Let’s be honest, you don’t go to South America for its culinary delights and, once you return home, it’s unlikely you’ll go out of your way to find a Peruvian restaurant near your home. That said, there are a few dishes and snacks that are worth keeping an eye out for if you do decide on a lap of the continent. On the other hand, each country has their own unique beverages which are well worth trying. In this blog I’ve listed a few of my favourites foods and drinks from my recent South American trip.
Note: I visited Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina so I can only vouch for the foods and drinks I found available in these countries. As such, there may be some surprising omissions and some of your favourites may not be mentioned. Feel free to recommend dishes from other South American countries or missing dishes from the above list in the comments below.
Empanadas are South America’s version of the pasty, coming in a range of shapes and sizes. They are no-frills but filling snacks packed with a wide variety of ingredients often including beef or chicken and potatoes. If you are waiting in line or travelling long distance by bus in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru you will likely find someone selling these delicious pastries for mere pennies. I honestly found the homemade versions sold cheaply by the roadside to be the most satisfying. If you are travelling South America on a budget you should expect to consume a substantial amount of empanadas. Unfortunately, they follows the British chocolate bar model as, the farther south you go down the continent, the size decreases massively while the price sky rockets.
Pique is a simple dish made up of beef, sausage segments, french fries, onions, peppers and boiled eggs. Usually the servings you receive are stacked high on the plate as the dish is, more often than not, intended to be shared. We had our first taste of pique on the second night of our Salt Flats tour and there was enough in the dish to fill six hungry tourists to bursting! Although not haute cuisine, pique can be bought cheaply and is tasty and filling enough to warrant at least a single try.
Chorrillana is a typical Chilean dish, made up of pretty much the exact same ingredients as pique. However, I must admit to finding this version much tastier. The boiled eggs that are used in pique are substituted here for a fried egg which is placed on top of your hefty pile of fries, meat, onion and sausage. The dish is extremely filling and the calories contained within ensure that this is a food that should be saved for special occasions lest your heart fail on you. There is absolutely no shame in sharing a serving of chorrillana between two people – my travel companion and I did this in Valparaiso and still struggled to finish the entire plate!
I’m not usually a lover of steak. This might have something to do with the fact my family liked their meat well-done while I was growing up which means I associate beef a little too closely with leather. Still, if you end up in Argentina you kind of feel obliged to have one owing to the cow’s popularity here. When in Rome and all that. I must admit that, in comparison to the stuff I get served back in Blighty, the steaks here are in a different league. We discovered a highly regarded and surprisingly cheap steak house in Buenos Aires called Santos Manjares and the steaks here were to die for. Seared perfectly on the outside and pretty much still having blood pumped through their middles, the steaks were delicious and seemed to melt in the mouth. I was so impressed that I dragged my travel companion back for a second visit. If you eat steak nowhere else in Argentina you should at least try here once.
Menu del Dia/Ejecutive Menu (continent-wide)
Otherwise known as menu of the day or executive menu, these set meals are usually served over three courses and are available for very little expense. Although they are common across South America the real bargains are to be had in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Prices in Chile are marginally higher but still tempting whereas in Argentina you are unlikely to find a good deal from these offers. The set courses usually consist of a soup, a main and a small, simple desert. A drink might also be included depending on where you get your meal from. If travelling South America on a budget these offers will become a staple part of your diet. Sometimes the servings are absolutely vast in size and can easily be shared with another person, thus cutting your costs and calories in half. If you eat them regularly to yourself, expect to pile on the weight.
Coy, otherwise known as guinea pig, is a delicacy in Peru. It can be pricy but, as I am always curious about unusual foods when I’m away – I’ve eaten tarantula and rattlesnake among other weird stuff – I knew I’d have to try it. Pet lovers will want to give this one a miss, I’d wager, as seeing a cooked guinea pig might put you off them for life. Without their fur the poor things lose all their cuteness and look more like the alien from Predator than a lovable critter you keep in a cage at home. Although I was nearly put off by the appearance of my guinea pig I valiantly ate him which was very fiddly owing to his small size and the awkward location of his meat, a lot of which was almost inaccessible through his bones. Once I had finished with him, his poor body had been truly desecrated, god rest him. Despite the awkwardness of eating coy I was quite surprised at how flavourful the meat was and I would recommend you give it a try if you can stomach looking at the thing on your plate.
Llama and alpaca meat is, again, one of those things you just have to try when you are in South America. Both basically amount to a funkier versions of beef but are readily available in Bolivia and Peru and won’t break the bank if you fancy giving them a try.
Papa Rellena (Peru)
We only discovered these delicious delights on our final few days in Peru which meant I couldn’t eat as many of them as I would have liked. That said, at the little family run place we first tried them in, we ordered one to share and quickly bought three more, one after the other – the bloke running the place must have hated us but, ever the professional, he managed to keep his smile in place. Papa rellena are basically potatoes stuffed with meat, onions, spices and sometimes other additional ingredients like olives and eggs. They are then fried and are sometimes served with shredded vegetables and a salsa criolla or other similar condiments. They are one of those unusual foods that are more than the sum of their parts and I found them very moreish. Papa rellena can be picked up for as little as $1 sole which is equivalent to roughly 25 English pence. An absolute bargain, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Market Food (Bolivia/Colombia/Peru)
When you want to conserve cash in South America you should eat like a local. There are many places across Bolivia, Colombia and Peru that serve hearty portions of food for a song. Generally, what you will receive includes a giant stacked plate with a serving of meat, choclo (which is an oversized Andean corn), rice and veg for less than a quid. It is not uncommon to receive more than one course, the first of which will likely be a soup of some kind. Be warned that usually the meat is lukewarm at best and the quality of the dishes can fluctuate, but for the outlay and how filling the servings are you can’t really complain. Those of you terrified of germs or catching a stomach bug might be put off by the cleanliness of where the food is prepared and the way the food is stored. One word of advice: make sure you go to a stall where the prices are listed as some of the cooks can be unscrupulous and aren’t above massively overcharging unwary foreigners.
Colombian chicha is a cloudy, lightly alcoholic drink usually derived from maize. It is freely available around the La Candelaria tourist area of Bogotá and is served in huge glass bottles plonked into a brown paper bag to give you that authentic park tramp alcoholic look you’ve always dreamed of. It comes in a number of different flavours from, but not limited to, strawberry, passion fruit and pineapple. Be careful not to drink too much in one sitting as consuming copious amounts of chicha is a sure-fire way to land yourself with unpleasant stomach cramps!
Coca Tea (Bolivia/Peru)
Coca tea is an institution in Bolivia and Peru. Touted to cure altitude sickness, upset stomachs and many more ailments, it is the go-to remedy when locals are feeling under the weather. It can, however, also be consumed on a day-to-day basis, for pleasure. Simply made by stuffing a mug with coca leaves, covering them with boiling water and sometimes adding sugar, the resulting green-tinged tea is surprisingly nice. If you take a liking to coca tea you’ll be happy to know it is available for free at most hostels in Bolivia and Peru.
Chile and Argentina are South America’s chief wine growing regions. As such, expect to find a vast selection to choose from when getting your groceries in at the local supermarkets. Although vino can be purchased at little expense in Argentina the cheapest bottles are often of a very poor quality so expect to pay extra to get a wine that is halfway palatable. Chile, however, offers much better deals. Even the cheapest wines here are of a decent standard and you can buy magnums for a paltry £2! You know wine is cheap when the bottom of your bag falls out and the glass shatters but you simply shrug your shoulders and walk back to buy another one!
Colombia is synonymous with coffee. The brews that can be found around the country are often of exceptional quality and exceedingly cheap. If you love coffee, make your way to Salento in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing region to sample some fine coffees straight from the farms that harvest the beans. If you are looking to bring a bag back from your travels be sure to look for the small Juan Valdez logo (a moustachioed man leading a donkey) which our coffee tour guide told us guarantees the beans are of the highest grade.
If you are looking to drink yourself into oblivion whilst touring Chile then the terremoto should be your drink of choice. Made up of sweet wine mixed with Fernet-Branc and grenadine with pineapple ice cream dolloped on top, this sweet concoction is usually consumed through a straw and is potently alcoholic. The English translation of the drink’s name is earthquake which is rather apt as, if you drink one too many, it’ll certainly feel like the earth beneath your feet is shaking!
Fernet and Cola (Argentina)
Pretty much everything in Argentina is expensive. Wine can be cheap but the lowest priced bottles aren’t great and the majority of them don’t even have a year to show when they were bottled. Quilmes doesn’t cost the earth but, as some shops won’t give you back your retornable fee which you have to pay for renting the bottle, prices can creep up. Step forward Fernet and Cola, your best option for getting drunk on the cheap in Argentina. A litre bottle of this 8% plonk – which has its origins in Italy – comes in at around $18 Argentine pesos which, astonishingly, is slightly less than an English pound! A strongly flavoured and bitter drink made with over forty herbs, Fernet has a slightly medicinal taste that isn’t for all palates. I have a weird fondness for drinks of this nature (my friends think I’m bonkers as I adore root beer) and so I took an instant liking to it. It goes down with deceptive ease and even though you might not taste much alcohol, it’ll soon catch up to you! Drinker beware!