South American foods and recipes have a long history, both in the ingredients that are used to the customs and habits that have been formed by them. While the present day affords us with any information we desire at the click of a button, it can still be a difficult task to follow the history of South American food.

The main reason for this can be found in the various political and social events that have marked the continent, for better and for worse. In terms of food, however, everything from creole, or criollo, culture to the slave trade presented South American countries with lasting recipes. From the Spaniards and indigenous peoples, to the Andes Mountains and the Amazon basin – this guide follows how the dynamic and diverse evolution of food in South America.

corn in the south american diet
Maize, or corn, has been a staple in the southern hemisphere for centuries

What Exactly is South American Cuisine?

In order to be able to truly savor the deliciously diverse gastronomy of South American countries, we’ll have to start by looking at the history of the continent. While we may think of the continent of South America as a static concept today, its rich history is enough to toss monolithic notions of the “pre-Columbian” Americas away.

One of the theories on how the first “Americans” arrived involves the Ice Age and a very long land bridge that connected Asia and North America, known as the Bering Bridge. While this dates their first arrival before 10,000 BC, there are actually many Native Americans that have their own origin or creation stories.

The earliest evidence of agriculture in South America, including staples such as potatoes, chilies and beans, has been traced to 6500 BC. Ecuadorian ceramic has suggested the earliest settlements were found there. Other early civilizations included Colombian Chibchas and Bolivian Aymara to Peru where the Quechuas settled.

Whether you’re interested in Venezuelan or Argentinian food, much of South America’s eating habits stem from the diets of early civilizations in the region. Some examples of the foods integral to this diet include lima beans, the black bean, quinoa, corn, chocolate, and cassava.

The origins of many of the famous South American dishes we recognize today have a much more complicated background, each plate telling a story of joy, conquest, exploitation and creativity. In fact, many of the classics that can be found in South American restaurants and households have their roots in immigrant populations.

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One great example of this can be found in a fruit we have grown to love around the world: the banana. While you may be familiar with the small, yellow banana found in most food markets – it’s cousin, the plantain, is actually green and typically much bigger.

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The plantain is native to regions in Southeast Asia and Oceania, whose countries introduced the delectable fruit to traders in Madagascar. While it quickly became a stable ingredient in West and Central African countries, the slave trade that began with Spanish invaders is actually what spread the plantain across the Atlantic. The plantains, stored as provisions for slaves, made their way into the households and diets of the Americas.

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From the Andean mountains to the Argentine and Chilean Tierra del Fuego, much of South American cuisine as we recognize it today has been influenced by immigration and colonization, from the language that is spoken in a given country to the diet that sustains them.

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In Brazil, for example, large swaths of the indigenous population were killed by the diseases brought by Portuguese invaders looking to use the communicates as labour for their sugar cane plantations. This led to the mass enslavement and forced migration of West Africans, who introduced ingredients like coconut milk, peppers and palm oil.

In countries like Bolivia and Peru, however, some ancient agricultural practices have remained staple dishes throughout the course of history. Quinoa, considered sacred by the Incan Empire, domesticated the plant and, because of its high nutritional value, have kept using it in their dishes.

While borders have been and will always be contested, people generally name thirteen countries under the umbrella term of South America:

  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands)
  • French Guiana
  • Guyana
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Suriname
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela
natural wonders of South America
Some countries of South America are home to the Magellanic penguin

Whether you’re looking at the Uruguayan or Guyanese diet, every South American country has been influenced by both European colonization, the slave trade and immigration. In Guyana, for example, the Dutch and British colonizers brought many indentured workers from various countries, a fact that is echoed in Guyanese cuisine. Where Indian workers popularized curry and roti dishes, the British left a lasting tradition of bread-making.

People who were considered to be creole, who were born in the European colonies throughout Latin America, also brought about many innovations in the sphere of food, especially in Brazil and Peru.

In Argentina, the dishes that typify national cuisine in the country either stem from their ancient civilizations or the various European forces that were active in the region. Where the French and Italians brought about pastries and pastas, the Spanish are said to have introduced the now famous empanada. Famous plates with indigenous origins include locro, a stew with Andean roots, humitas and yerba mate.

Immigration has played an equally as important role in forming the diets of South American countries. From street food to comfort food, the largest migrant groups to have left a lasting imprint on the continent have come from Japan, the Philippines, China, and Africa.

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In fact, because of the rapid changes brought about by the forces of colonization and migration, much of the population in South America is incredibly diverse. While in Brazil, the majority of the population have European ancestry, countries like Bolivia contain the highest percentage of those with indigenous ancestry. Whether you’re visiting Machu Picchu or the various salt flats in Argentina and Bolivia, there will be a varied and delicious assortment of culinary treats to try.

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Latin American Recipes Originating from South America?

While most American countries have been influenced by South American cuisine, trading in a hot dog or macaroni in favor of plantain and hominy, the flavors of the continent have actually spread worldwide. Before delving into how these flavors have been adapted on the global scale, it’s helpful to start by looking at the many variations of the same dishes within Latin America.

Eaten either as street food and comfort food, arepas are an excellent example of how one dish can be adapted to the unique tastes of each country. An arepa is, at its core, a fried and savory, cornmeal based dough ball. Stuffed with black bean or avocado in Venezuela, arepas in Colombia are typically mixed with ham and cheese. Looking towards Central American countries, the pupusa is a traditional dish made in El Salvador that is comparable to arepas. Stuffed with cheese, beans or vegetables, it is equally as popular in Honduras.

While ingredients like raisins, lima beans, cassava, beans and rice have become staples to South American diets throughout the years,  these are also ingredients that can be found used in many kitchens around the world. In fact, besides the fish stew or clam chowder found in French Guiana, a dish called fricassee can be found replicated around the world. This meat stew, made with game meat and served with rice, can be found in the Caribbean as well as in France.

Peruvian ceviche is another great example of how similarities in food can bring people closer. While the origins of this dish are contested, it is generally prepared as a fresh, seafood salad. While in Mexico this dish is served on top of tostadas, a crisp-like tortilla, the dish can also be found in the Asian Pacific. Kinilaw, native to the Philippines and dating back to around the 10th century, is prepared using raw fish, vinegar, chili and herbs.

South american nations and coffee
All countries in South America enjoy some of the best coffee in the world

South American Cuisine to Try At Home

From chimichurri sauce and churrasco to empanadas and tamales, food culture in South America offers everyone a chance to find something easy and affordable to make. Whereas some dishes, like the Rio de Janeiro specialty feijoada, can be found on the global scale, there are some recipes that unique to South American countries.

Focusing on dessert, one recipe that is sure to satisfy your taste buds is the Paraguayan kaguyjy. Also known as mazamorra, the Paraguayan version calls for corn, honey, milk and sugar boiled into a hearty, sweet soup.

While many countries of the Americas have desserts that require flour, such as apple pie or churros, many countries offer dishes that don’t need flour at all. Besides kaguyjy, the Surinamese bojo cake is another example of this. Made with rum soaked raisins, coconut milk, cassava, and coconut oil – this cake exemplifies the best of South American desserts.

If you’re looking for a drink that moves past your standard caipirinha, make sure to check out some recipes for pisco or chicha. While pisco is a liquor typical of Chile and Peru, chicha is a corn drink that can be found throughout South America either fermented or not. Regardless of what you pick, any recipe from the continent will be sure to satiate your cravings.

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Krishna