From Brazilian moqueca to Venezuelan fosforera, the foods and flavors from this continent hit all five senses.
By Suzanne Hall
With 6.89 million square miles and approximately 429 million people spread over 12 countries, South America is a culinary gold mine, with a wealth of native ingredients. How they are used, of course, depends on the geography, history and people of each country. The cooking of South America is a cornucopia of distinctive dishes ranging from grilled reineta, a firm, mild fish popular in Chile, to chimichurri, the go-to condiment in Argentina, while ceviche, a dish of citrus-marinated raw seafood, has variations throughout the continent.
Although many South American dishes are unfamiliar to American diners, they are becoming better known. “South America is such a big continent, with so many flavors, that it will keep growing in popularity in the U.S. throughout the next years,” says Venezuelan native David Zamudio, executive sous chef at Baltimore’s Alma Cocina Latina, a restaurant specializing in the dishes of Venezuela.
Brazilian chef Manoella Buffara agrees. She is the owner of Manu, a small tasting-menu restaurant in Curitiba, Brazil, and Ella Brasileira, a much larger and more casual restaurant in New York City. “South American ingredients are different. People like to try new flavors,” she says.
The earliest inhabitants of South America provided the inspiration and backdrop for the region’s cooking, but immigrants from around the world have added their own flavors and techniques — for example, lasagna and pizza sometimes appear on restaurant menus. Another example is pastei, a type of chicken pot pie that Jewish settlers brought to Suriname, while walnut-and-raisin fried rice and Chinese pepper steak are on the menu at Ñaño, an Ecuadorian restaurant in New York City owned by Abel Castro. “We add some ingredients like cilantro and garlic to the rice,” he says, to give the dishes Ecuadorian flavor.
Each group of settlers brought their own special flavors to South America, but South American cuisine has always focused mainly on what the land produces.
From Sweet Corn to Spicy Chiles
Cultivated in South America for more than 5,000 years, corn is possibly the continent’s biggest food contribution to the rest of the world. Arepas, a Venezuelan favorite, are corn cakes stuffed with a variety of fillings. “You can fill an arepa with any ingredient you like — meat, cheese or vegetables,” Chef Zamudio says. He offers them with four different fillings. “They are so adaptable and can be a good option for vegan and vegetarian customers.”
Potatoes come in hundreds of varieties and are fried, mashed, freeze dried, baked, and combined with sauces. “In Chile, we have more than 400 varieties,” says Rodolfo Guzman, owner of Boragó in Santiago, Chile. He makes milcao, a potato bread, which he serves it with pebre, a sauce of chopped tomatoes, onions, coriander, vinegar, salt and yellow chiles. Similarly, at Ñaño, potato chowder and potato patties filled with cheese are on the menu.
Sweet and hot peppers are South America’s most important seasoning ingredient. Aji dulce is sweet pepper sauce. Aji amarillo is a spicy yellow sauce for roasted chicken, vegetables, fries and fried yuca. The aji amarillo chile pepper is a staple in Peruvian cooking; a popular salad served at Alma Latina Cocina features chopped kale, fried egg and spicy honey, with a crispy garlic, aji amarillo and coconut dressing. “It’s very powerful,” Chef Zamudio says.
Tropical fruits like avocado, passion fruit, coconut, mango and dozens more are used in desserts as well as savory dishes and salads; Alma Cocina Latina serves guasacaca, a creamy avocado and garlic sauce, with dishes like arepas. The No. 1 seller at Ñaño is seco de chivo, or goat stewed in naranjilla, a tropical citrus fruit resembling a cross between a pineapple and a lemon with a distinctive green juice.
Root vegetables like yuca, manioc and cassava are ground, dried and roasted to make myriad South American dishes. In southern Brazil, home to Manu, tutu de feijão (a paste of beans and cassava flour) is a popular dish, while Alma Cocina Latina offers yuca fries and a crispy cassava bread.
Proteins from Land and Sea
While not as large a producer as Argentina and Brazil, Venezuela produces more than enough beef to supply the country. Beef dishes include some familiar ones, like the 18-ounce USDA prime rib eye Zamudio serves with grilled seasonal chimichurri vegetables, micro greens and merkén, a Chilean spice blend combining spicy ají cacho de cabra, cumin, coriander and salt. Churrasco, the Portuguese and Spanish word for grilled meat, is a staple in the cuisines of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, and is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.
Because it’s bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, fish and seafood have long been used in South American cooking. Shrimp and other foods from the sea are widely featured in the cuisine of Suriname; Long Yard beans with dried shrimp and télo (fried cassava) with cod are two traditional dishes. Chef Buffara uses everything from sea urchins to oysters, grilled and smoked leeks, mussels, and raw fish with plantains in various dishes throughout her menu. “In northern Brazil, they make a stew with fish or shrimp and vegetables,” she says. “It’s called moqueca and made in a ceramic pot.”
Castro offers seafood cazuela, a combination of fish and shrimp with peanut sauce on his menu. Encebollado de albacora, a tuna soup with yuca, herbs and spices topped with pickled onions, is another option.
The food that chefs prepare at Ñaño and other South American restaurants in the U.S. and in their native countries generally use traditional recipes, but feature each chef’s personal touch. “We cook regional dishes that are only cooked in Chile using the flavors of the land, but we cook them with originality,” Guzman explains. “Originality and well-done dishes are what’s important.”
Menuing Smart and Thoughtful Presentations
At Manu in Brazil, Chef Buffara prepares dishes with traditional techniques using local ingredients; likewise, for Ella Brasileira in New York, she has adapted her recipes to use ingredients available there. Because many Brazilian dishes are cooked over fire, she has a large wood-burning grill in the center of her open kitchen. Some, but not all, of Zamudio’s dishes are derived from traditional Venezuelan recipes. “We put our own twist on them to make them our own,” he says, noting his contemporary style is very different from traditional Venezuelan cooking.
The cuisines of some South American countries are more familiar to U.S. diners than others; for example, more and more cities are home to Brazilian churrascaria, which specialize in grilled meats. “Colombian food is very popular in New York, but Ecuadorean food is very new to some,” Chef Castro says. To help his non-Ecuadorean customers feel more comfortable, each dish on the menu is described in detail.
Zamudio is careful to present and name dishes in a way familiar to Americans. He makes a Venezuelan soup called fosforera that initially, not many of his American customers wanted to try. “We then decided to change the name to ‘Latin ramen,’ even though it is actually not a ramen; then more people chose it off the menu,” he says. “How things are presented is very important.”
South American chefs want to believe, and do believe, that as their foods become more familiar to diners in the U.S., their North American colleagues will begin to create their own adaptations to fit into their individual menus. A variety of Venezuelan arepas would be a good place to start. Guzman believes the aforementioned milcao and pebre is another. Regardless of the flavors, dishes and ingredients you choose, given the size and diversity of the region, the opportunities for experimenting with South American cuisine are nearly endless.