South America is a continent located in the western hemisphere, mostly in the southern hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the northern hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas which is how it is viewed in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas. The reference to South America instead of other regions (like Latin America or the Southern Cone) has increased in the last decades due to changing geopolitical dynamics (in particular, the rise of Brazil).
It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east by the Atlantic Ocean; North America and the Caribbean Sea lie to the northwest. It includes twelve sovereign states (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela), a part of France (French Guiana), and a non-sovereign area (the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory though this is disputed by Argentina). In addition to this, the ABC islands of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama may also be considered part of South America.
Latin America consists of nineteen sovereign states and several territories and dependencies which cover an area that stretches from the northern border of Mexico to the southern tip of South America, including the Caribbean. List of Latin American Countries are Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic and other dependencies.
South American Cuisine
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.
The foods of South America are as diverse as the countries within the continent’s borders. One reason for this vast diversity is that each country in South America has been influenced by external cuisines and ingredients. Flavor profiles and culinary influences from Africa, European countries, Native Americans and even Asia have all had a hand in transforming South American cuisine into what it is today. Even though there are huge differences in the use of ingredients and spices from country to country, some commonalities can be found in dishes such as guacamole, salsa, mole, chimichurri, tamales, tortillas and sofritos.
– Argentine cuisine has been heavily influenced by Italian and Spanish cuisines, and while beef is omnipresent and often served in huge quantities, it is parrilla, a mixed grill of simply seasoned and prepared combination of sausage, organ meats and steak that holds the honor of being the country’s national dish. Afternoon tea in Argentina is a fondly preserved and popular tradition, and Argentinean wines are recognized as some of the best in the world.
– The cuisine of Brazil varies widely from region to region, and as a whole the country’s dishes have been heavily influenced by many other countries. Brazil’s national dish comes from humble origins though today it can be found on even the best menus. Feijoada is this dish, and it is a stewed combination of beef, pork and beans.
– Chilean cuisine is an interesting fusion of European flavors and indigenous ingredients. Seafood is commonly served, and while there is no common consensus on one single national dish, empanadas, caldillo de congrio (a soup made from eel, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and spices), and pastel de choclo are all considered national specialties. Chilean wines are especially good and are widely consumed.
– The inland dishes of Columbia vary greatly from the dishes of the coastal areas. Bandeja paisa, however, is considered to be the national dish. This dish is a combination of steak, sausage, rice and beans, and pork rinds that is then topped with one or more fried eggs and sliced avocado.
– Ecuador shares naming ceviche as their national dish with Peru. In Ecuador, ceviche is very popular along the coastal areas but inland the most popular food is a street food favorite called hornado. This is a dish of potatoes and roasted pig and can be found on just about any street corner in the mountainous areas of the country.
– Peru also claims ceviche as its national dish, but this country’s cuisine is so diverse that to settle on one single dish to represent it is difficult. Other popular dishes include papa rellena which is a dish of mashed potatoes that has been stuffed with ground meat, olives, eggs and spices then deep fried, and pollo a la brasa. Pollo a la brasa is chicken either grilled or roasted after being marinated. This dish holds the honor of being the most widely consumed dish throughout the country. The pisco sour is a famous Peruvian cocktail that combines pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white and bitters.
– In Venezuela one can find dishes that are very similar to many European specialties such as empanadas, cachitos which are very like French croissants and pasticho which is the country’s version of lasagna. The national dish is Pabellón criollo which is Venezuela’s version of rice and beans with the addition of shredded beef. There are very many variations on this dish throughout the country.
– Mexican cuisine is a style of food which is primarily a fusion of indigenous Mesoamerican cooking with European (especially Spanish) cooking developed after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The basic staples remain the native corn, beans and chili peppers but the Europeans introduced a large number of other foods, the most important of which were meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, chicken, goat and sheep), dairy products (especially cheese) and various herbs and spices. Mexican cuisine is very well known outside of Mexico and features prominently in Latin America as a source of influence to many Latin American cuisines thanks enormously to the spread of crops originally from Mexico to other Latin American countries. Maize or corn, which originated in the highlands of the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Jalisco, is a staple in most Latin American cuisines today. The tomato, another crop with origins in Mexico is also widely consumed and incorporated in the cuisines of most Latin American countries. The most internationally recognized dishes include chocolate, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, tamales and mole among several others.
Adobo Spice Mix – This mix of oregano, paprika, chilli and thyme is the base of the famous Chimichurri sauce for barbequed meat – also used as a marinade.
Aji Pepper – Also known as the ‘Peruvian chilli’, its flavour is fruity rather than spicy, being more capsicum than chilli. Aji pepper has a subtle but distinctive flavour and is often dried and ground into powder. (See also Chillies)
Beans – Big in Brazil where the African influence is most concentrated, black and red beans are a favourite for Brazil’s national dish, Feijoada Completa.
Cassava – A root vegetable closely related to potato, the cassava makes flour and great chips.
Chillies – Indigenous to South America, chillies are used to fire up so many dishes all over the continent….and now, the world! There are many species of chilli within the capsicum family. Some of the more common varieties include Jalapeño, Habanero, Poblano, Rocoto and Aji Pepper. (See also Aji Pepper)
Coriander – Known in Spanish as ‘cilantro’, coriander features prominently in South American cuisine and is an essential ingredient in Pebre.
Corn – Maiz 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.
Meat – South America, particularly Argentina, is a meat-lover’s paradise. Mostly, meat is barbequed. The most popular cuts are the vacio (flank steak), and spare ribs. Other favourites include chinchulines (chitterlings) and mollejas (sweetbreads). The chorizo sausage is also a must.
Plantain – In the banana family, plantians tend to be firmer and lower in sugar content than regular bananas. Cooked while it’s green, the Colombians love them and make Patacones (fried plantain) as a side dish.
Potato – The potato was first cultivated in South America between three and seven thousand years ago. Papa Amarilla is the yellow potato of Peru – a delicacy. Papa Seca is the dried potato of the Andes. Chuño is a freeze-dried potato from Bolivia, which when dried look like little stones. They are also used to make flour. Sweet Potato is also thought to have originated in South America and is still very much part of the diet across the continent today.
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.
Quinua – Quinua (or quinoa) has been cultivated in the Andean highlands since 3,000 BC. It has a light, fluffy texture when cooked. A mild and slightly nutty flavor makes it a perfect alternative to rice or couscous. Cooked quinua is excellent in hot casseroles and soups, stews, in stir-fries, or cold in salads.
Tropical Fruit – South American cuisine makes great use of the incredible assortment of tropical fruit available. Coconut, cherimoya, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, lucuma, passion fruit.