South America is a continent of explosive flavors and culinary sophistication, yet most North Americans know next to nothing about its cooking.
That's starting to change, thanks to the arrival in the United States of Peruvian seviche bars, Argentinean steak houses, and Brazilian churrascarias. But most of us would be hard pressed to name a single culinary specialty of, say, Chile, Bolivia, or Paraguay--those regions remain a gastronomic terra incognita. It's high time to discover the lands that gave us chimichurri, caipirinhas, and pisco sours.
South America is home to nearly half a billion people living in the 16 countries between the steamy jungles of Colombia and the icy shores of Tierra del Fuego. The region includes more than a dozen different climatic, topographic, and geologic zones, ranging from snow-capped mountains to tropical rain forests, grassy plains, palm-fringed Caribbean beaches, and cactus-studded deserts.
Depending on where you live in South America, you might eat fruits and coconuts cultivated at the ocean's edge or grains grown a mile above sea level. Your seafood could come from the Atlantic, Pacific, or the Caribbean and might include commonplace shrimp or exotic conger eel. You might eat beef from some of the world's most prized cattle, or you might eat guinea fowl (or even guinea pig). Dessert could range from familiar flans and crepes to exotic tropical fruits. And you might wash them down with chicha (Peruvian corn "beer") or world-class wine from Argentina or Chile.
Many in the United States are tempted to lump the continent's cuisines together, but there's as much difference between, say, Peruvian, Brazilian, and Argentinean cooking as there is between Italian, French, and German cuisines. Part of the confusion lies in the fact that much of South America shares a similar set of ingredients and a common language for talking about them. (The same dish or ingredient, however, often has many different names.)
Steven Raichlen is the award-winning author of The Barbecue Bible, Miami Spice, The Caribbean Pantry Cookbook, and Steven Raichlen's Healthy Latin Cooking. For many years, he directed the Cooking in Paradise Cooking School in St. Barthelemy, French West Indies. He now runs a "barbecue university" at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. He can be reached through his Web site, www.barbecuebible.com.