Tips on South American food
Before visiting the colourful continent south of the border, get acquainted with its food
Issue: Nov 2009
Ceviche’s the way to romance
Don’t be shocked when you find a guinea pig on your plate in Peru. Not given pet status, the furry creature is a traditional barbecue item; its skin is dried and used to flavour soup. To smooth your culinary journey, here are nine tips on South American food that you can impress your guests at the dining table with.
1. Ceviche – A prelude to romance
Ceviche (sir-vee-chay) is a citrus-marinated seafood dish, popular mainly in Latin American countries. It recently gained worldwide recognition for being a suspected aphrodisiac in the romantic comedy the “The Ugly Truth”. Peru is the most likely birthplace of ceviche.
Both finfish and shellfish are used; finfish is used raw while shellfish is cooked. Ceviche is marinated in a lemon-lime mixture. In addition to adding flavour, the citric acid causes the proteins in the seafood to become denatured, which pickles or "cooks" the fish without heat.
Traditional style ceviche was marinated for up to three hours.
2. Churrasco – The Brazilian BBQ
Part of the charm of dining at a churrascaria is being served meat on a skewer
Photo credit: Vivienne Khoo
A churrascaria (shu-ras-karia)
is a Brazilian steakhouse. Churrasco is the cooking style, which translates roughly from the Portuguese for “barbecue”. Distinctly a South American-style rotisserie, it evolved from the fireside roasts of the gaúchos (gow-chos), or cowboys.In modern restaurants, passadores (meat waiters) come to your table with knives and a skewer, on which are speared various kinds of meat, be it beef, pork, filet mignon, lamb, chicken, duck, ham (and pineapple), sausage, fish, or any other sort of local cut of meat.
3. Slavish origins in Brazilian food
The oldest African dish in Brazil, carurú (ka-roo-ru), dates back to the 1600s with the arrival of African slaves. It is a spicy stew made with smoked fish or shrimp, okra, onions, peanuts, cilantro and chilli sauce. African slaves introduced the Brazilians to new cooking styles and tastes, such as cooking food in palm oil, using okra as a thickener and a vegetable, and using the banana in different dishes. Africans also introduced chilli peppers and ginger. Another cooking technique Africans took to Brazil was the use of dried smoked fish and shrimp.
4. Migrant influence on Chilean diet
Native Amerindians in Chile used corn in many of their dishes. The Spanish came in 1541 bringing grapes, olives, rice, wheat, citrus fruits, sugar, garlic, and spices. They also brought chicken, beef, sheep, pigs, rabbits, milk, cheeses, and sausages. The Italians brought ices and flavoured them with the different Chilean fruits. Unusual Chilean fruits are cherimoyas, pepino melons and lucumas. The Arab immigrants brought their use of certain spices and herbs, and the combination of sweet and salty tastes.
5. Cowboys heart BBQ
Gauchos are not the only ones who love their beef. The meat is practically a staple in Argentina. A favourite main course is parrillada (pa-ree-ya-da), a mixed grill of steak and other cuts of beef. Grilled steak is called churrasco, a beef roast cooked over an open fire is called asado (ah-sa-doh), and beef that is dipped in eggs, crumbs, and then fried is called milanesa (mee-ya-nee-sah). Carbonada (ka-bo-na-dah)is a stew that contains meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and chunks of corn on the cob.
6. Peru - Potato homeland
The fact that Peru is the original home of the potato is astonishing to most. Ireland would have been a more likely candidate. The earliest remains of potatoes have been discovered at archaeological sites in Peru, dating as far back as 400 B.C. However, Europeans first came in contact with the potato 1,800 years later. They took the vegetable back to Europe, where it was slow to gain acceptance. Europe now cultivates the largest number of potatoes, but Peru continues to produce the most potato varieties and Lima has been referred to as the "Potato Capital of the World."
7. Order Arepa in Venezuela
Venezuela is the second biggest consumer of pasta after Italy. It is quite appropriate as the name of the country means “Little Venice”. Arepa (ah-ray-pa) is the most famous dish from Venezuela, and is a cornmeal cake that can be grilled, baked or fried. Unlike in neighbouring Colombia where it is normally eaten plain, in Venezuela it is split open and filled with a variety of cheeses and meats. Arepa is a basic part of the Venezuelan diet and is eaten in place of bread in most meals.
8. Quinoa - Ancient Incas’ crop
Quinoa (keen-wa), the grain of the Incas, has been cultivated in the Andean highlands of South America for over 7,000 years. Because of its high nutritional profile quinoa is sold in health food stores as a superfood; but gourmets also recognize it for its pleasing flavour and crunchy texture. It was one of the three staples of the Inca civilisation besides corn and potatoes.