Covering a region that includes South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, Latin America is expansive and diverse, but one thing is for certain — its food is robust, flavorful and always inventive.
This richness is no surprise considering Latin cuisine pulls from a colorful cultural history — from the Mayans and Aztecs to European colonizers to modern global transplants — and relies on a spectrum of ingredients ranging from potatoes, corn and other native crops to imported African meat stews, sausages and seasonings.
Recipes and techniques vary from region to region, but there are popular dishes on almost every Latin American dinner table — tamales, arroz con pollo, plantanos and salsas.
There are also endless traditional dishes that spotlight the area's fresh seafood, unique agriculture and more. These regional treats are what make Latin American food so much fun to explore. Let this guide — a small sample of its vast offerings — whet your appetite for all things deliciously Latino.
Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru
This area of South America includes three distinct regions: the coast, abundant in fish and fruit; the sierra, or highlands, where potatoes, rice and meats abound; and the Amazon, rich with rainforest-friendly fruits and vegetables, such as coconut, mango, avocado and guava.
In the highlands of Bogota, Colombia, a typical Chicken Soup includes plentiful potatoes and root vegetables and is served with a classic salsa, known as aji. While in Venezuela, part of the Amazon, you'll find Pabellon Criollo, a hearty pulled beef dish cooked till the meat is falling apart. Locals pair the tender meat with simple white rice and black beans. Over in Ecuador's lowlands, Chupe de Corvina y Camarones is a satisfying stew of striped bass and shrimp. And across all South America, thick round corn cakes, arepas, are a staple.
South America's largest, most populated country, Brazil has a diverse population that includes Native Indians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, Germans, Lebanese and Japanese. The result is a variety of cooking styles that can be divided into four distinct culinary regions:
- In the north or the Amazon, dishes are full of fish, yams, nuts and tropical fruits. Vatapá, a soup of seafood, coconut milk and nuts, is a signature in northeastern coastal areas. The northeast is also home to sugar, a key ingredient in the Caipirinha, a trendy Brazilian cocktail that features cachaça, a brandy made from sugar cane.
- In the central west and the Pantanal wetlands, local cooks rely on an ample supple of fish and game.
- Brazil's industrial heart is in the southeast, where plentiful beans, pork and corn are produced. This southeast is also home to Brazil's de facto national dish, the classic comfort food Feijoada.
- Internationally, Brazil is best known for churrasco, the southern region's cowboy or gaucho cuisine. Churrascarias (steak houses) are a meat lover's paradise and a cornerstone of local culture.
- Arroz con Coco: Coconut Rice
- Arroz con Leche
- Coconut Flan
- Colombian Chorizo Skewers with Cilantro Pesto: Anticuchos de Chorizos
- Maracuya (Passion Fruit) Mousse
- Plantain Soup
- Roasted Peruvian Potatoes
- Yellow Quinoa
- Yuca Fritters with Pickled Red Onions
Argentina and Uruguay
Argentina and Uruguay have strong culinary connections to Italy, Spain, France and other European countries. In the capital city, Buenos Aires, you'll find international foods galore, but a common local favorite is the Potato Fritta with Chorizo, or fried potatoes with a spicy sausage.
Like Brazil, Argentina is one of Latin America's largest beef producers. Two classic dishes — Steak with Chimichurri and Matambre, a rolled flank steak stuffed with vegetables, herbs and eggs — are just examples of the area's many beef-based delicacies. Uruguayan barbecue, or asado, is also some of region's tastiest. Dulce de Leche, a milky, sweet caramel dessert that's popular here and throughout Latin America, is a perfect finish to any feast.
Chile, Boliva and Paraguay
Typical Chilean cuisine combines traditional native foods, especially seafood, with influences from Germany and Italy. Most Chileans have a light breakfast of bread and coffee and enjoy their largest meal at lunch. This may include a bowl of Cazuela, a hearty meat stew, or Pastel de Chocio, which is similar to shepherd's pie.
In Bolivia and Paraguay, the cooking styles uniquely blend meats and poultry with fresh fruit and vegetables. Their food isn't overly spicy but that doesn't mean it lacks flavor. Many recipes are naturally sweet and creamy thanks to corn and yuca. Favorite local dishes include fried yuca and a variety of empanadas. Locro, a tasty soup often made with chicken, rice and a variety of root vegetables, is a Bolivian classic. The food in landlocked Paraguay features an abundance of corn, beef and yuca too. Chipa, a bread made from yucca flour and mild white cheese, is a Paraguayan staple.
- Brasilian Deep Fried Fish Fritters: Bolinos de Bacalhau
- Brazilian Empanadas
- Gaucho-Grilled Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
- Hot Corn with Chimichurri Butter
- Mate with Homemade Condensed Milk
Caribbean: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba
Spanish and African cultures have greatly influenced the cuisine of this expansive region. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Caribbean food and cooking methods differ and often depend on access to the sea or mountains. One uniting characteristic, however, is the passion for celebration, and in this region, there's an endless amount of food-focused festivities.
Depending on the country, you'll find variations on savory dishes such as Mofongo, a mashed fried plantain dish made with garlic and pork rind, and Mondongo, a tripe stew. The Cuban classic, Ropa Vieja, a delicious and tender stewed beef, is prepared throughout these islands. Two secrets to cooking flavorful Caribbean fare are sofrito, a mixture of sautéed garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes that's used as a base for soups, stews and rice dishes, and recaito, a green version made with cilantro.
Other popular foods include Cuban Sandwiches, Black Bean Soup, Arroz con Leche (rice pudding), Tostones (fried plantains), Mojitos (a refreshing cocktail) and much more. Of course, rice, both yellow and white, and beans, both black and red, are a mealtime must. Although less common, Alcapurrias (meat- or seafood-stuffed banana croquettes), Bacalaitos (codfish fritters) and Chicharron de Pollo (fried chicken) are also favorites.
Mexican food (not to be confused with Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex) is perhaps the best-known Latin American cuisine. Although you'll find the familiar tortillas, salsa and tacos, the foods of Mexico can at times look very different to what we have come to know.
Some authentic Mexican dishes include: Pozole, a hearty soup made from hominy and pork; Carnitas, which are simply "little meats" served with corn tortillas and a variety of salsas and toppings, and tamales of all varieties. A beloved dessert is churros, a Mexican relative of the donut or cruller that's served with a rich cup of champurrado, a honey-sweetened hot chocolate.
- Agua Fresca de Pepino: Cold Cucumber Drink
- Albondigas Estilo Mama Meatballs Like Mama Makes
- Arroz con Coco: Coconut Rice
- BBQ Goat or Lamb: Barbacoa de Cordero
- Beef Tacos: Tacos de Carne Asada
- Calabaza Soup: Sopa de Calabaza
- Conch Ceviche
- Corn-Flour Patties (Sopes)
- Ensalada de Napalitos: Cactus Shoot Salad
- Frijoles Borrachos: Drunken Beans
- Gorditas: Stuffed Pockets of Love
- Guava Empanadas
- Mole Sauce, My Style: Mole Sanchez
- Pollo Borracho
- Steak Sandwiches: Tortas
- Tuna Ceviche