South American Food & Cuisine: 10 Popular South American Dishes


Written by Shannon O’Donnell on

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and supports responsible tourism along the way, winning numerous awards for her work advocating for the communities impacted by travel and tourism.

Heading to South America? Get ready to indulge in these local delicacies. 

South American cuisine blends African, Spanish, and Portuguese cultures and foods to present travelers with unforgettable culinary experiences. Whether you favor sit-down dinners or on-the-go treats from street vendors, it’s a safe bet that you’ll find something to delight your taste buds no matter which country you visit. These 10 South American foods are some of the most popular—and delicious—ones to try throughout the continent. Are you ready to pack your bags yet?

1. Ceviche (Peru)

This popular South American dish got its start in Peru but has become widespread throughout the coast of both South and Central America. Fresh, raw seafood (usually some regions sort of white fish) is cured in citrus juice (lemon, lime, or Seville orange), spiked with some heat from chili peppers, and garnished with onion and cilantro. If you love sashimi, you’ll flip for this delicacy. And, if you can’t get enough of it, you can try this Peru-inspired ceviche recipe at home.

2. Arepas (Venezuela)

This flatbread sandwich made from ground maize dough or cooked flour can be filled with just about anything, from cheese to meat to eggs. Depending on where you go, the number of arepa varieties on a single menu can go into the double digits! The heartier options are sometimes eaten as a main-course, while smaller or less complex arepas make for perfect snacks.

3. Empanadas (Argentina)

This crispy, half-moon shaped pastry has a hot, savory filling of cheese, meat, or vegetables. In Argentina, every province has its own signature flavor. One is a snack, but two or three can make a meal.

4. Pisco Sour (Chile, Peru)

The Pisco Sour is a popular cocktail throughout South America, but it’s the national drink of both Chile and Peru. It is made with pisco, a brandy produced in both Chile and Peru, mixed with egg whites, Angostura bitters, lime juice, simple syrup, and ice. Variations on the Pisco Sour incorporate different fruit juices that change up the flavor. Many believe it’s the perfect accompaniment to ceviche, so be sure to try both when in Peru!

Pisco Sour

5. Yerba Maté (Argentina)

This tea made from the leaves of the South American rainforest holly tree is insanely popular in Argentina, where you’ll see just about everyone carrying around their own metal cup and straw filled with this invigorating, caffeinated brew. Maté is an acquired taste, but the drink is addictively tasty once you get used to it.

6. Pastel (Brazil)

Thinner than an empanada, the pastel is another crispy pastry stuffed with an assortment of ingredients. Popular fillings of these delicious fried pies included melted cheese, ground meat, hearts of palm, and small shrimp. Though pastel is usually a savory treat, it’s possible to find sweet varieties filled with things like guava jam or chocolate.

dulce de leche

7. Dulce de Leche (Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil)

The lusciously sweet dulce de leche is a popular confection that’s incorporated into many South American desserts. The milky caramel is made by simmering milk, sugar, and sometimes with vanilla, and served with everything from donuts and muffins to toast. It can be hard to find outside of South America, and many visitors who try it for the first time are instantly hooked. Be sure to bring some home to satisfy those post-vacation cravings! (Just pack it securely in your carry-on bag, of course.)

8. Brigadeiros (Brazil)

The brigadeiro is a chocolate truffle or bonbon native to Brazil. These delightful morsels are made from condensed milk, powdered chocolate, and butter, and covered with chocolate sprinkles—a chocoholic’s dream! 

9. Platanos Fritos (All of South America)

Fried plantains, or platanos fritos, are a quintessential South American delight. The soft texture just about melts in your mouth, and the crumbly burnt bits are beyond delicious. These delicious treats can be found pretty easily throughout South America.

10. Chorizo (Argentina)

Argentina is a nation of unabashed meat lovers, but chorizo stands out as one of the country’s most delicious and favorite meats. You can find this sausage on the menu at just about any Argentine restaurant, and its unique smoky scent will tempt you at every street stall. Chorizo has made its way around the world, but don’t miss the chance to try it in its native land.

Remember to declare any food you pack to bring across country lines, and check with customs to make sure you can bring your favorite treats back—especially fruits, veggies, and meat. And try online travel cooking classes when you get home to create all the new dishes you've discovered!

Foods to Try in South America: FAQs

What are some popular South American street foods?

If you love South American food, you'll enjoy some of these tasty treats from street vendors:

  • Churros
  • Arepas
  • Salchipapas
  • Tamales
  • Pupusas

What are some of the best cities to visit for food in South America?

If you're a self-proclaimed foodie, we recommend adding a few cities to your list to ensure your taste buds get the full South America experience. Here are some of the best cities known for South American cuisine:

  • Lima, Peru: Lima is the capital city of Peru, with the most popular dish being Ceviche. However, if you're not a seafood fan, you might try lomo saltado. Lomo saltado is a traditional South American dish made from stir fry combined with sirloin, onion, tomatoes, and other ingredients served on rice.
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina: Argentina is a country for meat lovers, so you'll find delicious foods like chorizo and steak just about anywhere in Buenos Aires.
  • Santiago, Chile: Santiago is where you'll find vineyards and delicious wine, but they also have delicious foods, such as empanadas, which are popular throughout South America. If you're traveling to Chile, we recommend reading our Chile travel tips to help you make the most out of your trip.
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Your Rio de Janeiro vacation will provide you with many food options. This city is a melting pot of cultures and food. Here, you can taste unique foods from around the world.

Are there any South American foods that are vegetarian/vegan-friendly?

While South American cuisine is known for its use of meat, several vegetarian/vegan-friendly options are available wherever you go. The best vegetarian South American foods include:

  • Arepas: Arepas are made from stuffed cornmeal cakes. As a staple in countries like Colombia and Venezuela, they're a great way for vegetarians to experience South America's food.
  • Vegetarian empanadas: Empanadas can be filled with just about anything, but you can forgo the meat and get one that consists of cheese and vegetables.
  • Ajiaco: Ajiaco is a classic Colombian, Peruvian, and Cuban soup made from potatoes, spices, and herbs.
  • Feijoada: Feijoada is a stew usually made with protein and beans. However, you can opt for the vegetarian feijoada with rice, citrus, vegetables, and spices.

Of course, these aren't your only options. Many popular South American dishes can be made vegetarian by removing the meat, so consider trying something new to delight your taste buds.

What are some must-try South American fruits and vegetables?

South American cuisine consists of many fruits and vegetables you can't get anywhere else. Some of the best South American fruits and vegetables to try include:

  • Avocado
  • Passion fruit
  • Araza (Amazonian Pear)
  • Curuva (Banana Passionfruit)
  • Papayuella (Mountain Papaya)
  • Yuca
  • Chuño (Potatoes)
  • Aji límo (Lemon Drop Pepper)