Latin America's incredible food is a mixture of indigenous and Spanish ingredients, as well traditional African foods brought over from slaves. In Colombia and Cuba, the African influence is most prevalent. In Mexico, contemporary cuisine has its origins from the Mayans and Aztecs, fused with flavours introduced by their Spanish conquerors. In Peru and Ecuador, traditional ingredients of the Incas combined with Spanish, then subsequent waves of immigration of Chinese, Japanese and other Europeans has shaped their modern cuisine. Finally, Argentina’s cuisine is strongly Mediterranean influenced, firstly by the Spanish colonialists and then by the huge wave of Italians and other Europeans who came in the late 19th century.
Pachamama, Mother Nature, responsible for harvesting the lands, is herself handed back offerings through sacred rituals practiced across the continent.
When you think of Latin American food what springs to mind – tacos, ceviche, empanadas, perhaps even guinea pig? Whist there is some overlap, particularly between neighbouring countries, each nation does offer a unique culinary perspective that is deeply entwined with their culture, history and traditions. More importantly, they are delicious and worth travelling across the world to experience. Here are some of our favourite foods to try in Latin America.
MoleThere are many legends surrounding the invention of mole, a thick rich sauce used as an accompaniment to meat and rice. Legend has it that a convent in Puebla created the dish in a panic from what few ingredients they had, due to the impending visit of an archbishop. Other tales suggest that several spices accidentally got mixed up, and thus mole was born. Whatever the truth, there is no disputing that mole is the favourite dish of Mexico and comes in as many varieties as there are households. Whether you try yellow, red, black or green mole, no once can visit Mexico without experiencing its rich, earthy flavours.
The Spanish first brought cattle to Argentina in the 16th century where they quickly thrived on the plentiful grass, producing leaner, more flavourful and nutritious meat. The gauchos quickly developed a love of beef and would roast it over a slow-burning fire on a skewered metal structure called an ‘asador’. The gauchos also used wood from the quebracho tree to cook the meat because it did not produce a lot of smoke and gave the meat a rich flavour. This formed the basis of the gaucho diet, accompanied with some maté tea. Modern restaurants still use this same method to cook their meat, and all parts of the cow are utilized.
Mexico and Ecuador both have their own version of this dish, however no one can compete with the fresh, tangy goodness of Peruvian ceviche. This dish has its roots from 2,000 years ago when the Mochica people on the Peruvian coast prepared a dish of fresh fish cooked in the juices of a local fruit called tumbo. The Spanish introduced new ingredients such as onion and lemon to evolve into the dish we love today. If in Lima, make sure you visit La Mar, in our opinion, the best ceviche restaurant hands down.
A delectable, fluffy, white dough shaped in the form of a saucer and made mainly of corn flour is Colombia’s delicious contribution to Latin American cuisine. This popular dish can be filled with various accompaniments such as cheese, avocado, beans or meat and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, either as a snack or a main meal. A very versatile dish indeed!
Many Latin American countries claim these delicious parcels of meat, cheese and vegetables as their own, however we consider the best empanadas to come from Argentina, not surprisingly due to the quality of meat. In particular Argentina's Salta region and its empanada saltena is widely considered ground zero for empanadas. Generally served as snacks during parties and festivals, no trip to Argentina is complete without trying one of these savory delights.
The word feijoada comes from the word feijão, which is Portuguese for beans. Feijoada is a black bean stew that is brewed with a variety of salted and smoked pork and beef products from dried meat to smoked pork spareribs. The more traditional feijoada also includes cuts such as pig’s ears, feet and tails, and beef tongue. The rich, smoky stew is then served with rice, sautéed collard greens or kale, orange slices and topped with farofa or toasted cassava flour. The meal is just as warm, comforting, rich and vibrant as the music, people and culture of Brazil.
Crunchy or soft and with a variety of ingredient choices, this favourite treat of Mexico is simple, but ridiculously delicious that it is impossible to stop at just one. Starting out as a working class food for miners, this humble wrapped tortilla is still found on almost every street corner in Mexico, but has also infiltrated the city’s top restaurants, with Mexico City’s famous fine dining restaurant, Pujol, opening its own taco bar.
Dulce de Leche
Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Perú are just some of the countries in Latin America that dispute having invented this delicacy, although only Uruguay and Argentina call it by the name dulce de leche. It is made from a process of caramelizing milk, and is traditionally made with milk, sugar and vanilla. Dulce de Leche is the most popular sweet treat in Latin America and people often have it for breakfast, most commonly on toast, but also on pancakes or waffles.
Food is such an integral part of a country’s history and culture, as well as being one of the most enjoyable experiences of travel. Digging into an age-old recipe can uncover cultural aspects of a nation’s history and traditions. By approaching your travels through food allows you to be more engaged with the local people and more immersed in their culture. There are so many opportunities to discover a country’s culture through their food such as street food tours, visiting local food markets, cooking classes and exploring the local dining scene from hole in the wall restaurants to feasting at some of the world’s top rated restaurants.
Fabulous Food Markets
From Mexico to Argentina, colourful local food markets are a staple to everyday life in Latin America. From the major capitals to the small towns you will marvel at their size, atmosphere and the variety of fresh produce and unique foods. To some, a food market may seem like a chaotic explosion of people, noise and smells, but to the adventurous foodie, they are the holy grail of traveling and one of the best ways to experience a new destination and its culture. Full of life, colour and flavor it is also a wonderful way to understand the locals, how they dress, what they eat and how they interact with one another. The variety and range of unusual and unique ingredients also gives visitors a deeper understanding of culinary traditions which can be unique to not only the country, but also each region, town or village.
• Mercado de Coyoacan, Mexico City - must try their Tostadas de Coyoacan (crispy tortillas).
• Mercado Central, Quito - for their sumptuous crispy white fish called Corvina.
• San Telmo Market, Buenos Aires - we cannot pass up the Choripan, which is a delectable chorizo and crusty bread sandwich.
• Mercado de Surquillo, Lima - for the deliciously Sweet Alfajores (sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche).
• Mercado Municipal da Lapa, Sao Paulo - a must try is their delicious Sanduíche de Mortadela (bologna sandwich).
A Vibrant Street Food Culture
There are few more enjoyable ways to explore a city than on a bespoke street food tour, and Latin America has no shortage of options. We have a roster of expert foodie guides around the continent who take visitors around the streets of their home town, introducing them to home-cooked meals, and regaling them with stories about their city, its history and how this has shaped their local cuisine. These food adventures include visits to iconic places where local culinary history was made, restaurants or simple food stalls that have been specializing in a single dish for generations, and eateries that continue to prepare dishes that the rest of the country has forgotten and in doing so, preserving an important part of history.
• Tasting local street food is a way to really experience the authentic local culture
• You will visit places that you would not find on your own or may be uncomfortable to visit independently.
• It is a great way to support local businesses and appreciate their daily lives.
• You get a week’s worth of restaurant visits in a day.
• It is a fantastic way to see the sights of the city at street level.
A Tradition of VegetarianismLatin America may have a reputation for meat heavy dishes, but its ancient civilizations lived off a diet consisting predominantly of fruit, vegetables and beans. Remember this is the continent that gave us quinoa! The Incan, Mayan and Aztec empires survived on mainly vegetarian diets. Even to this day, vegetables, fruits and rootcrops remain staples of meals. In Mexico today, there are 59 native types of corn, and Peru has 4,000 different varieties of potatoes. There are more than 100 different variations of quinoa, predominantly produced in the Andean regions of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Argentina.
There are many Vegan and Vegetarian friendly restaurants in every major city throughout Latin America. In the smaller towns and villages, there will always be vegetarian/vegan options on the menu, generally amongst the more traditional cuisine choices. In Mexico, try quesadillas, tortilla soup or frijoles (refried beans). Enjoy vegan empanadas or a quinoa salad in Chile or have vegetarian arroz tapado (mushrooms on rice) or avocado risotto in Peru. In Brazil, tutu com feijão (mashed beans with manioc flour) or pão de queijo (savoury cheese buns) are popular vegetarian dishes, while arepas are in high demand in Colombia. Rest assured, travelling around Latin America as a vegetarian or vegan will open you up to a new and exciting world of flavours and dishes that you will want to bring home with you.
Hands-on Cooking ClassesWe work with an exclusive selection of both renowned chefs and local home cooks who welcome visitors into their restaurants and homes to teach them the secrets of their favourite dishes and in doing so, sharing the history and traditions that have shaped their cuisine. We can arrange for a famous local chef to give a private demonstration of how they make one of their iconic dishes. For a more hands on experience, we have local home cooks who will take guests to their local food market to navigate the colourful food stalls and walk them through the local produce while shopping for ingredients for the cooking class. Back home, there will be hands-on lessons on how to make their favourite national dishes, ending with a sumptous meal made with the help of the guests themselves.
Fine RestaurantsDining together must be one of the world’s oldest and most enjoyable traditions. When travelling, we must rely on restaurants to fulfill this ancient ceremony. We have an intimate knowledge of the local food scene and can guide you in your restaurant choices. We have special access to those “hard to get into” restaurants that regularly grace the World’s Top 50 List, as well as a list of those out of the way, hole in the wall restaurants that only locals will know. We can pre-book some or all your restaurant reservations, or we can have our local guides assist you with reservations and recommendations on the day based on your mood. Either way, we do recommend at least once or twice to go out and explore on your own, as discovering your own hidden gem can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences.
Acquired TastesApart from it’s fresh local produce and high-end cuisine, Latin America is also renowned for its less conventional ingredients. Whilst some may steer clear of these dishes, some serious foodies may be interested in some offbeat but tasty delicacies.
Cuy, Peru - Roasted guinea pig, a sometimes controversial dish for pet lovers but in Peru, guinea pigs are no more companions than chickens. Sometimes, the meat is served off the bone and could be easily mistaken for richly spiced rabbit. However, the true Peruvian way consists of eating the whole thing, barbecued and served on a spit.
Escamoles, Mexico - Known as Mexican caviar, this is actually ant larvae. This delicacy, which resembles pine nuts or corn kernels, has a nutty, buttery taste and a cottage cheese like mouthfeel.
Moripan, Argentina - Do not be fooled by the word ending in 'pan' (bread). This is not a conventional sandwich, but a "Morcilla" or blood sausage inside a toasted square bun similar to a ciabatta. For more conservative taste buds, the Choripan is the combination of a Chorizo sausage (Chori) and bread, very mild but rich.
Sopa de Mondongo, Colombia - a thick, chunky soup full of pork meat, sausage, and the key ingredient, beef tripe. The tripe soaks up all of the spices and seasoning used to make the punchy broth and the result is a delicious, fiery stew served with rice and cool avocado to balance the flavors.
Huitlacoche, Mexico - also known as corn mushroom or Mexican truffle, it is a fungus which randomly grows on organic corn. It is delicious but also rare and as it develops on the corn ears as they ripen after the rainy season.
Coração de Frango, Brazil - These chewy chicken hearts make a great addition to Brazil’s staple rice and beans combo and are widely eaten across Brazil, from barbecues to business lunches. They can be seasoned with simple salt and pepper, but sometimes come marinated in garlic, red wine and herbs.
We celebrate Latin cuisine for its richness – both in culture and flavors. To Latinos, food is more than just fuel, it represents an identity of place that ties them closest to their European roots.