A culinary exploration of "the other America"
Credit: Randy Mayor

When discussing South American food, it's best to separate thecontinent into four broad gastronomic regions.

Northwestern South America, especially the Andean Mountainnations of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, boasts some of the mostexotic food in Latin America. Potatoes and the highly nutritiousgrain quinoa originated here and still play major roles in thecuisine. Peru alone boasts more than 100 different potatovarieties, including a blue (actually, it's lavender) potato thathas become the darling of trendy chefs in North America. Peru alsohas some of the spiciest food in South America. The preferredseasoning here is the aji amarillo, a fiery yellow chile that addsbite to everything from caucau (seafood stew) to papas a lahuancaina (spicy, cheesy potato salad). A large Japanese communityhas also influenced Peruvian cooking.

North Central South America―in particular Colombia andVenezuela―displays a Spanish influence. The Spanish settledearly here, and many of the most dominant seasonings of theregion―cumin, oregano, cinnamon, and anise―camedirectly from Spain. For that matter, so did the local enthusiasmfor fresh orange and lime juices and for the ancient Mediterraneanflavors of wine and olive oil. Many dishes in northeastern SouthAmerica, such as tamales,feature a contrast of sweet and salty tastes (in the form ofraisins, prunes, capers, and olives). Plus, the combination ofSpanish rice and Venezuela's superb seafood gives rise to some ofthe world's best paella.

Southern South America comprises Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, andUruguay. This is cattle country, and the locals enjoy lusciousgrass-fed beef in the form of asados, large cuts roasted in frontof a campfire, and parrilladas, thick, juicy steaks grilled on agridiron over blazing oak. And though the accompaniments are quitesimple, they're intensely flavorful: a tomato, onion, and pepperrelish known as salsa criolla and a pestolike parsley, garlic, andvinegar sauce called Chimichurri.But there's more to the region's gastronomy than just beef.Consider SopaParaguaya, a Paraguayan corn bread that closely resembles NorthAmerican corn pudding. Chile, with 2,650 miles of Pacificcoastline, is a haven for fish lovers. Chilean caldillo de congrio(conger eel soup) can hold its own next to the finest New Englandchowder.

Brazil's cuisine is as diverse as its population. Portuguesesettlers popularized such European ingredients as olives, onions,garlic, wine, and bacalhau (salt cod). The natives of Brazil's rainforests taught the Europeans how to enjoy such exotic tropicalvegetables and fruits as madioca (cassava root), maracuja (passionfruit), and caju (cashew fruit). African slaves contributed okra,yams, peanuts, dried shrimp, and dende (palm oil) to the Brazilianmelting pot, not to mention a passion for fiery malagueta chilepeppers. Their influence lives on in the popular Moquecade Peixe, a sort of bouillabaisse from the state of Bahia innorthern Brazil, flavored with garlic, cilantro, and coconutmilk.

Few regions of the world boast such a rich culinary tradition asSouth America. And if trends continue, more of its foods will gofrom humble to high chic as Americans discover just how incredibleLatin flavors can be.