I think many people will agree that the best part about travelling is trying out different food and cuisine from all over the world. Whether you just want to go straight to a local market and try out all the weird foods you can find or head to the best restaurant in town, eating is a true part of the travel experience. And in many ways, there is no better place to do it than in South America.
South America is a unique spot for food because it’s cuisine is not concretely defined and varies greatly from country to country. No country in this part of the world has the same instantly recognisable foods that you would get from places like China or Japan. And in many ways the cuisine of South America lies under the perpetual shadow of universally popular Mexican food. Because foods across Latin America are all based around similar staples such as rice and beans, Mexico tends to be everyone’s first choice when it comes to Latin American food.
However, travelling in South America gives you the chance to really experience the subtle and grand differences in cuisine across all of these fascinating nations. Yes, beans and rice are the staple but each country has their own unique dishes and the methods of cooking vary greatly. And you will realise just how unique each dish in each country is.
All of the countries in South America has been Westernised to varying degrees and so it can be hard in some cases to sniff out the truly traditional dishes. Local markets are a great way to get a local meal and the key is to try and stay away from Americanised restaurants. For example in Brazil you will find a pizza restaurant on every corner and in the cities all over you will find all the recognisable fast food chains. Try to stick to local businesses for a better chance of truly experiencing local foods.
Here are the different foods you need to try while travelling in South America.
Brazil does not have a strongly recognisable cuisine and when you are travelling here, you will be surprised by how Americanised many of the restaurants there are. There are of course many fine restaurants but they are mainly found in the urban hubs such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
True ‘local’ Brazilian fare can be found in local markets in many towns and cities. The go-to dish usually consists of meat or fish served plain with rice, black bean soup and salad. Empanadas are a staple to be found in every single South American country but the key is to try them all as they vary greatly from place to place. In Brazil, empanadas are small and crispy with a meat filling and a great place to start these delicacies (and you will eat a lot of them over the course of your travels in South America!).
One of my favourite things to eat in Brazil are authentic Acai bowls. Acai bowls have become popular all over the world, especially in the States as a low-calorie and relatively healthy sweet treat. In places like California, Acai bowls will be served very aesthetically pleasing with other superfoods as well as fruit and nuts.
Acai in Brazil is totally different to the trendy Acai bowls now being eaten all over the world although they still retain that signature Acai flavour. Try to avoid the commercialised chains that sell Acai bowls in shopping malls and fast food restaurants. Look for small stands on the coast and on beaches for a more authentic Acai experience. Here they will be served with fresh banana, coconut shavings and a sweet sugarcane syrup.
Chile is also a unique experience when it comes to food as it does not have a thoroughly defined cuisine. Chile is a developed and expensive country so it enjoys great restaurants that serve food from all over the globe.
Chilean cuisine leaves a little to be desired but a great local dish to try is chorrillana. Chorrillana is a dish consisting of French Fries that have been transformed into a Chilean speciality. True traditional versions of the meal include large plate of fries topped with fried onions and a variety of meat. Some recipes include sweet apple sauce that lines the bottom of the plate and is topped off with fried or scrambled eggs. The dish is large and designed to share so it’s a great cost-effective meal to share with a group of friends. It bears great similarity to the Peruvian dish, salchipapas which I will discuss later.
A traditional drink to sip on while enjoying your chorrillana is a michelada. A michelada is a drink that originated in Mexico but has become popular in Chile as they have their own unique version of it. In Chile, a michelada is a local beer mixed with a fresh lemon juice and is usually finished off with a smoky spice or tabasco for a bit of a kick. This is a great option for travellers who are not a big fan of beer but want to be cost-effective! Think of it as a cross between a citrus cocktail and a beer.
Bolivia has a very simple cuisine based off of a few staples that include potatoes, quinoa and beans. As the country experiences a cold climate for part of the year, Bolivians enjoy hearty and warming meals such as soups, stews and broths.
A particular dish you will have before every single meal in Bolivia (and a lot of Peru) is some variant of quinoa soup. This light soup is cooked over long periods of time and has surprisingly delicious flavour every time you eat it. Each time will be slightly different but most quinoa soups have whole pieces of quinoa, vegetables and in some cases potato to finish things off. This is true soul food that will warm you up and make you feel like you are at home. You will eat a lot of quinoa soup if you do any tours in Bolivia but after a long day of exploring, I promise that you will have a smile on your face as the quinoa soup emerges from the kitchen.
Peru is one of the countries in South America that has a truly defined cuisine and a lot of globally recognised dishes that have originated there. So it is no surprise that everyone raves about the food when they are travelling there.
Lima in itself is often noted as the food capital of South America and it is well worth spending time here exploring the wealth of great restaurants and markets on offer here.
Ceviche is a global export of Peru and it is a unique dish to the region that has been adapted all over the world. Ceviche is fresh, raw fish that is served cold with just lime juices and spices for flavouring. Many people only have ceviche as a light starter but in Peru, people will eat an entire plate of ceviche as a main meal as standard. It is a unique dish with intense flavours so I recommend sharing the dish at first to try before ordering it as your main course.
Trout is a very popular dish in Peru and many of the coastal regions are famed for their preparation of it. You can enjoy grilled or fried trout that is caught fresh daily and beautifully seasoned with spices and lemon juice. Traditionally, this dish will be served with rice and salad. It is a great light meal and you can be guaranteed that the fish always tastes great.
Salchipapas, similar to the choirillano of Chile, are a fast food dish that originated in Lima. The dish starts with a bed of french fries topped usually with sausage pieces and finished with ketchup and mustard. There are a few different variants of the dish which can include garlic sauce, peppers, chilli sauce and coleslaw. Definitely a great food for nursing a hangover in Lima!
Fusion food is huge in Lima and really the entirety of Peru. The most common fusion cuisine in the country is Japanese and Chinese food fused with Peruvian cuisine. Thanks to the multi-cultural nature of Peru, even the country’s national dishes tend to have obvious influences from all over the world.
Lomo saltado is beef and vegetables served with rice and a soy based sauce which plays on Japanese flavours. Chaufa can be found on pretty much every single menu of a local Peruvian restaurant and it is made up of fried rice with vegetables and sea food which has obvious connections to China.
Rocoto relleno is a dish typical to the stunning city of Arequipa so this is definitely where you want to try this unique dish. A rococo relleno is basically a pepper stuffed with a delicious concoction of varying ingredients including boiled egg and a minced mixture of seasoned meats. It is usually topped with a healthy topping of melted cheese.
And for a sweet treat in Peru, definitely try to pick up some picarones from a street vendor. These delicious desserts are similar in appearance to a donut but are actually a pastry made from sweet potato. They are topped with a sticky and delicious sugar cane sauce.
Though I don’t actively recommend it, a unique delicacy in Peru is ‘cui’ which is basically a whole, fried guinea pig. This sounds shocking and trust me, it is also shocking to see skewered guinea pigs in markets all over the country. I cannot account for the taste as I did not try one but keep an eye out for this bizarre delicacy while travelling in Peru.
Colombia’s staple dish that can be found the length and breadth of the country is a choice of meat or fish served with coconut rice, salad and soup. This may sound simple (and it is) but the beauty of this dish lies in the delicious, light seasoning of the meat. I strongly recommend having the fish version of this dish at least once in Colombia. Also coconut rice is officially my favourite way to eat rice after visiting this country.
Though ceviche is a Peruvian delicacy, Colombia has its own version. In this country, ceviche is still raw fish served with a mixture of limes juices but they also add ketchup or a spicy sauce to the mix. The result is a significantly less tangy version of ceviche which will please those who find the Peruvian version just a little bit too intense.
Arepas are also something you will find served everywhere in Colombia. Arepas are a thick, bread like food that are served alongside most meals in Colombia. They are also served as dishes within themselves and can be stuffed with anything from cheese and meats to vegetables. Try to eat a lot of arepas in Colombia as they vary from region to region. If you are planning to do a lot of tours in the country, prepare to eat a lot of these delicious snacks.
People from the vibrant city of Medellin are known as ‘paisas.’ And so it is from this location that the unique dish ‘bandeja paisa’ originated. Bandeja paisa literally redefines the notion of ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ as that is quite literally what this dish is. If you are brave and hungry enough to order this meal, you will enjoy a plate full with avocado, rice, beans, egg, plantain, sausages and other meats. Only order this is you are prepared to eat!
To warm up in the colder region of Bogota, you need to order Ajiaco, a hearty chicken soup that often includes sweetcorn, herbs, three types of potatoes and beans. This is a comforting meal that will warm you from the inside out after a long day of exploring Colombia’s capital.
Last but not least is the famous sweet treat that is literally a hot chocolate served with lumps of mild cheese. It may sound like an odd mix but the subtle cheese takes in the chocolate flavour and for some bizarre reason, it all works! This is a great snack to recuperate after a long walk or hike.
South America is characterised as one region but the variety across all of the countries is palpable when travelling there. This not only applies to the food but to the people, culture, local traditions and even the very feel of a place. I always believe that a truly great way to embrace and understand a new culture is to eat the local dishes.
A top tip for eating local food made and produced in the regions you are eating them is to stop into local markets. One thing that has been consistent across all the countries in South America is the local mercado that sells cheap local dishes (that are delicious!). All major cities will have a mercado so be on the lookout and be sure to visit the various stands cooking local dishes right before your eyes. You will be dining amongst the locals so you will know that the food here will be the best and most authentic that you can get.