If you want to understand why South America is considered one of the most exciting places in the world to eat at the moment, you might have a look at the closely watched World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. On it you’ll see the names of South American chefs who are showcasing the riches (and foods) of their countries.
Take Brazil’s most famous chef, Alex Atala (D.O.M.). He convinced the elites to savor a cloud of meringue jeweled with a single Amazonian ant brushed with gold. Diners did this not on a dare but on the principle that the lemongrassy insect gives, like all delicious food, pure animal pleasure. Eating insects has been an idea that Americans had always rolled their eyes at. There was, for a time, condescension toward using native Brazilian ingredients, too, which Mr. Atala serves. That it’s no longer a novel idea for gourmands to lope to São Paulo, Brazil, to worship his dishes indicates that South America’s status in the culinary world is rising.
There are just as many Instagrammers trying to feast in Peru. First, at Virgilio Martínez’s restaurant Central, in Lima, which offers two tasting menus divided by altitudes and sea depths. Then at Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido, for Japanese-Peruvian dishes such as sea urchin rice and sea snail cau-cau.
The regional food cultures of South America are beginning to flood the homes of the dining public at the moment. From camera crews capturing new and traditional South American foods for that Netflix series we love so much, Chef’s Table, to nominations for the most respected foodie lists. South American foods are fast becoming staples in a market formerly dominated by chefs from Spain, Italy, New York, and Denmark.
If you’ve spent time in South American food circles, you’re familiar with the diversity of the cuisines. The bright ceviche and chimichurri sauces that leap out at you. The aromatic homey stews, like the Columbian ajiaco, powered by slow simmering and herbs. The salty little fried things and sandwiches that become an obsession. Now’s a great time to get acquainted with some of these standout South American foods. They’ll work their magic on you.
1. Pupuha with Yanomami Mushrooms
What South American foods: Pupuha, Yanomami mushrooms
These South American ingredients are traditional to: Brazil
Where: Alex Atala’s D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil
The deep Amazon is a universe unto itself. If you hope to experience a taste of it at the most famous restaurant in Brazil, try chef Alex Atala’s trailblazing restaurant D.O.M., in São Paulo. Mr. Atala composes modern plates out of foraged ingredients from Brazil, like the Yanomami mushroom, grown on damp forest ground, and the aromatic priprioca root, part of a food tradition in some indigenous groups in the Amazon region. Here, a fettuccine of heart of palm is delicately twirled with Yanomami mushrooms.
2. Chivito Sandwiches
What South American foods: Chivito sandwiches
This South American food is traditional to: Uruguay
Where you can find it: Charrúa in New York, NY
A long time ago, according to legend, a great chef in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Antonio Carbonaro, nearly blew a fuse when he realized his kitchen failed to stock gamey chivito, goat meat, to make a special sandwich for a regular. The Argentine lady wanted a goat sandwich; his kitchen did not have it. His palms sweated, of course. What did the chef do but rescue himself by arranging an artful sandwich out of nothing—bits of steak and rose-colored ham, cheese, lettuce, dressed up with mayonnaise. The chivito was born.
3. Alfajores Cookies
What South American foods: Alfajores cookies
This South American food is traditional to: Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay
Where you can find it: La Nueva Bakery in Jackson Heights, NY
These chic sandwich cookies, alfajores, are carefully groomed Argentinian, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan cousins of the French macaroon. They tote a luxurious spread of dulce de leche, a caramel confection made from cooked-down milk, and are powdered with a snow of coconut. The powdery, fine-crumbed cookie plays off of the tack and the chew of the rich, jammy center.
4. Asado Burger with Chimichurri
What South American foods: Asado burger with chimichurri
This South American food is traditional to: Argentina
Where you can find it: Asado in Bristol, United Kingdom
Some argue that the burger needs nothing more than premium ground beef to achieve its glory. If you fall in this camp, open your mind to the Argentine creation the asado burger. The juicy patty is browned for a nice crust. The kitchen doubles down on this deliciousness by searing a slice of cheese, which curls and browns and is pulled off the heat before it fully melts. A tart, garlicky chimichurri sauce makes a sharp counterpoint to the rich, concentrated flavor of beef. The burger juices trickle down and dimple a hunk of toasted bread.
What South American foods: Coxinhas
This South American food is traditional to: Brazil
Where you can find it: Oasis Brazilian Restaurant in Medford, MA
If you want food to be quick, snappy, and fun (for a meet-and-greet?), try one of Brazil’s most beloved street food. Coxinha are little pockets of dough shaped like a tear drop (some see a chicken thigh) sealing in shredded chicken and requeijao, a soft Brazilian cheese. Like croquettes, these airy puffs of dough are fried hard for a golden crunchy shell.
6. Arepas Corn Cake Sandwiches
What South American foods: Arepas, corn cake sandwiches
This South American food is traditional to: Columbia and Venezuela
Where you can find it: Areppas in New York, NY
The gleeful abundance of styles of arepas is not a weak spot for Venezuela or Columbia. These griddled corn cake sandwiches are sometimes made like a pancake and other times arrive deep fried and puffy. Dried white corn is soaked and gnashed with a mortar and pestle. Then the crumbly paste is formed into thick cakes that are griddled or grilled, and stuffed with cheese, pulled pork, or a runny-yolked egg that even Wylie Dufresne would want to enjoy behind curtains of privacy.
Can’t lope to South America for a catered lunch?