquid and stir until completely dissolved. Taste, adding more sugar if desired, though this beverage is most refreshing when it is not overly sweet.
- Chill the chicha. At this point, you can make another batch of the beverage, if desired, by adding more water to the pot with the reserved solids and repeating the entire process. When you see that nearly all of the grains of corn have broken open slightly, you will know that the corn has given up its entire flavor; until then, it can be reused in this way.
- Right before serving, chop the apples or pears into small cubes and juice the limes. Add diced fruit and lime juice to the chicha in the pitcher and stir. Serve as-is or over ice, with a straw and a long spoon (for eating the fruit), if desired. Store any leftover chicha Morada in the refrigerator.
Add the rind of fresh pineapple (the part you normally would throw away after cutting up the fruit); to the water with corn and spices, then proceed as usual. Alternately, add the rind of a couple of navel oranges (pith removed); or a couple of apples or pears (peeled or not, as desired, and cut into chunks or slices).
Don´t hesitate to switch out the sweeteners in your chicha Morada. Make it a little more rustic by using brown sugar instead of white, or go full Peruvian and use chancaca (unprocessed cane sugar known as piloncillo, tapa de dulce, raspadura, or panela in some other Spanish-speaking countries). Need fewer calories? Try your favorite artificial sweetener.
Get a little fancier with the floating fruit, if you like. In place of or in addition to the diced apple/pear, add small cubes of pineapple or fresh guava fruit to your chicha.