5 Things to Eat and Drink in (Southern) South America

Backpacking through the mountains in Peru on my way to Machu Picchu

Backpacking through the mountains in Peru on my way to Machu Picchu

Some of the world's most dynamic culinary traditions come from the countries that make up South America. This vast region is comprised of diverse ecosystems, impressive landscapes, and unique food cultures. Aside from the typical must-eats like ceviche in Peru and steak in Argentina, here are a few tips I picked up along my journey from Peru to Uruguay. 

1) Get Drunk on Pisco

Pisco is a sweet brandy made from distilled wine grapes that is popular all over South America. Both Chile and Peru claim to have created it, and locals from both countries become quite heated when you ask about the drink’s origin. Peruvians drink pisco in pisco sours (pisco, egg whites, sugar, and lemon) and chilcanos (pisco, seven-up, and lime). Chileans stick to Piscolas (pisco and coca cola).

To say both countries drink a lot of it is an understatement. While traveling in Uruguay I met a group of Chilean girls who had each brought 3 bottles to last them the week-long holiday. Chileans almost always choose the brand Mistral, which is a great bang for your buck. Drink a lot of it, but keep in mind that this stuff is strong, and can result in a nasty hangover due to the amount of sugary mixers that accompany it.

2) Attend an Asado

Perhaps the best difference I noticed about backpacking in South America verses Europe is the incredible hospitality that families offer to visitors. At least once a week I was invited to someone’s home for asado (barbeque), which usually lasted all day. Even though my Spanish was poor, food brought us together in beautiful ways. My New Years eve was spent at a backyard asado in the Uruguayan countryside. It’s not uncommon to be invited to these gatherings, so long as you act respectful and gracious. Some of the best food I ate while travelling was at these homes. Just bring a bottle of something nice in return.

3) Eat Empanadas with Pizza

Perhaps the most ingenious thing I encountered on my travels through Argentina was the combination pizza parlors and empanada shops. Since they can use the same oven, it is very typical for pizza shops to sell fresh empanadas. Pizza in South America is a bit different than pizza in the US. The pizza is super cheesier, thicker, and definitely not on the Atkins diet. The empanadas can be filled with anything from olives and beef to cheese and veggies to dulce de leche. It’s a great drunk meal, after too many glasses of Malbec or a night of partying in Palermo.

Drinking maté and horseback riding are some of my favorite things

Drinking maté and horseback riding are some of my favorite things

4) Master the Art of Maté

Drinking maté is a deeply cherished tradition in both Argentina and Uruguay. The name of the beverage actually comes from the cup that it is served in, the maté cup. While I was walking around the streets of these countries I would often see more people holding maté cups than cell phones. People bring their mate to the park, work, beach, airport, bus, grocery store, mall, literally everywhere. The flavor is a bit bitter and earthy, but grows on you like the first time you had coffee or wine. 

The process of preparing and drinking the tea is slightly different for each person and country. To put it simply, a heap of yerba (pronounced sher-ba) is poured into the mate cup, and hot water is poured over it. The bombisha (metal straw) is placed into the cup and the tea is sipped. The next part is a bit trickier, so stay with me…Many people drink maté alone, but it is often shared with friends. The maté cup is passed to each person in the circle, and each person is expected to drink all of the tea in the mate cup before passing it back to the person who originally prepared the mate. The person who prepared the mate is the one who refills the hot water each time a person finishes a cup, then it goes onto the next person. It works a lot like passing a joint.

5) Shop at Local Food Markets

The markets in South America (especially Chile and Peru) are out of this world amazing. They have far more energy then the markets in Europe, and the US, and they are more colorful, inviting, and vibrant in almost every way. Vendors push carts filled with animal parts, tropical fruits, homemade breads, juices, quail eggs, and even bubbling bowls of soups and stews. 

One of my favorite foods to learn about at these markets is corn. We may not think much of corn in the US, but corn is a sacred crop for many ancient peoples in Peru, and there are hundreds of varieties of corn that are served in a variety of South American dishes. Choclo is a starchy varietal that is featured in many soups and stews. You can usually find a woman boiling whole ears of eat that you buy with a piece of cheese for about a dollar. While you’re munching away on your delicious cob, stock up on the grains and superfoods that have become absurdly priced in the States, like chia, quinoa, and flax. Due to recent diet fads these goods have skyrocketed in price in the U.S., but at the markets in South America you can buy kilos of it for a fraction of the price.

Overlooking the lakes of Bariloche, Argentina in Pategonia

Overlooking the lakes of Bariloche, Argentina in Pategonia

Halley Crane