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National dishes of Latin America

These Mighty meals from Central and South America are rich in history and flavor.

By Maddie Bane

From Argentina to Venezuela, every country in Latin America celebrates a popular dish that makes diners enthusiastically exclaim ¡Qué rica comida! Apps and entrees prepared with rice and beans, peppers and chillies, plantains and quinoa and beef and fish pack a punch with every bite. No matter the calorie count, portion size or serving style, these native dishes are as rich in history as they are in flavor.


Argentina 

Asados

The dish: Asados is Argentina’s version of barbecue. An asado usually consists of beef, pork, chicken, chorizo and morcilla which are cooked on a grill, called a parrilla, or an open fire. The meat is typically served with Chimichurri sauce. 

The history: Gauchos, travelling horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries, are credited with this creation. Due to its lack of smoke, they would roast beef over wood from the quebracho tree, which gave the meat a very rich flavor. A skewered metal tool called an asador was used to cook the beef close to the slow-burning fire. 

How to make it: For an at-home version of the cooking technique to get the most similar flavor, you can create a fire using charcoal, wood and paper. The meat should cook at a low heat, taking anywhere between one and two hours to finish.


Bolivia 

Salteñas

The dish: Made with beef, pork or chicken, this type of baked empanada is typically filled with a sweet and spicy gravy, boiled eggs, peas, carrots and potatoes. There are also vegetarian versions. 

The history: Salta native Juana Manuela Gorriti is credited with creating the salteña. She came up with this recipe to support her family who were living in extreme poverty. A common phrase said to kids was, “Ve y recoge una empanada de la salteña,” meaning, “Go and pick up an empanada from the woman from Salta.” 

How to make it: After getting all of the veggies and meat cooked, you’ll add it into a gelatin mix, similar to making a pie filling. Once that’s cooled, add it into the oval-shaped dough and fold the edges over to keep the filling secure. 


Brazil 

Feijoada

The dish: Brazil’s traditional dish is a stew made with beans, pork, beef or other meat. The meat is usually salted and smoked. 

The history: It’s said that Feijoada was created by enslaved persons in Brazil. The leftovers they were given for dinner were usually a mixture of some kind of beans and meat, thus creating the stew. 

How to make it: If making this dish at home, be sure to simmer the black beans for at least an hour and a half to get them to the right tenderness. Tomatoes, onion and garlic are tasty ingredients to add.


Chile 

Pastel de Choclo

The dish: A beef and corn casserole is Chile’s traditional dish. Ingredients include corn, basil, ground beef and various spices.

The history: According to some anthropologists, this dish was created when tribal cooks were hired by Spanish conquerors to cook food that reminded them of home. The cooks implemented a corn dough to be similar to empanadas. 

How to make it: After cooking the corn in milk, basil, salt, pepper and paprika, add in cornstarch and use a hand mixer to create a slightly thick consistency. This will be poured on top of the meat and topped with a little bit of sugar before baking. 


Colombia 

Bandeja paisa

The dish: A typical meal popular in Colombian cuisine. The main characteristic of this dish is the generous amount and variety of food in a traditional bandeja paisa: red beans cooked with pork, white rice, ground meat, fried pork belly, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, arepa, hogao sauce, black pudding, avocado and lemon. It is served on a platter or a tray.

The history: The origin of the bandeja paisa was influenced by several different cultures that inhabited Colombia throughout the centuries, including the indigenous peoples of Colombia, as well as colonial Spaniards and Africans. In the 19th century French and British colonialists also brought their cuisine with them.

How to make it: To create an authentic flavor for the meat, rub pork belly with salt, sugar and cumin and then chill for six to 12 hours. Bake at a high heat for about 30 minutes, followed by a low heat for a little over an hour. This will give it a very juicy and tender texture. 


Costa Rica 

Gallo Pinto

The dish: This dish gets its name from the speckled black and white color in appearance. Gallo pinto translates to “spotted hen.” It’s popular across the country and is immensely enjoyed due to its incorporation of fresh ginger and other spices. 

The history: It’s said by Costa Ricans that this recipe was created in the 1930s right outside of San Jose, although there are several variations in neighboring countries that lay claim to the dish, as well. 

How to make it: The ingredients are pretty basic — olive oil, onion, minced garlic, white rice, black beans, cumin, coriander, fresh ginger, worcestershire sauce, black pepper, cilantro and tomato. Be sure to keep the tomatoes and cilantro uncooked, though. 


Cuba 

Ropa Vieja

The dish: A household staple, this meal usually consists of a mix of shredded meat, rice and various vegetables. Recipes can call for flank steak, tomato sauce, onion, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, fresh cilantro, olive oil and white wine vinegar. 

The history: The name of this dish translates to “old clothes.” This is due to the legend that a poor old man shredded and cooked his clothes in order to feed his family. The simmering clothes transformed into meat and vegetables, just as the man prayed they would. 

How to make it: Brown the steak for about four minutes on each side before transferring it into the slow cooker. Add in a mixture of vegetables and spices to get the flavor packing.


Dominican Republic 

La Bandera

The dish: Named after their flag, the Dominican Republic dish is composed of Dominican rice and beans with chicken. The red is represented by the beans, the white is represented by the rice, and the third color is represented by the meat. There is also always a type of salad that goes with the meal. 

The history: This basic lunchtime meal is linked with the national flag to show that food is thought of as a part of Dominican Republic’s identity. The name represents pride, patriotism and nostalgia.

How to make it: Traditional Dominican beans are usually made with red beans, chicken stock, canola oil, tomato paste, celery, red onion, oregano, apple cider vinegar, parsley, garlic and lime juice. 


Ecuador 

Ecuadorian Ceviche

The dish: Popular in many Latin American countries, Ecuador’s ceviche has taken on an identity of its own. It’s soup-like and is served with fried plantain chips, as opposed to Peru’s ceviche which is drier and served with cooked potato slices. 

The history: Peru, Ecuador’s neighbor, is credited with the invention of ceviche. They would mix fresh seafood with fruity marinades. As more Spanish started to arrive in the region, they planted several citrus fruit plants. That’s when the dish started being made with citric foods. 

How to make it: The dish calls for peeled shrimp, lime juice, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, olive oil, orange juice, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to serve cold. 


El Salvador 

Pupusa

The dish: Pupusas are small, round corncakes that are similar to a pancake. They are typically filled with cheese, beans or meat. 

The history: Historians believe that this Ecuadorian dish was invented by the Pipil Indians in pre-colonial times. Since then, it has spread throughout neighboring countries and regions. The dish actually has its own holiday. The second Sunday of November is National Pupusa Day. 

How to make it: Cornmeal flour is a must to create this recipe. Once you get the dough made, the options for the filling are endless — braised meats, veggies, beans and cheese. 


Guatemala 

Pepián

The dish: Pepián is a spicy stew, typically made with chicken, beef or pork. It’s thick and loaded with spices and fruits and vegetables such as pears, squash, carrots, potatoes and corn on the cob. Rice and tortillas are included as sides. 

The history: It’s one of the oldest dishes in Guatemala. It was typically served at major religious and political ceremonies and rituals. 

How to make it: A traditional recipe might call for a whole chicken, onions, guaque chillies, pasa chillies, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, black pepper, roma tomatoes, cinnamon, squash and potatoes. 


Honduras 

Plato Típico

The dish: This Honduran dish consists of marinated beef, pork sausage, cracklings, fried plantain, stewed or refried beans and rice. It’s usually served with sour cream, fresh white cheese, avocado slices, marinated cabbage, lime juice and tiny tortillas. 

The history:Plato típico is usually served for a social event with drinks and music centered on a feast of barbecued meat. Honduran cuisine is a fusion of Mesoamerican (Lenca), Spanish, Caribbean and African cuisines.

How to make it: Several tiny plates are involved, or you can load everything onto one plate charcuterie-style. Don’t forget the tortillas that you can load everything onto. The cuts of beef are usually marinated in sour orange juice, salt, pepper and spices.


Mexico 

Mole

The dish: There are several variations of this sauce, but traditionally it’s made out of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin and chocolate.

The history: Mole has become a culinary symbol of Mexico’s mixed indigenous and European heritage. It’s said that a convent in Puebla created it with the few ingredients they had when the archbishop was visiting. 

How to make it: If you decide to make it at home, hot chiles and rich dark chocolate are a must to make it authentic. Use it to top off stewed meats or enchiladas. 


Nicaragua 

Gallo Pinto

The dish: A staple of the Nicaraguan diet, this dish usually consists of rice, beans, cilantro, peppers, and spices and is typically served as a part of breakfast. 

The history: Just like Costa Rica’s gallo pinto, it’s said that this recipe was created in the 1930s right outside of San Jose, although there are several variations in neighboring countries that claim fame to the dish as well. 

How to make it: Black beans, white rice, chicken broth and several spices will create this simple yet delicious Nicaraguan recipe that will go perfectly with a breakfast dish.  


Panama 

Sancocho de Gallina Panameño

The dish: The signature soup is enjoyed for almost every meal in Panama — breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack. A mixture of cilantro, chicken, corn cob, root vegetables, pepper, garlic and onion create this flavor-packed dish. 

The history: Sancocho de Gallina Panameño was created in the Azuero region. It’s almost viewed as an elixir by consumers. Panamanians will actually eat a bowl of the hot soup on hot days and swear it cools them off. 

How to make it: To eat it the traditional way, rice needs to be served on the side. You could even add it into the soup. Fried plantain chips is another ingredient that Panamanians enjoy with this meal. 


Paraguay 

Sopa Paraguaya

The dish: Similar to cornbread, the recipe consists of corn flour, cheese, milk and onions. 

The history: In the 19th century when the president of Paraguay was making a visit to a certain region of the country, a chef was making a white soup for him, but added too much corn flour. This caused it to become more of a batter, which he then decided to cook in a clay and adobe oven. Impressed by it, President Don Carlos Antonio Lopez named it sopa Paraguaya, translating to “Paraguayan soup.” 

How to make it: Mozzarella and parmesan cheese will give it an authentic flavor. Sopa Paraguaya is typically served as a side with meats and soups.


Peru 

Peruvian Ceviche

The dish: Typically using raw fresh fish, Peruvian ceviche is prepared with lime juice, onions, yellow pepper, sweet potatoes, corn, garlic and cilantro. 

The history: It’s said that the Moche are responsible for creating ceviche. The Moche was a coastal civilization that flourished in what is now northern Peru almost 2,000 years ago. 

How to make it: Marinating time will make a difference when making ceviche. It will depend on the size of the seafood, but 30 minutes to an hour will give the best results. Anything longer than two hours will have more of a pickling effect. 


Puerto Rico 

Arroz con Gandules

The dish: The signature Puerto Rican dish is created with a combination of rice, pigeon peas, and pork, cooked in the same pot with sofrito (recao, cilantro, onions, garlic, aji dulce peppers, cubanelle peppers, and roasted tomatoes).

The history: Arroz con Gandules is typically served as a traditional dish on holidays. When Puerto Ricans were recruited to Hawaii’s sugar plantations, they brought back a large shrub that produced the gandule bean. 

How to make it: To give it the most authentic flavor, sofrito is vital when seasoning the rice. All ingredients are cooked in the same pot. 


Uruguay 

Chivito

The dish: A Chivito sandwich in Uruguay contains thinly sliced steak, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and olives in between a soft bun. Sometimes ham, bacon, or a hard-boiled or fried egg will be added. 

The history: An Argentinian tourist was visiting Uruguay and one day at a restaurant he asked for a sandwich with “chivo,” meaning goat meat. The restaurant didn’t serve that type of meat, but they didn’t want to lose a customer. The chef whipped up what the sandwich is today and told the tourist that it was meat from a “chivito,” little goat. 

How to make it: Be sure to toast the bun with some butter on it to make it extra delicious. The sandwich is often served with french fries. 


Venezuela 

Pabellón Criollo

The dish: This dish is Venezuela’s version of rice and beans. It consists of white rice, shredded beef, fried plantains and stewed black beans. 

The history: It’s unclear when or how this traditional meal came to be, but there are a few theories as to what it represents. Some say that the colors mimic the Venezuelan flag, while others say that each ingredient represents different ethnic groups that settled in the area — indigenous people, Europeans and Africans.

How to make it: To get an authentic flavor, be sure to marinate the meat for at least 12 hours in olive oil and spices such as paprika, turmeric, cumin, salt and black pepper.