It’s pretty widely known that Latinos love to eat. And, as anyone can guess, cultures that place so much value on meals are going to have some pretty delicious cooking. But beyond tacos and burritos (which, don’t get us wrong, are delicious), people don’t know a lot about Latino cooking. So, what other Latino foods are a must-try?
- Empanadas (Everywhere)
Fried stuffed pastry dough. Aren’t those magic words? In Latin America, empanadas can be sweet or savory, and stuffed with anything you can imagine, depending on their country and region of origin. But just the basic chicken, beef or potatoes will never do you wrong. Empanadas are eaten in some form or another in just about every Spanish-speaking country (though we particularly recommend Argentina’s), and indeed, from Polish pierogies to Chinese dumplings to English Cornish Pasty, there’s a long and illustrious history of eating stuffed dough. But with the golden flaky exterior of a Latino empanada and their wide availability as a street food, they’re hard to beat.
- Tamales (Most Countries)
If you want traditional Latino food, it’s hard to get more authentic than tamales, which have been eaten in Mesoamerica since long before the Mayans were a twinkle in their creator gods’ eyes. Tamales consist of masa, a starchy corn-based dough, combined with another filling, wrapped in a leaf and then steamed or boiled. That may not sound super delicious to our gringo ears, but these snacks are incredibly popular throughout Latin America. Chicken and pork are two common fillings, though like empanadas, tamales can be sweet or savory and stuffed with anything imaginable. Their handy leaf package once made them perfect battle snacks for ancient civilizations, but today, they’re just as well suited for an active traveler’s quick breakfast from a street-side stand. For the best tamales, we recommend Mexico.
- Ceviche (Coastal)
Now for a different kind of snack: light, cool and refreshing, ceviche is the perfect meal for the hot, humid days of coastal Latin America. This dish is made of chunks of raw fish, always prepared fresh, cured with citrus juice, and mixed with complementary flavors like onion, cilantro, avocado, and tomatoes. Believe us when we say it’s amazing. Peru was the first South American to have ceviche, which was brought there by Spanish conquistadors thousands of years ago. As more people discovered just how delicious it is, it’s spread throughout the Americas. If you find yourself in a coastal Latino country (especially Peru), make sure you discover it, too.
- Ajiaco (Colombia & Cuba)
Alas, not all of South America enjoys endless sunny, summer days. Mountains cover much of the continent, and cities like Bogotá, nestled in the Andes, often have the kind of chilly, rainy weather that we more often associate with Seattle than South America. But on the bright side, this lends itself to delicious stews. Colombia’s ajiaco stew is an ode to the Andes: chicken slow-simmered with chunks of yucca, potatoes and sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, an herb called guascas, and topped with cream, capers and avocado for a full-flavor experience. Cuba’s version uses an even greater variety of starchy vegetables, plus pork and plantains for a sweeter take. Wherever you eat it, ajiaco is hearty and soul-soothing, comfort in a bowl.
- Lomo Saltado (Peru)
When you’re traveling, every once in a while, you want a meal that isn’t its own adventure. When your taste buds crave something familiar but you don’t want to be that guy who travels halfway across the world to find a burger bar, try Peru’s hugely popular lomo saltado. This stir-fry dish consists of juicy strips of beef steak marinated in soy sauce with onions and tomatoes. It’s served with rice and…wait for it…French fries. By combining Peru’s staple potato, Asian rice and stir fry with modern French fries, lomo saltado is a beautiful symbol of worlds colliding, and whether you’re Peruvian, American or Asian, it carries some of the sweet taste of home.
- Asado/Churrasco (Argentina/Brazil)
While we’re on the subject of juicy beef, we’d be remiss not to mention the asado of Argentina and Brazil, where it’s called churrasco. All Latino cultures love their beef and most have their own version of asado, but Argentina and Brazil are most well known for their mouth-watering barbecue. Brazil was the first South American country to raise cattle, and their meat, skewered and slow-roasted over hot coals, used to be the staple food for Brazilian gauchos, or cowboys. Argentine asado has a similar history and a legendary image of free-roaming grass-fed cattle. In both countries, the art of the barbecue is a central part of national community and culture. These days, asado also includes pork and chicken, and is often served with a wide variety of side dishes and desserts. Many cuts are unseasoned; their flavor speaks for itself. In a traditional Brazilian churrascaria, waiters wander around the restaurant with large skewers, cutting melt-in-your-mouth slices of meat onto diners’ plates. For those who eat meat, Argentine and Brazilian barbecue are to die for. (Pardon the pun, vegetarians.)
- Churros (Mexico)
After all those snacks and stews and steaks, it’s time for dessert. We started this list talking about the fried dough of empanadas. Now, we come full circle, to churros: dough fried and then dusted in powdered sugar and cinnamon. They originated with Spanish shepherds high in the mountains, and eventually made their way to Latin America. Now, moist on the inside, crispy and golden brown on the outside, churros are like Mexico’s answer to the donut, but better. Popular for breakfast—and, let’s be honest, every other meal—this long, thin and fluted fried pastry is often dipped in café con leche or chocolate, and is a delicious treat any time of day.