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Experience the burning passion, vibrant color, and strong sense of community of one of the world’s most vast and diverse regions with these foods to try in Latin America, taking you on a culinary adventure from the bustling streets of Chihuahua to the sweeping coastline of Ushuaia.
Food is so much more than nutrition in Latin America: it is family, community, and pride, and that raw passion and pure love for food comes through in spades in all of the dishes we are about to discover together.
I’m fully aware you could spend a lifetime trying Latin American food and still not get a taste of it all, but these 24 iconic, beloved, and often multi-country dishes are a wonderful introduction to the cuisine of this beautiful region – knives, forks, spoons, fingers, and whatever else you have to get this food in your mouth at the ready!
Foods to Try in Latin America
1 – Chipa
Chipa is an exciting, cheesy, gooey, little bread roll that goes by many different names across Latin America. It’s a popular breakfast item and snack that is often seen being handed out by vendors at streetside stands.
Having originated in Paraguay, it was not long before Bolivia and Argentina also started to bake these inexpensive cheese-flavored rolls. They are also similar to Colombia’s pan de queso and Brazil’s pao de queijo. Bolivians know them as cuñapé, and their recipe calls for tapioca flour, whereas Argentinians call them chipá (with the accent mark on the ‘a’) and use tapioca and regular flour. Paraguayans, however, use cassava and corn flour.
This is an everyday snack in many parts of Latin America because cassava and tapioca flour are easy to find over there; however, in our nation, this flour is rather hard to get a hold of and can be expensive.
Read more: 15 Tasty Paraguayan Foods to Try
2 – Empanadas
Empanadas are a delicacy that can be found basically across all of Latin America. They come in a multitude of beautiful variations which let the rest of the world know just how diverse and talented Latin American culture is!
The differences between variations are usually in both the type of flour that is used and the empanada filling. In Venezuela and Colombia, for instance, empanadas are made with corn flour. In some Caribbean cuisines, plantain or yuca can be used as the starch since these ingredients are easier for them to find there.
In Argentina, the dough is sometimes made with milk, giving it a creamier consistency. In Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, the dough is made of sweet plantains, and they are sometimes even stuffed with custard-like fillings and served as dessert!
3 – Plátanos Maduros Fritos
Sweet fried plantains, or plátanos maduros fritos, are a relatively easy appetizer or side order to make and are popular in virtually all Latin American countries. Depending on where they’re made, they’re sometimes consumed for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner.
Mostly, fried plantains tend to be prepared in the same with, with the plantains sliced diagonally into half-inch thick chunks and then fried in oil. The difference, however, is in how they are served after they are fried.
In Costa Rica, for example, they are sometimes enjoyed as a dessert by being sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. They are also very popular in Cuba but are eaten as is after being fried. Other countries, like Ecuador, sprinkle cheese over them to enjoy sweet and salty.
Related: 20 Cuban Foods You Need in Your Life
4 – Tajadas
Tajadas are very similar to plátanos maduros fritos but are better known to be enjoyed in Venezuela in a slightly different way. They are made from the same sweet plantains, but instead of being cut into thick chunks, they are sliced more thinly, hence named after the word tajada, meaning “slice.”
Tajadas are still fried in hot oil and sometimes sprinkled with cheese and/or salt, but the differences across Latin American countries are more often seen among what dishes they are paired with.
They are often served in Venezuela with their national dish, pabellón criollo. In Costa Rica, they are eaten with natilla (custard) and queso blanco (soft, crumbly, fresh white cheese) on top. In Colombia, they are served with rice, beans, and meat. Tajadas are also loved in Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and many other countries.
5 – Croquettes
Croquettes are known to be a Spanish and Cuban household staple, but there are so many unique ways they can be made. They are little dumpling-like, breadcrumbed, fried rolls of different fillings.
The outer layer is typically always made using béchamel sauce (olive oil, milk, flour, and butter), but the inside is where they are often different across various regions. In Spain, the original croquette is filled with Serrano or Iberian ham, so many Latin countries do the same.
In Brazil, however, they are sometimes made with a creamy chicken salad filling, and Cubans and Puerto Ricans like to fill them up with several different ingredients, like fish, cheese, and beef. There are croquettes to suit all tastes and preferences, no matter where you travel in Latin America.
6 – Churrasco
In the United States, many associate churrasco with a specific cut of meat grilled to juicy perfection and normally served with chimichurri sauce at a barbecue event or steakhouse. However, across Latin America, the term can refer to many different things.
In Uruguay, it is a very thinly sliced cut of beef that is typically grilled over hot coals. In Chile, also a thin cut, they are served in sandwiches with avocadoes and tomatoes or accompanied by French fries and fried eggs.
Then in Guatemala, churrasco is served quite often at family gatherings and events and almost always with corn, rice, beans, tortillas, guacamole, and chirmol, which is a fresh tomato sauce with onions and cilantro.
Related: 14 Chilean Foods You Need to Try
7 – Tamales
Tamales are thought to date back as early as 8000 BC in Mesoamerica. Today, tamales are a huge part of many parties and gatherings and can be found in many different restaurants across the region. They are commonly made from pressed corn and meat wrapped in leaves.
What makes tamales unique is all the incredible ways that they can be customized based on the regions and their traditions. In Mexico, for example, they use marinated chicken or pork and a red or green chili sauce. Cubans make it similar to how Mexicans do, but they also have a variation called tamal en cazuela, which is a tamale casserole.
In the Dominican Republic, they like to include kabocha squash and malanga in the list of ingredients. Yet no matter which way, a tamale made from the hands of a Latin American is always going to be delicious!
8 – Arepas
Arepas can sometimes become a little confusing because some countries recognize them as a different dish compared to others. Where they are most popular, in Colombia and Venezuela, arepas are round-shaped corn cakes.
Arepas can be grilled or fried and are often filled with vegetables, meat, cheese, and more. Many enjoy arepas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even as a snack or side dish, but mainly as an entrée.
Although there seems to be a friendly debate between Venezuela and Colombia regarding where arepas originated from, all versions across Latin America are definitely worth trying. Bolivia, for example, has a version of arepa made with yellow corn, while Puerto Rico even has one made of coconut dough!
9 – Pupusas
While pupusas may resemble arepas in terms of appearance, they are, in fact, thought to be of Salvadorian origin and can be made of rice dough, although they’re most often made with corn dough.
People like to eat them with curtido de repollo, which is a spicy seasoned cabbage mix. There are many popular fillings for pupusas, including shrimp, pork rind, cheese, jalapeño, squash, and more. They are also sometimes enjoyed with a delectable homemade tomato sauce.
In 2005, this food was declared the official national food of El Salvador, and it even has its own national day of recognition! Pupusas are also widely enjoyed in Honduras.
Related: 15 Foods to Try in El Salvador
10 – Anticuchos
Anticuchos are succulent beef skewers, similar to the Middle Eastern kebab, that are thought to originate from the Pre-Colombian era. They are prepared just as any kebabs are prepared, by placing the meat and other sausages and vegetables on metal skewers and placing them over a fire or on a grill.
In Peru, anticuchos are widely consumed and loved, especially in the month of July when their independence is celebrated by enjoying these and many other traditional foods. Bolivians like to prepare them with thin beef heart filets; these are one of their favorite treats to enjoy at night.
While anticuchos can be seen as an appetizer or snack, many enjoy them alongside other meats as an entrée.
11 – Papas con Cuero
Papas con cuero literally translates to “potatoes with leather,” but it could not be further from what one would imagine this tastes like! The dish consists of pig skin and cooked potatoes that are made into a warm, delicious broth, with one ingredient that few ever expect: one cup of peanut butter.
This isn’t added straight to the broth, though. The peanut butter is first mixed with milk and then added to a refried mixture of annatto oil, butter, garlic, and other ingredients, and is then poured into the cooked pork skin and left to finish cooking.
Normally served with white rice, papas con cuero has become an extremely popular and traditional dish in Ecuador because it is so economical and easy to prepare.
Related: 16 Foods to Try in Ecuador
12 – Asado
The multifunctional term, asado, refers to the general technique and event of having many different types of meat being barbecued and prepared on a grill. It’s extremely popular in various Latin American countries, like Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and more.
Asados are enjoyed at many steakhouses and restaurants in America, and the meats are traditionally complemented by wines and salads. It typically consists of chicken, pork, beef, morcilla (spiced blood sausage from Spain), and chorizo cooked on a parrilla (grill). Typically, the meats involved are not marinated, slow-cooked, and tend to only be salted right before the asado happens.
In Brazil, an asado is known as a churrasco, and the meats are cooked faster since they are cut into smaller pieces. In Chile, an entire roast lamb is normally served with pebre, a condiment similar to chimichurri. In Mexico, this is known as a parrillada, where various cuts of meats and vegetables are cooked over wood charcoal.
13 – Alfajor
Often considered Latin America’s favorite dessert, alfajores are perfect for those with a sweet tooth. An alfajor is essentially a cookie sandwich, consisting of a layer of thick dulce de leche in between two dry, round shortbread cookies that melt in your mouth.
The delightful treats, once assembled, are then covered in powdered sugar and are sometimes rolled in coconut. These little sweet cookies are extremely popular around the world and are believed by many to be the best cookie in the world – although I’m sure that’s a hotly debated topic!
14 – Arroz con Leche
Arroz con leche, or rice pudding, is an easy-to-make and beloved dessert in almost every Latin American country. With just a few ingredients needed, it’s no wonder that it’s a staple in many Latin households.
Whether it’s Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, or any other country in the region, arroz con leche in its many forms is found in basically every restaurant and bakery across the region. Some variations include dishes including raisins, mango, apples, berries, citrus zest, and so many more.
15 – Tres Leches
Tres leches, which translates to “three milks,” is another extremely popular dessert across Latin America. It’s a cake that is soaked in three different types of milk: condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream. It is normally topped with merengue and a cherry.
Depending on the region, it may have coconut milk substituted for one of the other types of milk. Other variations are called cuatro leches (four milks), cinco leches (five milks), and seis leches (six milks), but the most common and known is the tres leches. The origin of this wonderful dessert is not exactly known, but it is rumored that it came to be in the 19th century, possibly in Central America.
Related: 20 Mexican Desserts You Need to Try
16 – Flan
Flan is a soft, creamy custard covered in syrup. It doesn’t take many ingredients to make, often consisting of simply eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, and milk. It is believed that the Spanish introduced the flan to the indigenous Mesoamericans, and from there spread to all the other regions.
As it spread to each country, different adaptations appeared. Today, there are chocolate flans, coconut flans, cheese flans, and even coffee flans. In Puerto Rico, mango and sesame seed milk are often incorporated, whereas in Peru, using fruit flavors, like soursop and lucuma, are popular.
In Chile, quince jelly is sometimes used in their flan, while in Mexico, flan can be found everywhere, and they have a cream cheese variation.
17 – Churros
A churro is a fried dough stick that originates from Spain and Portugal. It’s a delightfully crunchy treat that is great for dipping into hot chocolate, café con leche (milk with coffee), and chocolate and caramel sauces.
Cubans are known to fill them with guava paste, while Argentinians and Mexicans fill them with dulce de leche. Venezuelans and Colombians, on the other hand, like to make them into a round, donut-like shape that is sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and condensed milk.
No matter where it’s enjoyed, it’s certainly a popular sweet treat and is enjoyed quite often during the holidays!
18 – Buñuelos
Buñuelos are fried dough fritters that are like churros but baked as balls instead of strips and can be sweet or salty depending on preference and region.
Nicaraguans, for example, like to make buñuelos from cassava, eggs, and grated white cheese and serve them with homemade sweet syrup. In the Dominican Republic, they are rolled into little balls and covered in a cinnamon sugar syrup made from using coconut milk.
Cubans like to fold them into a figure-8 shape and cover them in a caramel sauce made with anise. In Uruguay, they are made with bananas, apples, and other fruits; however, they also have a salty variation that is made with seaweed and spinach! Across Latin America, buñuelos are often consumed during the holidays and are seen as a sign of good luck.
Related: 17 Dominican Foods You Need to Try
19 – Horchata
Although horchata is greatly associated with Mexico, it can be appreciated and enjoyed across so many other Latin American countries, as well. In Mexico, it’s typically made from rice milk, cinnamon, and sugar.
In Puerto Rico, however, horchata de ajonjoli is enjoyed, which consists of rum, coconut milk, and ground sesame seeds. Ecuadorians create it from a red herbal tea made from flowers. In El Salvador and Honduras, their horchata is made from calabash seeds.
There really is no one way of making horchata, which is the beauty of having so many unique types to enjoy across all these regions!
20 – Mate
Mate is a caffeine-infused drink made from yerba mate leaves that have been dried out and then soaked in hot water. A metal straw, called a bombilla, is used as both a straw and a sieve that prevents the solids from passing through. The container in which the drink is served is also called mate.
Originally, only the Paraguayan natives enjoyed this hot drink, but later it became the national drink of three countries: Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Mate is also loved in Bolivia, Brazil, and Chile. Today, mate can be found in tea bags available throughout the region.
21 – Atole
Atole, also known as atol de elote, is a hot corn-based drink that dates back to the Mayan civilization. They would enjoy this as a breakfast drink alongside tamales. Different ingredients can be added to atole, like chocolate, orange, vanilla, or anise, depending on personal preference and region.
As it is an already rather thick drink, sometimes the milk is replaced by water because corn is known to make milk even more dense. This is a traditional drink that many Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians, and Mexicans enjoy every day.
22 – Aguas Frescas
Aguas frescas are refreshing, light, and colorful non-alcoholic drinks found across many countries, although they are the most popular in Mexico.
They can be made from countless fruits and flavors, like cantaloupe, watermelon, passion fruit, pear, soursop, cucumber, chia seeds, pineapple, and even alfalfa flowers.
These all-natural drinks can be enjoyed as is, or more sugar can be added if preferred. In Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras, they are known as just “frescos.”
Related: 14 Popular South American Fruits
23 – Canelazo
A canelazo is a hot alcoholic drink that is enjoyed in many mountainous regions, like Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Colombia. It’s a strong yet soul-warming drink that contains aguardiente (sugar cane alcohol), cinnamon, water, and sugar.
It is also a very popular drink to enjoy in the streets of these regions during the holidays and other traditional events. The liquor in canelazo helps the residents stay warm at such high heights where cold temperatures are prevalent, especially when the sun goes down.
24 – Rompope
Popular in many countries but with an origin that sparks debate, rompope is normally consumed during the holidays because of its similarity to eggnog. It’s typically made with milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, rum, and more, but some ingredients depend on which country is making it.
In Puerto Rico, it is called coquito and is made with coconut milk. In Venezuela, it is called ponche crema. Peruvians call it caspiroleta and make it with pisco (brandy). Chileans make it with coffee and call it cola de mono, or monkey’s tail. It can be served warm or cold, depending on personal preference.
Foods to Try in Latin America Summary
I genuinely believe there are few, if any, other regions on the planet that have such a deep love for and emotional connection to food quite like Latin America. Food is everything in our culture and is the foundation we build so much of our culture and connection on.
These 24 dishes will give you a wonderful and mouthwatering insight into the colors, textures, flavors, and diversity on offer in Latin American cuisine and should stoke your desire to try as many foods as you can, no matter where in the region you are visiting.
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Contributor: Jennifer Martinez is an avid creative writer, passionate about various topics, especially culture-specific foods and traditions in Latin America. As a food lover herself, she enjoys creating unique dishes in her free time.