Eating around the continent: the best food of South America

Due to pure naivety, or perhaps blind ignorance, we arrived in South America expecting a healthy diet consisting largely of rice, beans, vegetables and some meat. Don’t get me wrong, this pleased me no end; this was to be the nutritious leg of our trip, largely to offset the eating-cookie-dough-from-a-can bingefest that our month in America was set to be.
As with most of our expectations on this trip, we were more or less wrong.
Sure, the rice and beans-based diet exists in the South American highlands, and much of Bolivia, but the bulk of South American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile – like to lead you a little astray with a bit of alfajor here, a bit of dulce de leche there. Actually, the latter is on everything – breakfast, lunch, dinner, on desserts, bread, a jar next to the peanut butter in the morning… it’s fair to say we developed quite a concerning addiction very early in the piece.

Breakfast is quite generic across most of South America, mostly consisting of white bread, with a side of white bread and probably some more white bread in the bowl next to the first bowl of white bread. Luckily anything can be transformed with a thick slathering of dulce de leche. Even 3-day old white bread.

For the first few weeks, we were in delicious, gooey, caramel spread heaven. Spoonfuls of the stuff would be smeared across every surface of any food (alright, we weren’t quite using it as steak sauce, but you get the picture), and if our accompaniment ran out, we’d just straight eat spoonfuls out of the tub. Yes, looking back now, we can probably pinpoint where we went wrong in our attempts to maintain a balanced diet and not let our jeans start getting too tight in the first week.

But mark my words, after the honeymoon period wears off, you’ll come crashing down off that week-long sugar high – and the emergency jar of Marmite will surface. Weaning ourselves off the sweet caramel of the dulce de leche and onto the salty Marmite is what I can only imagine is the food-based equivalent of being on methadone after coming off crack.

Crack

On the rare occasion you might get a bit of fruit and an egg or two, but the hostel breakfast scene remains basic across many of the countries. However, book one hostel without it and you’ll begin to miss the stale bun and black coffee (no milk to be seen, anywhere) that doesn’t require treading the streets in search of each morning. Hostels that offer free breakfast will become the determining factor in whether you book or not.

However, lunch and dinner are where the magic really happens. The street food scene in South America is exceptional, meaning – being both broke and desperate to eat the most questionable things we could find – eating from the street stalls becomes a daily game. And, not once were we left bent over a toilet for our poorly choices. Well, maybe once – but that poor judgement didn’t come down to what we ate, it was more aligned with what we drank.

For two people who plain dictate our lives around what we’re going to eat and when (and of course, how cheap we can get it) we got quite talented in feeding ourselves for about $5 a day. And if we never amount to anything else in life, that’s one talent I’m willing to wear with pride.

Here’s a guide of what to seek out of the culinary scene in South America.

Argentina

Choripan: on our first day in Argentina, we weren’t busting a gut to get around as many monuments as we could, we barely passed by the Obelisco – and we didn’t go to a tango show. No, we were solely in search of the famed Argentine sausage (of the food variety, minds out of the gutter…). This is basically a hot dog, that’s just had the most random shit thrown at it to see what will stick to it. As with most Argentine meats, the sausage is well-seasoned and delightfully-spiced, and coated in a slathering of ketchups and mayos and mustards and topped with what I think were chips. A mere hot dog, you say? Sacrilege.

Dulce de leche: we won’t dwell on this as we’ve already waxed lyrical about it – but this will become your new best friend. Literally translating to ‘sweet of milk’, this golden caramelized goodness is made by slowly heating sweetened condensed milk. Yes, it’s that simple. Yes, you could have been eating this in your home country all this time. We were devastated to – so much wasted time eating Nutella to make up for.

Filet Mignon, Puerto Iguazu

Steak: Can you even say you’ve been to Argentina if you haven’t sampled a prime slab of national meat (again, of the food variety)? Argentina is renowned the world over for its quality of beef, which is conveniently complemented by its other star export – the Malbec wine. Find yourself a parilla, pick your cut, and get it grilled over a barbecue – I’m not sure what exactly they do to it between cooking and serving it up, but it puts Kiwi barbecue culture to shame.

Empanadas: Your first introduction to these might be at your hostel on a cooking class – which you should absolutely partake in. These are one of the most readily-available and moorish types of street food. Think not of a simple pasty, but of a mix of spiced meats (or vegetables for those that way inclined) and onions enclosed in a crumbly, yet crunchy parcel of pastry. These are found throughout South America, and the filling and size changes depending on where you are (Chile boasts the biggest). But, if you’re successful in your cooking class you’ll have the recipe down pat for the future anyway. However, if you’re not quite that good and yours turn out like a 2-year-old’s playdough session, which then exploded in the oven, as if it needed to look anything less like an empanada – at least you gave it a shot and you can move on to learning how to buy them better on the streets.

Pastries: Surprisingly, cause we weren’t in France, croissants, pain au chocolat and chorizo-in-pastry were just about set up in a bakery on every corner. Every time I fell victim to another bakery, and I walked out with my mouth full of sugar and cream, I looked around in wonder at the lack of obesity in this crazy place.

Alfajores: The above bakery might just be where you try your first alfajor. And let me tell you, you’ll remember your first time, because after that your world changes (food, people!). These shortbread biscuit-like, chocolate or coconut covered, dulce de leche-filled treats became our South American staple. Money left over at a border? Buy as many alfajors as you can. Only enough money for lunch or treats? Buy an alfajor. Only got $4 to feed you for three days before you can get back to an ATM? Buy a bag of pasta – and an alfajor. There are many variations, and Cadbury and Nestle etc each do their own take, and take our advice: you can’t really go wrong whichever one you buy.

Our first alfajor, Buenos Aires, a special moment

Also important to note: These are hard to make yourself. So eat as many of them as you can; three a day? No judgement.

Menu of the day/ Menu del dia: Most restaurants will offer a sick lunch or dinner deal which will include a soup, starter, main and maybe a dessert if you’re lucky for the equivalent of about $3 USD. Make these your lifeline.

Churros: How can we make a list and forget the South American dessert that combines two of our favourite things: deep fried anything and dulce de leche. We had the best churro of our life at Cafe Tortoni, just before the best tango show of our life. 

Brazil

Brazil is a more expensive country than most of the rest of South America (due in no small part, we imagine, to a slightly more stable economy and inflation that doesn’t balloon 30 per cent each year), which means using your pennies a bit wiser when it comes to eating. This means a lot of eating on the streets – which is actually quite a treat.

Alfajores: Please see above.

Alfajores haul: And that was only one day’s takings

Corn ice cream: This was a bit of a misnomer, but we’d actually been told by several people to give this gimmick a go. You’ll find it in street stalls, and basically it’s just popcorn-flavoured. We won’t be writing home about it, but if your partial to buttery, movie snack iced treats then by all means give it a go.

Strawberries wrapped in fresh dates: If you visit any of the markets around Rio, or Sao Paulo (or any Brazilian city for that matter) you’ll usually be plied with small samples of treats as you wander past, an eager stallkeeper eager to steady your wandering eye. And let us tell you, broke we may have been, but the first time one of these guys cut a strawberry in half and stuffed a fresh date inside we just about bought up the whole shop. What kind of magic is this, we asked him – to a reply of only a slightly bemused face. It sounds simple, but as soon as you try it, you’ll be recreating it everywhere you go.

Somewhere in there is a strawberry and fresh date just waiting for it

Acai: forget the health food of the moment that you’ll be charged $20 a bowl for back home, this is the home of the Acai – and this is how it’s supposed to be. For about $3 a tub on the streets of Brazil, you’ll get whipped Acai, banana and a granola and chocolate topping far better than anything you’ll pay seven times the price for elsewehere. Trendy health food cafes worldwide, take note.

Fresh coconuts: once you stumble onto the beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana, you’ll take one look at the tanned and taut, and despite your unquenching thirst, will forgo that can of coke for a new-found need to be healthy and cleanse your system – desperate as you are to be able to play beach volleyball in the next week in a bikini beside these pure specimens of bikini bodies. Luckily, there will be vendors everywhere offering up fresh coconuts, so you can work on your bikini body and stay hydrated. Needless to say, we didn’t look like the Brazilian beach volleyball team after even a couple of coconuts, but they’re fresh, refreshing and they’re a good prop.

A delicious prop

Salad bars: As above, Rio is the place you want to stay relatively healthy- so there’s plenty of clean eating haunts around. Take a wander a couple of streets back from the beach and you’ll find heaps (we found the Holy Grail of them all, but it has since shut down).

Favela burgers: Okay, hear us out here. We know you’re not supposed to wander into the favelas, but it just so turns out they have the best food. After wandering away from the beach from our hostel (which is where the less, erm, desirable places come into view apparently) we’d found the best burger joint on the planet (not quite Ferg Burger, but at $3 compared to $20 we’ll take this any day). Stuffed with avocado, chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, egg, potato, and dripping in sauces, it was then we vowed never to not eat in a favela again. The food we had over the following days was some of the most authentic we had across South America.

Uruguay

Mussel hunting

As beautiful as our fair Uruguay was, we were a bit taken aback with the food prices in such a small, unassuming country. Also – we won’t be the best to give advice here as we forgot to get money out for a large portion of this and ended up picking mussels at the beach and cooking it in dry pasta and tomato puree. Not exactly gourmet. We did save enough money for an alfajor though, naturally.

Alfajores: But because they are almost better here than anywhere else in South America, especially the ones you’ll find in bakeries. My god. Don’t get us wrong, not a day went by without an alfajor in it.

Mussel cooking

Mussels from the beach: Okay, we wouldn’t quite recommend it, but it’s nice to know they’re there should you ever forget to do an ATM trip before taking up residence in a town 8km from civilisation, transport and electricity.

Finished product. Edible.

Red wine: Quite the pleasant surprise. Uruguayan wine is sweet, fruity, and on the whole – much more pleasant than many of the wines from back home. It’s probably down to the kicker that much of it is $3 a bottle, though.

Chile

Alfajores: Again. Get the picture yet?

Under that thick layer of mayo is a thick layer of avocado

Avocados: Chile just so happens to be the bohemian, hipster, Melburnian humans paradise, because it seems their most bountiful crop is the much-lauded avocado. Want it in a shake? Don’t have to ask for it, it’s already on the menu. In a burger? There’s more avocado than all the other condiments put together. on a hot dog? Um, sure. For no added cost (lest we forget the many dollars extra this will cost you in NZ in Australia for a small smattering), this will ooze out of every edifice of whatever you’ve ordered.

Pisco: Most people solely associate pisco sours and the alcohol with Peru, but there is actually a strong association with Chile: so much so that there’s even a town called Pisco. If nothing else, Pisco is worth a visit to see the vineyards and try the best pisco sour of your life. The drink is more or less a by-product of wine, and is made by distilling fermented grape juice. However, it doesn’t taste anything like wine, remember that when it’s being poured into a shot glass for you.

Bolivia

This is where things start getting a whole lot more back to that picture you had in your head of what a South American meal would look like.

Menu del dia: This will be your godsend here, not only for its added nutritional quality (there’ a lot more vegetables in this neck of the woods, but also a lot of rice and potatoes) but also for the fact it’s about $2 a pop for sometimes four courses. And a drink.

Helado: Basically the only Spanish word we learnt in five months in South America, helado took our beloved alfajores’ place as our daily staple when we were volunteering. They’re cheap, they’re goddamn delicious, and most importantly, they will help you deal with a heat that New Zealand never actually comes close to.

Saltena: the Bolivian version of an empananda, but actually much better. It’s hard to describe any glarng differences when they’re both meat enclosed with pastry, but a saltena seems to have more to it. Think a saucy mix of egg, olives, beans and meat in pastry.

Llama: Weird and gamey, if not a bit cruel when you see them wandering along beside you. Nice to try.

Cinnamon ice cream: Cold, creamy Big Red. Delicious.

Giant popcorn: Basically just popcorn, but giant-sized. Trust me, when you’ve been wandering the streets for hours and this is all you can find, this will taste like heaven.

River trout: A regional specialty, especially up around the likes of Lake Titicaca and Isla Del Sol, this fresh-off-the-boat fish is usually roasted in garlic and lemon, and accompanied by a steaming plate of beans and rice. For a good hit of iron and protein, you can’t get much better in Bolivia.

Mashed potato balls (I’ve literally forgotten the actual name): These little golden balls of joy are deep-fried, naturally, with a centre stuffed with either a hard-boiled egg or mince. They’re usually sold as street food and will be found on almost every block.

Freshly-squeezed juice: You name it you get it. The difference with street vendors in Bolivia promising to spurt you out a concoction of random fruits is the selection they offer. The best is a random mix of Amazonian fruits you have neither have heard of before, nor can pronounce.

Churros: How can we make a list and forget the South American dessert that combines two of our favourite things: deep fried anything and dulce de leche. These can be found at most bakeries and street stalls, and should only be ordered with dulce de leche oozing out of the middle. That is all.

Peru

This might just be the pinnacle of South American food. As a general rule, it’s slightly more expensive than Bolivia, albeit marginally, but the selection seems to have widened. Also, there’s a lot more deep-fried things, so finally they were speaking our language.

Menu of the day: More selection, more vegetables and more often than not a drink to accompany it all as well.

Street food: Do you have a pen and paper? Do not miss fresh doughnuts and sticky sweet sauces, fried bananas and sugar, quail eggs, and of course, popcorn.

Street ceviche

Ceviche: But of course, how could you visit Latin America and not eat a plate of raw fish. Usually seasoned with lemon, coriander,chilli, red onion and corn, this may sound disgusting in theory, but due to the number of Latin American joints that have invaded every other country in the world (and have actually become quite the buzz word in the Middle East of late), it seems many people have a penchant for this. If you can get over the texture, this is fresh, healthy and a fast order. Because it doesn’t need cooked.

Chicharron: Here we go. we’ve found it, our favourite meal of the Americas. Perhaps stemming from our insatiable love for the crackling on a roast pork – this is crackling on, well crack. It’s basically crisp, fatty pork roasted or fried, which is like the best crackling your Dad ever cooked. Which isn’t hard because he usually burns it.

Street doughnuts

Street ceviche: As above, but found on street corners and slightly more questionable on the ‘should I be eating this’ front. However, we can confirm we are still alive after eating.

Alfajores: Just for goodness sake, try one.
All of the above best served after the Inca Trail. Trust me.
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