Food & drink

Top 5 cities for food-focused travel in South America

Brazilian haggis, anyone? Hands up for roasted guinea pig?

Martin Dickie

BY Martin Dickie15 March 2017

Lately, it seems ceviche has nudged sashimi off every urban hotspot menu, and more people in the West are able to pronounce feijoada than ever before. We’ve taken note, which is why we’re counting down our five favourite South American cities for culinary exploration, with a spotlight on restaurants that draw influence from Amazonian ingredients and hearty Andean staples, as well as indigenous, colonial and global fusions. The continent is bursting with meaty eats and fresh-fish mainstays, from velvet-soft Colombian sea bass, Brazil’s tear-shaped coxinha (so tempting we’ve devoted a whole article to it) to Argentina’s melt-in-your-mouth beef (coupled, of course, with a glass of Mendoza’s finest Malbec).

São Paulo, Brazil
Sure, Rio has the beaches, the nightlife and the scenery, but discerning eaters will find more to please the palate in São Paulo, Brazil’s cosmopolitan hub and the biggest city on the continent. Feijoada, the black bean and pork stew considered ‘soul food’ by paulistanos, is Brazil’s national dish. You can wash it down with cachaça, a distilled spirit made from sugar-cane juice, at soccer-obsessed Sao Cristovao in trendy Vila Madalena. If it’s sins of the flesh you seek, head to Galinhada do Bahia in Canindé for buchada. Distant cousin of the haggis, buchada is goat stomach stuffed with organs, sewn up and slow-roasted. Augment shopping sprees on Paulista Avenue or in the Mercadao, São Paulo’s municipal market, with empanadas, meat-packed, pocket-sized patties of joy. For something more exotic, Tordesilhas in Jardins specialises in tacacá, a refreshing Amazonian soup made with cassava, jambu (a deliciously tongue-numbing flowering herb), shrimp and peppers.

Quito, Ecuador
Hot on the heels of culinary heavyweights such as Cartagena and Buenos Aires, Quito is the epicentre of Ecuador’s wholesome, home-cooked style, but also where tastemaker chefs are reinventing the country’s classic cuisine. Try Ecuadorian favourite encebollado, a zingy soup of tuna, cassava, tomato and pickled red onion, or fanesca, a heart-warming combination of sambo (figleaf gourd), pumpkin, plantain and twelve types of bean, popular during meat-free Holy Week. Don’t miss the deep-fried sea bass over bowls of ceviche at Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, upstairs in the Mercado Central, or the llapingacho – fried potato cakes with peanut sauce – at La Choza in up-and-coming La Florista. However, Casa Gangotena, the Mr & Mrs Smith-approved Old Town hotel, is home to one of the city’s most forward-thinking restaurants. At Cedron, Andean staples such as llama cutlets are given a twist in the form of relleno de llama – a spicy leek and llama bake – doubly satisfying when paired with Ecuadorian brown ale.

3 Cartagena, Colombia
Historic, coastal Cartagena draws its culinary influence from central Colombia’s rural fare and the chili and seafood flavours of the Caribbean. Bandeja paisa is a national dish to rival the full English breakfast (and, like its Britannic cousin, eaten any time of the day), consisting of red beans, pork, mince, chorizo, hogao sauce (Colombia’s answer to sofrito), avocado and lemon. It may have a delightful moniker, but sopa de mondongo is a thick soup of pork sausage and beef tripe that sits heavy on the stomach. Instead, follow your feet across Cartagena’s cobbles to La Cevichería, one of the continent’s finest fish restaurants. The menu is ever-changing, but ask for the catch-of-the-day ceviche with coconut and lime if you’re after a cooling respite from the heat. For your sweet, there’s arequipe, Colombia’s answer to dulce de leche and the irresistible mortar to the biscuit and sponge brickwork at Ely Gourmet, Cartagena’s purveyor of finely constructed cakes.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
The word you must know in Buenos Aires isn’t ‘steak’; it’s asado, the medley of grilled delicacies of which sirloins are just one meaty ingredient. Alongside bife de chorizo (top loin steak – not to be confused with chorizo sausage), you’ll find morcilla (blood sausage), chinchulines (chitterlings) and costillas (ribs), all ritually grilled on park or riverside barbecues and in parillas from La Boca to Palermo. Don’t forget to top your bife with herby chimichurri sauce (the more the better), and as for the top asado restaurant in town, San Telmo’s El Maipú and Don Julio in Palermo are widely regarded as the best. A majority of porteños are Italian by origin, meaning pizza has evolved a character all its own. Piled high with toppings, the most generous slices are at Centro’s El Cuartito. Malbecs are plentiful in the capital – we recommend staying at Francis Ford Coppola’s Be Jardin Escondido hotel; the Godfather director stocks wines from his personal vineyards in Mendoza.

Cusco, Peru
The world is waking up to Peruvian cooking – take restaurants Raymi in New York and London’s Coya as fine examples – but to visit Cusco is to have the tastebuds of some imagined inner Inca awakened. The city that promises adventures in the Sacred Valley also promises dishes perfected before the colonial presence of the Spanish. Solterito, for instance, is a refreshing Andean corn, fava bean and chili pepper salad that works wonders as a starter. You’ll notice corn far larger than is found in Europe or North America, testament to the Inca’s impressive cultivation methods. These milky kernels, eaten one at a time with salty, white local cheese, are an excellent snack. Peru, of course, is the best place in the world for ceviche, but for meatier treats, there’s anticuchos, which are beef skewers coated in ground peanuts and roasted yellow aji (a spicy, coriander-laced chili sauce), and lomo saltado, a beef stir fry inspired by relations with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. You won’t find a lamb sat on Jesus’s platter in Cusco Cathedral’s Last Supper triptych – that’s a guinea pig, or cuy, a dish feasted on during birthdays and religious festivals in Peru. Cooked badly, it becomes tough and time-wasting – the little ribs can be more effort than they’re worth. Eat it well-cooked, and you go home with a culinary tale to tell the grandchildren. The terrace of Cusco hotel Inkaterra La Casona is a fine spot for sampling the freshest Andean trout (on hand-made terracotta plates designed by the owners). It’s also a serene spot for sipping one of the finest pisco sours in Peru. But eating out is Cusco’s main event, at defining restaurants such as Morena, with its impassioned take on Peruvian classics, or Uchu, where the exquisite beef and llama steaks are laid out on a tile of slate for your dissection.

Featured image is Estancia la Bamba de Areco in Buenos Aires province, Argentina