When discussing South American food, it's best to separate the continent into four broad gastronomic regions.
Northwestern South America, especially the Andean Mountain nations of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, boasts some of the most exotic food in Latin America. Potatoes and the highly nutritious grain quinoa originated here and still play major roles in the cuisine. Peru alone boasts more than 100 different potato varieties, including a blue (actually, it's lavender) potato that has become the darling of trendy chefs in North America. Peru also has some of the spiciest food in South America. The preferred seasoning here is the aji amarillo, a fiery yellow chile that adds bite to everything from caucau (seafood stew) to papas a la huancaina (spicy, cheesy potato salad). A large Japanese community has also influenced Peruvian cooking.
North Central South America―in particular Colombia and Venezuela―displays a Spanish influence. The Spanish settled early here, and many of the most dominant seasonings of the region―cumin, oregano, cinnamon, and anise―came directly from Spain. For that matter, so did the local enthusiasm for fresh orange and lime juices and for the ancient Mediterranean flavors of wine and olive oil. Many dishes in northeastern South America, such as tamales, feature a contrast of sweet and salty tastes (in the form of raisins, prunes, capers, and olives). Plus, the combination of Spanish rice and Venezuela's superb seafood gives rise to some of the world's best paella.
Southern South America comprises Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. This is cattle country, and the locals enjoy luscious grass-fed beef in the form of asados, large cuts roasted in front of a campfire, and parrilladas, thick, juicy steaks grilled on a gridiron over blazing oak. And though the accompaniments are quite simple, they're intensely flavorful: a tomato, onion, and pepper relish known as salsa criolla and a pestolike parsley, garlic, and vinegar sauce called Chimichurri. But there's more to the region's gastronomy than just beef. Consider Sopa Paraguaya, a Paraguayan corn bread that closely resembles North American corn pudding. Chile, with 2,650 miles of Pacific coastline, is a haven for fish lovers. Chilean caldillo de congrio (conger eel soup) can hold its own next to the finest New England chowder.
Brazil's cuisine is as diverse as its population. Portuguese settlers popularized such European ingredients as olives, onions, garlic, wine, and bacalhau (salt cod). The natives of Brazil's rain forests taught the Europeans how to enjoy such exotic tropical vegetables and fruits as madioca (cassava root), maracuja (passion fruit), and caju (cashew fruit). African slaves contributed okra, yams, peanuts, dried shrimp, and dende (palm oil) to the Brazilian melting pot, not to mention a passion for fiery malagueta chile peppers. Their influence lives on in the popular Moqueca de Peixe, a sort of bouillabaisse from the state of Bahia in northern Brazil, flavored with garlic, cilantro, and coconut milk.
Few regions of the world boast such a rich culinary tradition as South America. And if trends continue, more of its foods will go from humble to high chic as Americans discover just how incredible Latin flavors can be.