Friday, May 25, 2012

Flavors of South America

Few continents have been blessed with as varied a culinary heritage as South America, and this heritage is gaining wider international acclaim as more travelers start exploring the many different aspects of these nations. Rich stews and soups dominate the cooler mountain regions, while the long coastlines offer up fresh fish cured and cooked in unusual ways. Simply delicious beef is on the menu almost everywhere, but nowhere better than from the pampas of Argentina.

The indigenous peoples of South America, the conquering Spaniards and Portuguese, and a large influx of African slaves have all contributed their distinct cooking traditions and ingredients to the culinary mix in the continent. And as if these weren’t enough, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Indian, Lebanese, German, French, Italian, and British gastronomical influences have followed in their wake, making South America a true foodie melting pot.
The gastronomical centers of Lima, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro now boast world-class restaurants.

Many of the most popular foods enjoyed worldwide – potatoes, chili and sweet peppers, peanuts, corn, and the one with the highest “yummy factor” of all: chocolate – hail from South America.
In an unofficial exchange, Europeans introduced chicken, pork, beef (along with dairy products), wheat, sugar, citrus trees, onions, and garlic, as well as certain herbs and spices such as oregano, parsley, and cloves, to South America, and also passed on their winemaking techniques, all of which changed the food culture forever.

A fruit vendor adds the finishing touches to his mouthwatering display in the Municipal Market, São Paolo, Brazil

Today’s cuisine has come a long way from its humble beginnings of often corn-based dishes, and the gastronomical centers of Lima, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro now boast world-class restaurants. Food festivals, such as Lima’s Mistura and Medellín’s Otro Sabor, also attract visitors from near and far.
What’s influenced South American cuisine more than any other feature is also what has inspired many a traveler – its wonderful variety of landscapes: desolate high plateaus, deeply cut ravines, snow-capped cordilleras (mountain ranges), endless rolling pasturelands, and the sheer immensity of the Amazon basin.

Coast-to-Coast Cuisines

In South America, food is often regional, rather than national, in character: warming stews and soups in the Andean region, good fish and seafood along the lengthy coastlines and mighty rivers, and superb beef in the cattle and farming areas. Peru’s famous ceviche (lime-cured seafood with salt and perhaps a sprinkling of chili pepper) is popular along many parts of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. In Colombia and Venezuela, as well as northern Brazil, the African influence remains strong, particularly in coastal communities. The Brazilian state of Bahia specializes in seafood dishes of African origin, such as acarajé. Brazil is blessed with a wide variety of culinary trends, and with a coastline of some 4,660 miles (7,500 km), it’s no wonder fish and seafood feature heavily. The moqueca capixaba, a hearty fish stew flavored with annatto seeds, hot peppers, and cilantro looks as well as tastes fantastic, the annatto coloring the dish a bright orange.
South American Feasting
From the crashing waves of the vast Atlantic, it’s a short hop to the evergreen, huge grassy plains of the Argentinian pampas, home of the gauchos, Argentina’s own cowboys. These hardy souls, most often found on horseback, have the enviable responsibility of taking care of the country’s most prized asset – its cattle.
Argentinian meat is legendary, and there is nothing quite like a parrillada – a meat feast where all the best cuts, masterfully grilled and lightly seasoned, are served until diners can eat no more, all washed down with a fine local red wine.
In neighboring Chile, on the island of Chiloé, slow food is taken to dizzying heights in curanto, another form of feast, but one that’s traditionally left to steam-cook in a hole in the ground. This far south in the Andean region, food goes with the climate and tends to be not just heart-warming, but body-warming as well.
Ecuador’s locro de papa takes full advantage of the local ingredient par excellence – the potato. With 3,000 varieties found in the Andean countries alone, there’s no shortage of choice, and the humble potato has rarely tasted better than in this creamy soup, with nothing but a sliver of garlic, some chopped onion, and a slice of bright green avocado to top it off.

One of the many vibrant street markets in Cusco, Peru
The Andes climb farther north into Colombia and Venezuela, where they have devised different ways of keeping warm and well-nourished, choosing the one meat that is otherwise somewhat underrepresented elsewhere in South America – the humble pig. In Colombia, the bandeja paisa, originally from the center of the country but now found everywhere, is a celebration of all things porky. Ground pork, sausages, cracklings, and pork cuts all jostle for space in this dish, colorfully accompanied by rice, beans, salad, avocado, and fried potatoes, and topped off with a fried egg. Not for the cholesterol-conscious.

Harvesting coffee at a plantation near Cuidad Bolívar, Colombia
Venezuela’s chicharrónes, or pork cracklings, seem positively restrained by comparison. All across the continent there are vastly varied culinary adventures waiting to be enjoyed, with a mix of influences as unique as the continent itself.
With 3,000 varieties found in the Andean countries alone… the humble potato has rarely tasted better.

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