Latin America's religious make-up today is relatively diverse, but the strong Catholic heritage has marked these cultures in many ways. One of these is the food customs in early spring.
For those who practice the Catholic faith, Lent—the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter—is a time of frequent (at least weekly) abstinence from red meat. This was originally intended as a penitential practice, but so many delicious vegetarian and seafood dishes were developed that nowadays traditional Lenten food is often far from sacrificial. Proof of that is the fact that even those who do not profess Catholicism enthusiastically join in the custom of eating these special dishes at this time of year.
01 of 09
Peru has many different chupes or hearty, very flavorful chowders made with a protein, potatoes, other vegetables, and milk. This shrimp chupe originated in the city of Arequipa and is especially sought out in the Lenten season when people abstain from red meat. One distinctive characteristic of this particular shrimp chowder is that it is served topped with a fried egg!
02 of 09
Some countries soak raw fish in lime juice and call it ceviche, but Jamaicans fry the fish and add veggies before marinating it. The result? Escoveitched or Escovitch fish, a delicious island creation inspired by the cuisine of Spanish travelers centuries ago. As with so many Jamaican dishes, this one counts Scotch bonnet pepper and allspice among its ingredients. If you are a fish lover, this is a must-try.
03 of 09
Salted cod from Spain is an ingredient that implanted itself into most of the countries of the Spanish New World, and you will find dishes made with it most often during Lent and Holy Week. Even when salted codfish prepared with ordinary local ingredients, bacalao (as it is known in Spanish) is usually considered special holiday fare.
Although each region prepares bacalao in a somewhat different style, this dried fish needs to be soaked for several hours or overnight to rehydrate it and wash away most of the salt. Don´t let that deter you, however, as you explore this interesting ingredient.
04 of 09
These rustic greens are a must-have on the tables of central Mexico during both Christmastime and Holy Week. Genuine romeritos greens are difficult to find outside of their native land, but spinach is an acceptable substitute for those who need one.
Romeritos can be prepared in many ways, but the most well-known dish with this ingredient is called revoltijo, which consists of the greens cooked in a mole sauce (often with potatoes and slices of cactus) and eaten with shrimp or little shrimp fritters.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Cheese soup (sopa de queso) is what Nicaraguans call this savory soup made around this time of year. Yes, it contains cheese, but also corn masa harina (the corn flour used to make tortillas and tamales), which adds wonderful flavor and texture and is quite filing. This substantial dish won´t let you get up hungry from the table.
06 of 09
Several South American countries have their versions of small wheat-free bread made with cheese. This rustic Paraguayan version, made with tapioca starch (cassava or manioc flour) and flavored with anise seeds, is typically enjoyed in that country during Holy Week. Though small in size, chipa is delicious—and naturally gluten-free.
07 of 09
If you thought jelly beans were the only beans that can be dessert, you are in for a big surprise and a real treat—literally. Habichuelas con dulce, or sweet beans, is iconic Dominican comfort food that is generally only made during Lent and Holy Week. The beans are cooked until soft, then pureed and mixed with coconut milk, evaporated milk, sugar, and spices to produce a very homey dish that warms you inside and out, kind of like rice pudding does. Surprise your family with bean puree for dessert!
08 of 09
Though similar in both appearance and flavor to festive yeast pieces of bread eaten on other occasions (Mexico’s rosca de reyes or Three Kings’ Bread, for example), this circular or oval brioche-type loaf from Argentina known as rosca de pascua and neighboring Uruguay is traditional on Easter Sunday. The name means “Easter Ring.” Make it simple or bake it more elaborate and decorated, but do try it!Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
This rich bread pudding, already ancient in Spain, came to Mexico during the Colonial period and evolved from savory garlic and meat/fowl dish to this sweet, vegetarian version eaten during Holy Week as an almost all-purpose food (breakfast, snack, or dessert).
It is said that each ingredient in today´s capirotada has a religious meaning: the bread is Christ´s body, the honey or syrup represents his blood, the whole cloves are the nails that he was crucified with, the cinnamon stick is the cross, and the cheese is the sheet he was wrapped in.