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Top Dishes in Latin American Cuisine

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Following the launch of the QS Latin America University Tops 2018, we’re celebrating all things great about the region – including its food.

As mentioned in our previous look at beautiful places in Latin America, the region is home to a wide variety of culinary delights, each using a distinctive combination of spices and fresh ingredients. Every Latin American country has its own unique dishes and specialties to sample, as well as its own popular regional condiments, such as guacamole, pico de gallo, and pebre.

Join us as we take a salivating tour of Latin American cuisine, starting with dishes that transcend national borders and are found across the region, and then taking a closer look at some regional specialties. 

Churrasco

Churrasco is a Portuguese and Spanish term referring to beef or grilled meat and is a prominent feature in Latin American cuisine, popular in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Uruguay. A restaurant serving grilled meat is known as a churrascaria (steakhouse). Often restaurants serve all-you-can-eat churrasco buffets, with waiters slicing meat onto patrons’ plates – this is called espeto corrido or rodizio and is particularly popular in Brazil.

Empanada

A popular snack in Latin American cuisine, an empanada (pastel in Brazilian Portuguese and salteña in Bolivia) is a baked or fried bread or pastry which is stuffed with meat, cheese, huitlacoche (“corn smut”, a delicacy in Mexico), vegetables or fruits, among other fillings. Both savory and sweet versions are available.

Tamal

Found across Latin American cuisine, and known as a huminta in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, a tamal (or tamale in English) is a traditional Mesoamerican dish made using masa (starchy, corn-based dough) and filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables or chilies, then steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. 

Chipá

chipá is a small, baked cheese-flavored roll, which is a popular snack and breakfast food in Brazil (called pão de queijo), Colombia (called pandebono) and Ecuador (called pan de yucca in the Coast Region). It is also consumed in Paraguay and Argentina (called chipa'í or chipacitos) and Bolivia (called cuñapé). A common variant in Paraguay is the chipá guazú, with the country’s Coronel Bogado city considered the National Capital of the Chipá.

Feijoada (Brazil)

The traditional and national Brazilian dish feijoada is a stew of black beans cooked with meat (usually pork and/or beef) and served with rice, vegetables, assorted sausages such as chouriçomorcela (blood sausage) and farinheira, and a variety of side dishes including farofai (toasted manioc flour).

What to drink: Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, is made with cachaça (brandy made with sugar cane), ice, sugar and lime. Also popular in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo is batida, made with cachaça, fruit juice or coconut milk and sugar.

Best place to eat: Although traditionally eaten on Saturdays, Casa da Feijoada near the Ipanema metro station in Rio de Janeiro serves feijoada every day.

Where to study: Brazil boasts more entries in the QS Latin America University Tops 2018 than any other country, with 83 Brazilian institutions making the top 400, including four in the top 10, and its Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) is ranked second overall. 

Mole poblano (Mexico)

Mole is a generic name for a number of sauces used in Mexican cuisine, but mole poblano is probably the best known of all varieties, and is often considered Mexico’s national dish. Containing around 20 ingredients, of which the most notable are chili and chocolate, this dark sauce is usually served over turkey and often at special occasions.

What to drink: Tequila, made with blue agave (type of cactus) and trademarked to manufacturers in Mexico. Mexico also makes a large variety of beers. A traditional non-alcoholic beverage is atole, a masa-based hot corn drink with piloncillo, cinnamon and vanilla.

Best place to eat: La Casita Poblana and El Mural de los Poblanos, both in Calle 16 de Septiembre in Puebla.

Where to study: A total of 65 Mexican institutions feature in the QS Latin America University Tops 2018, of which two make the top five. The highest of these, in fourth place, is Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), which is based in the capital, Mexico City, one of the world’s top 100 cities for students in the QS Best Student Cities index.

Bandeja paisa (Colombia)

Popular in the Antioquia department of Colombia and the Paisa region, bandeja paisa is a platter-style meal served in a large, oval-shaped tray and consisting of a generous variety of different foods. Traditional items include red beans cooked with pork, white rice, carne molida (ground meat), chicharrón, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa (flatbread), hogao sauce, morcilla (black pudding), avocado and lemon.

What to drink: Colombia’s national alcoholic beverage is the anise-flavored Aguardiente (guaro), which is drunk as a shot, but the country is also well-known for its wines, coffee, ice creams and sodas.

Best place to eat: Bandeja paisa is common across Colombia and native to the Andino region, with gourmet (smaller and lighter) courses available in good restaurants in Bogotá or Medellín.

Where to study: The Universidad de Los Andes Colombia is currently in eighth place in the QS Latin America University Tops, while 52 more Colombian universities are ranked within the region’s top 400. 

Asado (Argentina)

Asado is a term used for particular barbecue techniques, and also for the social event surrounding the barbecue. Considered Argentina’s national dish but also traditional to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, the main ingredient in asado is flank-cut beef ribs flavored with chimichurri and cooked on a grill called a parilla, or on an open fire. Asado also includes embutidos (cured sausages), different meats including poultry and sweetbreads, bread, mixed salad and verdurajo (grilled vegetables).

What to drink: Explore Argentina’s wide selection of wines, the most popular being Mendoza. Or, go the traditional route with yerba mate, a caffeine-rich herbal drink containing stimulating vitamins and minerals.

Best place to eat: There are countless parillas in Argentina, with two famous ones being La Cabrera and El Desnivel, both in Buenos Aires.

Where to study: Argentina’s capital city Buenos Aires is placed 42nd in the most recent QS Best Student Cities index. The country has 39 institutions in the new QS Latin America University Tops, led by Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) in ninth place. 

Curanto (Chile)

The traditional food of Chiloé Archipelago off the coast of Chile, curanto is traditionally prepared in a hole dug in the ground and covered with stones which are heated until red.  Typical ingredients include shellfish, meat, milcao and chapaleles (potato pancake and potato dumpling respectively), and other vegetables. Curanto preparation is specific: ingredients are covered with nalca (Chilean rhubarb) leaves, then covered with wet sacks, dirt and grass chunks, creating a pressure cooker effect.

What to drink: A wide range of wines are available, while Chilean pisco (brandy made from Muscat grapes) is used in many cocktails. Mote con Huesillo is a summertime drink made with wheat seeds (mote) and dried peaches (huesillos).

Best place to eat: While you can arrange a curanto yourself, for a truly authentic experience visit Chiloé. Particularly recommended is Kuranton, a restaurant in Chiloé’s capital city Ancud which offers this indigenous meal for tourists.

Where to study: Taking the top spot in this year’s QS Latin America University Tops is Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC). The country has 39 more institutions in the region’s top 400, while capital city Santiago is joint 62nd in the QS Best Student Cities index.

Ceviche (Peru)

Ceviche, or cebiche, is a dish of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices (key lime or naranja agria ­– bitter orange) and spiced with ají (chili peppers). Onion, salt and pepper are also added to the marinade, which is often served in a small glass as an appetizer (leche de tigre or leche de panteraI) along with chunks of corn-on-the-cob and cooked sweet potato.

Also popular in Ecuador and Chile, ceviche is part of Peru’s national heritage – June 28th is Día Nacional del Cebiche (National Ceviche Day). Note that locals tend to avoid ceviche late in the day as all ceviche is made fresh from that morning’s catch.

What to drink: Peruvian pisco sour with key lime (or lemon) juice, syrup, ice, egg white, and Angostura bitters. Peru is the world’s largest producer of organic coffee, while mate de coca (Coca Tea) is legal to drink.

Best place to eat: There is at least one cevichería in every neighborhood in capital city Lima, while most criollo restaurants include ceviche on their menus. Popular restaurants in Lima include La Mar, Chez Wong, El Mercado and Pescados Capitales.

Where to study: Peru has a respectable 18 institutions in the top 400 of this year’s QS Latin America University Tops, with its highest ranked being Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, which sits comfortably in 25th place.

Encebollado (Ecuador)

Encebollado means “cooked with onions” and is an Ecuadorian fish stew, which is commonly regarded as a national dish. Served with boiled cassava or yucca and picked red onion rings, encebollado also includes fresh tomato and spices such as pepper and coriander leaves. It is usually served with ripe avocado, plantain, popcorn, toasted corn nuts and/or bread.

What to drink: There are many options for exotic fruit juices including naranjilla (a jungle fruit) and taxo (banana passionfruit). A batida is fruit juice made with milk. The strong aguardiente (fire water) made with fermented sugarcane is arguably Ecuador’s national alcoholic drink.

Best place to eat: Port town Guayaquil in Ecuador’s coastal region has many restaurants (such as La Canoa) that offer traditional seafood dishes.

Where to study: Of Ecuador’s 12 entries in the QS Latin America University Tops, it has three in the top 100, with its highest-ranked being Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).

Pabellón criollo (Venezuela)

 

Traditionally consumed for lunch and considered by many to be the Venezuelan national dish, pabellón criollo consists of rice with stewed black beans and shredded beef. Often served with tajadas (fried plantain slices) and/or a fried egg, some also add granulated sugar or queso palmita over the beans, or hot sauce over the meat. The beef can be replaced by chigüire (capybara), shredded caiman meat or freshwater fish depending on the region and season.

What to drink: Whisky is popular among Venezuelans, while Venezuelan-made rum is dark and of good quality. A popular drink is chicha andina, which is made from fermented pineapple juice and rice or corn flour. To sample the best Venezuelan coffee, ask for de la maquina (machine-made) café con leche, marrona ornegrito.

Best place to eat: La Cocina de Francy in La Candelaria –  an area filled with Spanish restaurants in Caracas.

Where to study: Although Venezuela has only nine institutions in the QS Latin America University Tops, they are all well-placed, with four in the top 100 and the highest-ranked being Universidad Central de Venezuela in 28th place.

Ropa vieja (Cuba)

Literally translated as “old clothes”, ropa vieja’s shredded beef is indeed reminiscent of shredded rags of clothing. Ropa vieja is often accompanied by fried plantain, black beans and rice. An important flavoring is the Cuban staple sofrito, made with sautéed onions, green peppers and garlic cooked with tomatoes. Extra additions to the sauce can include sausages or smoked meat, or wine, dry sherry or beer.

What to drink: Cuban light rums, mixed in national cocktails cuba libre (rum and cola) and mojito (rum, lime, sugar, salt, mint leaves, club soda and ice).

Best place to eat: The best Cuban food is often found at the paladares, unofficial restaurants run in private homes and not endorsed by the government. One option is La Cocina De Lilliam in Playa, Havana.

Where to study: Cuba’s Universidad de la Habana leads its six institutions in the QS Latin America University Tops 2018, appearing in 51st place.

Image sources:  (encebollado).

This article was originally published in June 2014. It was updated in October 2017.

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