South America

An Introduction to South American Food

Beef and red chile tamale

Brian Yarvin / Getty Images

Long before the Europeans discovered South America, the native populations knew 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, chile peppers, avocados, peanuts, chocolate, and 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 foods to South America, such as pigs, chickens, citrus trees, wheat, almonds, cows, goats.

The Europeans learned to make their favorite Spanish, Italian and Portuguese dishes using local ingredients. The Native American traditional cooking methods were adapted and modified, and the newly available foods from Europe were mixed in. Asian and African immigrants brought their culinary traditions as well. All of this blended to become the diverse and exciting cuisine that exists today.

South American Cuisine Today

Some native foods were not incorporated into the European-syle 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 rediscovered.

Chefs in trendy restaurants now showcase Andean products such as alpaca meat, grains like quinoa and kiwicha, and unusual tubers such as yuca 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 is one example of the global gastronomic exchange that happens today, a fusion of traditional Latin flavors with global food trends. 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.

Some Key South American Foods:

  • Corn (Maiz, Choclo) has been 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.
  • Potatoes rival corn as the oldest and most important South American crop. Hundreds of varieties of potatoes are still cultivated in the Andes today, so it’s no surprise there’s an infinite array of potato recipes. Potatoes are fried, mashed, freeze dried, baked and combined with sauces into many beloved dishes.
  • Peppers (Ajis) are the most important seasoning ingredient in South American cooking. There are both sweet and hot varieties, and they are used in many creative ways, like in the colorful marinades for ceviche.
  • Tropical Fruit: South American cuisine makes great use of the incredible assortment of tropical fruit available. Coconut, cherimoya, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, lucumapassion 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 is a lightly salted, unripened cow’s milk cheese that’s added to sauces and crumbled in salads.
  • Yuca (Manioc, Cassava) The starchy edible root of the yuca plant is another very important food. It’s especially popular in Brazil, where the root is ground, dried and roasted to make farofa, a key ingredient in the famous Brazilian dish feijoada, a pork and black bean stew. Other regions use a sweet variety of yuca that can be mashed or fried. Cassava flour is often used in baking, as in the delicious Brazilian cheese rolls Pão de Queijo.