The countries that make up Latin America have strong gastronomic cultures. Those with culinary curiosity are almost certainly aware of Venezuelan arepas and well versed in Mexican tacos and tortillas. Perhaps a michelada or two have been sipped, but what of the unsung heroes like Guatemala’s 40-ingredient salad? Or the Haitian rebellion delicacy that’s prepared on New Year’s Day? Or what about Guyana’s self-preserving meat stew?
These locally celebrated dishes, that more typically fly under the radar or have been unjustly maligned, deserve their time in the spotlight — and on your plate.
1. Argentina: achuras
Argentina’s near-religious fanaticism for all things meat is no secret. Asado (barbecue) is king, and every part of the cow is consumed. Ordering a parrillada (mixed grill) at a parrilla (steakhouse) will include helpings of achuras (offals) like riñones (kidneys) and chinchulines (intestines) drizzled to perfection with lemon and salt. Organ meat might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but like many other countries, offal is a beloved part of the meal in Argentina.
2. Belize: chimole
At first glance, chimole isn’t particularly drool-worthy. The dish has a dark-as-the-night-sky hue, so all of its ingredients aren’t immediately discernible. Nevertheless, this traditional, chunky chicken soup known as “black dinner” is one of Belize’s must-try foods. This dish has Mayan roots and the dark color comes from black recado, an aromatic local spice paste.
3. Bolivia: pique macho
When in Bolivia, make space for pique macho. This comfort food consists of a layer of French fries playing hide and seek under a mountain of eggs, chopped beef, cheese, and hot dogs. Mustard is thrown on top for good measure. Pique macho originally comes from the Andean city of Cochabamba, but it’s popular in the rest of the country as well.
4. Brazil: coraçao de galinha
Coração de galinha (chicken heart) is a national treasure in Brazil. This diminutive dish is usually presented on espetinhos (mini skewers) alongside lime and a refreshing vinagrete tomato slaw that balances the oily hearts. Sprinkles of salt will suffice when it comes to seasonings, but there’s also the option to bathe your heart skewers with the divine toasted, seasoned, and powdered cassava called farofa.
5. Chile: completo
A completo is one of the main traditional Chilean dishes visitors should try. It’s this wine-loving country’s version of the hot dog, yet it goes where no dog has gone before. Spicy aji peppers, mayonnaise, sauerkraut, and avocados are added on top. It laughs in the hot dog’s face where size is concerned. You’ll be completely wiped out by this oversized hotdog piled with toppings, but you’ll live another day to ask for more.
6. Colombia: chocolate con queso
Piping hot chocolate with melted cheese isn’t the most obvious combination, but this pair lives in harmony throughout Colombia. To prepare chocolate con queso, one should use a molinillo, otherwise known as a wooden whisk, to stir bitter chocolate with milk in a chocolatera (a high-neck pot). The steamy beverage is then poured over fresh cheese cubes and sipped or eaten with a spoon. Add cinnamon or cloves if you’re feeling extra adventurous.
7. Costa Rica: gallo pinto
In Costa Rica, a “soda” is a place you eat at, not a drink. While there, you can tuck into a plate of gallo pinto, which is considered the national dish; it’s also the national dish of nearby Nicaragua. Ticos, as Costa Ricans are called, order this heavy meal of rice and beans at any time of the day, breakfast included. Gallo pinto means “painted rooster,” and the dish is just about as widespread in Costa Rica as the term pura vida.
8. Cuba: miguelucho
Miguelucho (or dulce de leche cortada) is a sticky dessert where spoiled milk finds new life when mixed with eggs, cinnamon, sugar, and lemon or lime for curdling. The mix is heated slowly, resulting in a caramelized, almost pudding-like dessert that’s best eaten in small portions. Versions can also be found in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia. In Cuba, it’s one of many favorite Cuban dishes more popular than what people in the United States know as the Cuban sandwich.
9. Dominican Republic: niños envueltos
Translated, niños envueltos means “little wrapped children.” Sure, no one wants to eat little wrapped children, but moniker aside, niños envueltos are sublime. The dish is made with ground beef and rice wrapped up into little rolls with cabbage before being slow-cooked in a tomato sauce. Chile is also known for its niños envueltos.
10. Ecuador: encebollado
Practically every culture has its very own comforting chicken soup for the soul, body, and hangover. Ecuador’s is encebollado, which also happens to be the national dish. It’s an onion-rich soup with tuna, tomatoes, cassava, various spices, and generous helpings of pickled onions, and it’s a hearty piece of heaven in a bowl.
11. El Salvador: atol de elote
Atol de elote is a popular hot Salvadoran drink that’s made with sweet corn and milk. It’s thick enough to be eaten with a spoon, and there are many superstitions around its preparation. More than one person stirring the pot will create a bad taste, for example, and you shouldn’t touch it if you’re in a bad mood. When the drink is topped with mashed pumpkin seeds and beans, locals say it’s “dirty.” When garnished this way, it’s called atol chuco (also spelled shuco) — chuco is a Nahuatl word for dirty. Atol de elote is also popular in Guatemala and other parts of Central America.
12. French Guiana: bouillon d’awara
Bouillon d’awara in French Guiana doesn’t get the credit it deserves. This might be due, in part, to the slightly oily texture from the awara palm kernel’s juice. This slow-cooked broth is lovingly prepared over three days with smoked chicken or fish, cassava, and banana leaves, and it’s served with white rice. You can expect your meal in French Guiana to pack a punch; cayenne peppers are named after its capital city.
13. Guadeloupe: ti’ punch
Head to your nearest lolo (a small beach or roadside restaurant) and order a glass of ti’ punch, which is an irresistible cocktail that isn’t quite as famous as its rum-based contemporaries like the mojito and daiquiri. Ti’ punch is as simple as it gets for rum cocktails: Its only ingredients are rum, lime, and raw sugar. Ice cubes are optional, enjoyment is mandatory. It’s also popular in other French-speaking regions of Latin America, like Martinique, Haiti, and French Guiana.
14. Guatemala: fiambre
Fiambre is a kaleidoscopic salad that’s widely consumed by Guatemalans on All Saints’ Day and Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) to honor deceased loved ones. It gets a bad rap due to the backbreaking process required to prepare it. As many as 40 ingredients can go into one plate, and there are various assortments and styles of preparation. Fiambre verde is meat-free, fiambre rojo is heavy on beets, and fiambre desarmado has the ingredients arranged separately so diners can create their own preferred combinations.
15. Guyana: Guyana pepperpot
Guyana pepperpot is a much-beloved pork or oxtail stew that’s cooked with cassareep seasoning, which is unique to Guyana. Cassareep is a preservative made from grated cassava. Cooking meat with this thick syrup keeps it fresh for days sans refrigeration, a truly wizardly feat.
16. Haiti: joumou
Pretty much wherever there’s joumou being eaten in Haiti, there’s a party. The pumpkin and beef soup is wildly popular, and it can be found on every Haitian’s dinner table on New Year’s Day, which also happens to be Haitian independence day. It has become a celebrated symbol of freedom and rebellion for Haitians as they were forbidden from eating it during the slave trade.
17. Honduras: baleadas
In Honduras, baleadas are folded flour tortillas filled with mashed fried beans and other fillings. They reportedly originated in the coastal town of La Ceiba, and they’re sold for a low price from street vendors. According to one origin story, a woman who made this street food was shot with several bullets (bala is Spanish for bullets), made a full recovery, and then returned to her tortilla stand. People would then say they were going to buy from “the bullet woman.” An alternate account says the creator devised this name as a tacit warning to rowdy nighttime customers to keep them in line.
18. Martinique: matoutou de crabe
Matoutou de crabe is a rice-laden crab dish (not the other way around). The crab is the star of the show, and it shares the stage with colombo powder, chives, garlic, and tomatoes. Martinicans consume this dish to mark the end of Lent, and such is the excitement around it that the crab legs are purchased (and seasoned) weeks in advance.
19. Mexico: chapulines
If insects are the protein of the future, then Mexico has long been ahead of the game. In Oaxaca, one of the gastronomic centers of the Americas and the home of many traditional pre-Hispanic dishes, chapulines (grasshoppers) fill tacos and come with tostadas. These bugs are remarkably versatile and add some serious crunch to any plate.
20. Nicaragua: vigorón
Vigorón is a traditional food made with boiled yucca, chicharrones, and cabbage salad that’s wrapped and served on a banana leaf. According to legend, it was created by “the crazy woman” (la loca) in the city of Granada. It now has a countrywide following, but it’s most popular in Granada, where you can find sellers like La Pelona (“the bald woman”) and El Gordito (“the fat man”). It’s one of the many traditional Nicaraguan foods you should have on your radar.
21. Panama: patacones
Patacones are as intrinsic to life in Panama as the namesake canal and world-class Panamanian coffee. These twice-fried, hard green plantains may come as an accompaniment to a main meal or be enjoyed as a standalone snack with hot sauce or ceviche. In the capital city, Fonda Lo Que Hay is a one-stop-shop to enjoy patacones in creative ways.
22. Paraguay: sopa Paraguaya
Sopa Paraguaya (Paraguayan soup) is not a soup at all — it’s a cheese and onion cornbread. It’s one of the most celebrated dishes in the country, though little known outside. The urban legend around this dish states that it was created when a former president’s personal chef overzealously added cornmeal to a white soup dish she was preparing. Without time to whip up another dish, she presented her flawed solid soup creation to him anyway. This love-at-first-taste encounter led him to call the dish sopa Paraguaya and the rest is history.
23. Peru: queso helado
Don’t let the name fool you. Queso helado (frozen cheese) doesn’t have an ounce of cheese in it. This famed ice cream hails from Arequipa, and it’s made with splashes of cinnamon, coconut, cloves, and three kinds of milk. You can find it sold by street vendors in Arequipa and on restaurant menus throughout Peru. It’s just one of the many traditional Peruvian foods you should try on a trip.
24. Puerto Rico: barriguitas de vieja
Puerto Ricans adore barriguitas de vieja, and you will too if you give them a try. These fritters are made with roasted kabocha squash, which is slightly sweeter than pumpkin. More sugar is added along with eggs, flour, and an array of spices. Scoops of the mash are dropped into hot oil until perfectly golden and crispy. Dusting with powdered sugar is permitted but not essential. Depending on who you ask, the wrinkly final product resembles an old lady’s belly, hence the cheeky name.
25. Saint Martin: guavaberry liqueur
Guavaberry liqueur is a little-known treasure enjoyed on this Caribbean island. Both the Dutch and French sides of the island share it as their national drink. It’s the prime ingredient in many a mixed concoction here, and its slightly acidic and sugary fusion is truly the best of both worlds.
26. Saint Barthélemy: accras
Many know this island as a beautifully blinding, blue water enclave for the glitterati. Fewer people know of accras, the island’s national dish. Most Caribbean islands have their own version of these crispy salt cod fritters, and they’re a distant cousin of akara, bean patties that are widely consumed among Nigeria’s Yoruba people.
27. Suriname: gado gado
Suriname’s cuisine is a culinary potpourri and a hot spot for Indonesian foods like gado gado, which is a boiled egg and vegetable salad with peanut sauce dressing. This battleground of tastes is well known in Indonesia and among the Dutch, who controlled Suriname until the 1970s. Over the years, they brought many Javanese settlers to work on plantations and railways in this coastal nation and their cooking traditions came along with them.
28. Uruguay: pamplona
The splendor of pamplona is little known beyond South America. It’s a laborious process to make these grilled chicken and pork rolls that are stuffed to smoking hot perfection with mozzarella, ham, bell peppers, and spices, but good things come to those who wait, as they say.
29. Venezuela: golfeados
While Colombian and Venezuelan arepas have charmed their way into the global food vernacular, there’s much more to Venezuelan food that people outside of the country should know. Case in point: golfeados, which are Venezuela’s version of the cinnamon roll. What makes it different is that it has cheese. To elevate the golfeado experience, one may plunk a slab of queso de mano on top. This is a low salt cheese with a stringy texture, akin to buffalo mozzarella. Altogether, it’s sticky, unconventional, and teeming with flavor.