While backpacking through Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile, I learned a lot about the South American food culture as well as individual country’s traditions and customs. Aside from the typical must-eats like ceviche in Peru and steak in Argentina, here are a few things I picked up that I think every foodie should experience.
1) Get drunk on Pisco
Pisco is a liquor made from grapes that is sweet and very strong. Both Chile and Peru claim to have created it, and locals from both countries become quite heated when you ask about the drink’s origin. Peruvians drink pisco in the form of pisco sours (pisco, egg whites, sugar, and lemon) and chilcanos (pisco, seven-up, and lime). Chileans stick to Piscolas (pisco and coca cola). To say both countries drink a lot of it is an understatement. While traveling in Uruguay I met a group of Chilean girls who had brought 3 bottles each for the week-long holiday. Chileans almost always choose the brand Mistral, which is also my favorite, and it comes in a dark green box that holds the bottle. Drink a lot of it, but keep in mind that this stuff is strong, and can result in a nasty hangover due to the amount of sugary mixers that accompany it.
2) Drink tons of Maté
Drinking mate is a deeply cherished tradition in both Argentina and Uruguay. While I was walking around the streets of these countries I would often see more people holding mate cups than cell phones. People will bring their mate to the park, work, beach, airport, bus, grocery store, mall, literally everywhere. The flavor is a bit bitter at first, but once I had I a few times I really grew to enjoy both the taste, and the social traditions that come with the preparation and consumption of mate. The process of preparing the tea is slightly different for each person and country. To put it simply, a heap of yerba (pronounced sher-ba) is poured into the mate cup, and hot water is poured over it. The bombisha (metal straw) is placed into the cup and the tea is sipped. The next part is a bit trickier, so stay with me…Many people drink mate alone, but it is often shared with friends. The mate cup is passed to each person in the circle, and each person is expected to drink all of the water in the mate cup before passing it back to the person who originally prepared the mate. The person who prepared the mate is the one who refills the hot water each time a person finishes a cup, then it goes onto the next person. It works a lot like passing a joint.
3) Get invited to an asado
Perhaps the best difference I noticed about backpacking in South America verses Europe is the incredible hospitality that families offer to visitors. At least once a week I was invited to someone’s home for asado (barbeque), which usually lasted all day. Even though my Spanish was poor, food brought us together in beautiful ways. My new years eve was spent at a backyard asado in the Uruguayan countryside. It’s not uncommon to be invited to these gatherings, so long as you act respectful and gracious. Some of the best food I ate while travelling was at these homes. Just bring a bottle of something nice in return.
4) Eat empanadas and pizza in Argentina
Perhaps the most ingenious thing I encountered on my travels through Argentina was the combination pizza parlors and empanada shops. Since they can use the same oven, it is very typical for pizza shops to sell fresh empanadas. It’s cheap, filling, and the pizza is more delicious than any late night pizza shop that I have ever been to. The pizza is super cheesy, thick, and definitely not on the Atkins diet. The empanadas can be filled with anything from olives and beef to cheese and veggies to dulce de leche. It’s a great drunk meal, after too many glasses of Malbec or a night of partying in Palermo.
5) Go to the food markets in Chile and Peru: eat corn and buy lots of chia
The markets in Chile and Peru are out of this world amazing. People ate bustling by with animal parts, tropical fruits, homemade breads, juices, quail eggs, everything. The markets serve as both produce vendors as well as hot food stalls where I ate some of the best food during my backpacking trip. These markets are especially good for trying many of the different kinds of maize, or corn. Corn is a sacred crop for many ancient peoples in Peru, and there are hundreds of varieties of corn that are served in a variety of South American dishes. Choclo is a starchy variety that is featured in many soups and stews. You can usually find a woman boiling whole ears of eat that you buy with a piece of cheese for about a dollar. While you’re munching away on your delicious cob, stock up on the grains and superfoods that have become absurdly priced in the States, like chia, quinoa, and flax. Due to recent diet fads these goods have skyrocketed in price in the U.S., but at the markets in South America you can buy kilos of it for a fraction of the price.