There’s nothing quite like sitting down to a home cooked meal with our loved ones. In South America, many of the most loved dishes have been perfected by moms and grandmothers over a lifetime and then passed down to the next generation.
“Throughout history … there is no doubt that women have been the guardians of culinary knowledge,” writes Chilean author and anthropologist Sonia Montecino Aguirre in her book La Olla Deleitosa: Cocinas Mestizas de Chile. While Montecino Aguirre focuses on Chile, her words reflect broader South American history too: “When we speak of fusion in Chilean kitchens, we cannot forget the role played by women in the continuity or adaptation of dishes, in their adoption or rejection of different culinary practices, in the creation and recreation of various techniques,” she adds. Despite modern pressures, women continue to be central to South American cooking — women were responsible for preparing meals in 93 percent of Latin American households surveyed by Kantar in 2018.
To learn more about home cooking, we asked 10 South American people about their favorite meal. The dishes featured here tell a personal story. They also offer a glimpse into each country’s history, and highlight how communities have come into contact (voluntarily or not) with the multitude of cultures that have shaped South American cuisine.
1. Pesque de quinua from Peru
“In Peru, there are so many delicious dishes, though my favorite is anything with quinoa,” Maria Elena Mamani Villavicencio, who was born and raised in Cusco, Peru, says.
Quinoa is a tiny, pale-gold seed that’s been grown for thousands of years across the high plains of South America. Rich in protein and vitamins, quinoa was a staple for pre-Columbian cultures like the Inca, Quechua, and Aymara, and it continues to be a vital part of Peruvian cuisine.
Mamani Villavicencio makes her favorite quinoa dish, pesque de quinua (quinoa stew), by frying onion, garlic, and chili and then simmering potatoes, quinoa, and water until the ingredients are fully cooked. She then garnishes the dish with cheese and huacatay, a native herb similar to tarragon.
“When I was younger, my mother cooked it, and now I do,” Mamani Villavicencio says. “I have an 11-year-old daughter who loves it as well.”
In Cusco, people often eat pesque de quinua during Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week). Traditionally, families prepare twelve vegetarian dishes to eat on either Thursday or Good Friday, in honor of Jesus. “One of them was always quinoa,” says Mamani Villavicencio.
2. Tutu de Feijão from Brazil
“My mother makes the best tutu de feijão in the world,” says Douglas de Oliveira, who lives in the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. Tutu de feijão is made by blending beans into a paste and then thickening the mixture with cassava flour. The paste is then cooked over a low heat with onions, garlic, and herbs until it’s creamy. De Oliveira describes this as “a flavor explosion.”
West African people enslaved by the Portuguese and taken to Minas Gerais in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries first created tutu de feijão. It’s thought that the word tutu comes from Kimbundu, a Bantu language of West Africa. “The dish has African roots, but it was adapted to the Brazilian ingredients enslaved people had access to,” de Oliveira says. One such ingredient is cassava, which has been part of indigenous Brazilian cooking for thousands of years.
While you can find tutu de feijão cooked any day of the week, in Minas Gerais it’s traditionally prepared for the juninas festivals. Each June, in honor of the Catholic saints Anthony, John, and Peter, Brazilians dress up in colorful folk costumes, listen to traditional forró music, dance the quadrilha, and have giant bonfires. “[Tutu de feijão] is a classic part of town celebrations,” de Oliveira says. “I have great memories of chatting with friends and family around a plate of tutu de feijão.”
3. Arepas from Colombia
“Arepas, without a doubt, are my favorite food,” says Jose Velasco Merlo of Bogota, Colombia. Arepas are small, round corncakes that can be grilled, baked, or deep fried. “When I was little, my mom would usually cook them every day for breakfast,” he says.
Arepas have a long history in Colombia as well as in neighboring Venezuela, and there’s a friendly rivalry about which country arepas come from. While we don’t know exactly when pre-Hispanic cultures began making arepas, studies show that corn was first cultivated in Colombia over 6000 years ago.
Traditionally, Indigenous women made arepas by soaking corn kernels overnight to remove the husks before cooking, draining, and grinding the corn with a wooden mortar and pestle called a pilón to form a dough. After shaping the dough into discs, the women grilled the arepas on clay plates called aripa or budare, which may be how arepas got their name. In the 1950s, the invention of precooked cornmeal made the process of making arepas quicker, easier and more accessible.
Colombian food anthropologist Julian Estrada Ochoa estimates there are more than 42 varieties of arepa today. These include the famous coastal arepa de huevo, filled with egg and deep-fried, arepa con chicharrón with pork crackling kneaded into the dough, and small plump arepa de bola perfect for eating with stews and soups. Velasco Merlo stuffs his favorite arepas with cheese, chicken, ham, and a boiled egg.
4. Arroz de coco frito from Colombia
“I love to see everyone’s happy faces as they taste the food I prepared with my own hands,” says Manuelita Julio, from Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Julio’s favorite dish is arroz de coco frito (fried coconut rice), which is also known as arroz negrito (black rice) because of its caramel color. This dish is typically served as an accompaniment to fried fish alongside avocado salad and twice-fried green plantains called patacones.
Julio makes arroz de coco by reducing coconut milk and sugar until it splits into coconut oil and cream.The cream is then caramelized until it forms small pieces called titoté, which give the dish its signature color. She then adds plain rice and salted coconut water, and cooks it until the rice is tender. Although Julio has a family of her own now, she still prefers when her mother cooks it. “I love it when she does,” she says. “It has a special touch, a unique flavor.”
Julio’s favorite memory of this dish is sharing it with her family. “When I was little, my older brother returned home after traveling, and my mother prepared this tasty dish especially for him,” she recalls. “We sat around and shared the rice, and my brother could not stop thanking my mom for making arroz de coco, which he had been craving for so long.”
While the exact origins of arroz de coco are unknown, it is an iconic Cartagena dish that features elements from Spanish, Indigenous, and West African cooking.
5. Cazuela from Chile
Cazuela is a slow-cooked stew made with beef, winter vegetables, pasta, or rice. For Marjorie Pereira Araneda, who’s from Santiago, Chile, cazuela was an important part of her childhood and something her whole family would eat together.
“It reminds me of the moments shared with my mother and my sisters, all sitting at the table, laughing and enjoying having our mom at home,” Pereira Araneda says.
This was significant for Pereira Araneda, as her mother has owned a restaurant for over 40 years and was away from home for most of the week. “[Cazuela] reminds me of Sundays when mom didn’t work,” Pereira Araneda says.
Like many other dishes across South America, cazuela has roots in Spanish cuisine. Anthropologist Montecino Aguirre suggests colonists modified their recipe with ingredients native to South America that the Mapuche used, like potatoes, corn, and squash. By the 19th century, cazuela was on every farmhouse table, and today, it’s a much-loved winter meal across the country.
6. Empanadas from Argentina
“My mother has her own recipe that she has maintained over the years,” says Mariano Lina, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. “The way she prepares them is so delicious, I have an emotional bond with them.” Similar to an Italian calzone, Cornish pastie, and other savory pies, Argentinian empanadas are a half-moon pastry typically filled with ground beef, chicken, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and olives. Empanadas can be grilled, baked, or deep-fried, and each region of Argentina has its own style. “The most famous are from the northern province of Salta,” Lina says.
The word empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to wrap something in bread or dough. Empanadas were introduced to Argentina by Spanish colonists in the 16th century, and later influenced by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, who brought a similar open-faced pie called sfiha. For many years, empanadas were regarded as working class food because they’re filling and easy to carry. Today, empanadas are a symbol of Argentinian cuisine.
7. Pastel de choclo from Chile
“This was the last meal I cooked with my mother before I left [Chile],” says Ana Karina Navarro Barrera, who’s from Santiago, Chile. Navarro Barrera’s favorite home-cooked meal is the iconic Chilean dish pastel de choclo (corn cake). Similar to shepherd’s pie, pastel de choclo has an empanada filling (ground beef, chicken, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and olives) that comes from Chile’s Spanish heritage. It’s topped with a thick corn paste, which initially came from indigenous Mapuche cooking. The dish is then sprinkled with sugar and baked in the oven until golden brown.
“[Pastel de choclo] is a mixture of sweet and savory, and although it has many distinct flavors, when they are combined, it is extraordinary,” Navarro Barrera says.
Once considered peasant food, the dish became popular in Santiago in the 1900s with the mass migration of workers from the countryside to the cities. Today, all Chileans enjoy sharing pastel de choclo, and you will find it at street stalls on September 18th, Chile’s Independence Day.
8. Milanesa a la Napolitana from Argentina
“My favorite memory of eating milanesa a la napolitana is with my grandparents at their apartment,” says Andrés Marcolini, from Mendoza, Argentina. Milanesa a la napolitana is a thin slice of beef or chicken that’s crumbed and fried before being topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Then the whole thing is grilled. “My mom taught me how to make it,” Marcolini says. “I have, I do, and I will always cook milanesa a la napolitana.”
The milanesa takes its name from cotoletta de milanese, which is the signature crumbed veal cutlet from Milan. More than two million Italians migrated to Argentina between 1870 and 1960, and they brought many elements of Italian cuisine with them. Consequently, between 50 and 70 percent of Argentines today have at least one Italian relative in their family tree, making Italian food an undeniable part of Argentinian cooking.
The tomato sauce and cheese, however, puzzle many European tourists. According to food writer Derek Foster, legend has it that in the 1950s, to disguise a burnt milanesa from a demanding customer, restaurant owner Jose Napoli added the tasty toppings, and the milanesa a la napolitana was born.
9. El puchero from Uruguay
El puchero is a slow-cooked stew made with winter vegetables (squash, corn, leek, turnip, carrots, spinach), beef shins, and noodles. Alicia Grieco, from Maldonado, Uruguay, uses a recipe that’s deeply rooted in family tradition.
“My grandmother, then my mother, and now I cook this dish,” she tells me. “I have already passed it on to my daughters.” Grieco has fond memories of eating puchero as a child, too. “My mother would take the beef bones out of the pot, spread them onto bread, and tell my brother and me to eat the caracú, the fatty bone marrow.”
The word puchero refers to the traditional pot the Spanish cooked it in. However, like many South American dishes, Uruguayans adapted the recipe to local ingredients they had access to, such as squash and corn. In the 19th and 20th centuries, alongside maté and asado, puchero was considered a symbol of gaucho (cowboy) identity that was economical and nutritious. Today, puchero remains emblematic of Uruguayan identity.
10. Sopa de mani from Bolivia
“[Sopa de mani] is very traditional in La Paz,” Erwin Villasante from La Paz, Bolivia, says. Villasante makes sopa de mani by simmering beef to create a broth and then thickening it with raw pureed peanuts, diced carrot, onion, and potatoes. He then serves it topped with parsley. “In the street, they sell it with French fries on top,” Villasante says. “But at home, no.”
The techniques and ingredients of sopa de mani have a long history in Bolivia. Researchers from the University of Georgia recently discovered that Bolivia is home to the original peanut plant.
Sopa de mani has always been an important part of Bolivian culture, and some legends say it was Che Guevara’s last meal before his execution in Bolivia in 1967. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a campaign to raise the status of the dish. In 2018, there was a petition for the government to make sopa de mani the official dish of Bolivia and declare August 7 National Peanut Soup Day.
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