An Introduction to South American Food

History and Culture

Beef and red chile tamale
Brian Yarvin / Getty Images

Long before the Europeans came to South America, Indigenous populations figured out how to cultivate an incredible array of plants. They developed elaborate irrigation systems and terraced the steep Andean mountain slopes to make them more suitable for growing food. They grew corn, lima beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, avocados, peanuts, and chocolate. They also raised llamas and guinea pigs. Each region developed its own traditional dishes.

When the Europeans arrived, they incorporated some of these Indigenous peoples' dishes into their own cuisine. They took the new foods back to Europe, and they brought European livestock and foods to South America, such as pigs, chickens, citrus trees, wheat, almonds, cows, and goats.

The Europeans learned to make their favorite Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese dishes using local ingredients. Many traditional Indigenous cooking methods were adapted and modified, and the newly available foods from Europe were mixed in. Asian and African immigrants brought their culinary traditions as well. All of this blended to make this the diverse and exciting cuisine that exists today.

Modern Cuisine

Some Indigenous foods were not incorporated into the European-syle cuisine that dominates big cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago. But the Indigenous populations continue to cultivate and eat them. Recently, these foods have been gaining popularity. Chefs in trendy restaurants now showcase Andean products such as alpaca meat, grains like quinoa and kiwicha (also known as amaranth), and unusual tubers such as yucca and maca in sophisticated new ways.

As more South Americans venture north with their cooking traditions and ingredients in hand, North Americans are getting the chance to sample these new foods and flavors. Nuevo Latino cuisine, a fusion of traditional Latin flavors with global food trends, is one example of the global gastronomic exchange that's happening today. The rest of the world has become interested in the cuisines of South America, and new combinations will emerge. But the time-honored culinary traditions of Latin America remain intact. If you have not explored them already, new or old, don’t miss out. You will fall in love with South American food.

Key South American Foods

  • Corn (maiz, choclo): Corn has been cultivated in South America for more than 5,000 years and is possibly South America’s biggest food contribution to the rest of the world. Corn is the key ingredient of many staple dishes, such as arepas (cornbread), tamales, various pasteles (casseroles or savory tarts) and chicha, an ancient yet still popular beverage.
  • Potatoes: Hundreds of varieties of potatoes are still cultivated in the Andes today, so it’s no surprise there’s an infinite array of potato recipes. Potatoes are fried, mashed, freeze dried, baked, and combined with sauces into many beloved dishes. They rival corn as the oldest and most important South American crop.
  • Peppers (ajis): Peppers are the most important seasoning ingredient in South American cooking. There are both sweet and hot varieties, and they are used in many creative ways, like in the colorful marinades for ceviche.
  • Tropical Fruit: South American cuisine makes great use of the incredible assortment of tropical fruit available. Coconut, cherimoya, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, lucuma, passion fruit—the list goes on and on. These fruits star in many delicious desserts but also liven up savory dishes and salads.
  • Queso fresco / queso blanco: This fresh cheese is another staple of South American cooking. Queso fresco is a lightly salted, unripened cow’s milk cheese that's added to sauces and crumbled in salads.
  • Yucca (manioc, cassava): The starchy edible root of the yucca plant is another very important food. It’s especially popular in Brazil, where the root is ground, dried and roasted to make farofa. Farofa is a key ingredient in the famous Brazilian dish feijoada, a pork and black bean stew. Other regions use a sweet variety of yucca that can be mashed or fried. Cassava flour is often used in baking, as in the delicious Brazilian cheese rolls pão de queijo.