Street treats by the boat loads, Latin America is all about packing their carts with home cookin'. Don't let your crappy Spanish deter you from tasting what Latin America's peddling. While you were carefully removing the “lish” out of your Spanglish, OTP got your Latin American street food all figured out.
A cold dish comprised of raw fish marinated in lime juice, red pepper, onion, cilantro, and sometimes fruit like mango, ceviche kicks sushi’s ass all the way back to Asia. The fish is never actually cooked—when it’s marinated, acidity from the citrus “cooks” it. The killer combo of fresh fish and strong flavors gets rid of any hint of “fishiness,” so even seafood-a-phobes can shovel it down fearlessly. A refreshing change-up from gobs of fried meat and tortillas, ceviche is a favorite in coastal cities. Different countries vary in their traditional presentations and it's sometimes served in its juices like a soup, while other times as the “meat” on a stacked plate, or with tomato sauce. The greatest varieties are found in Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Whether baked or fried, corn or flour, these stuffed pastries are a little slice of Latin American heaven. So widely available, you'll probably be offered empanadas on bus rides from locals who board to sell them alongside ripped DVDs. These little tasty suckers come in a multitude of flavors across the board. Colombians typically stuff theirs with meat, potatoes, peas and cheese. Cubans prefer meat alone, while Costa Ricans often add beans. You can find cheese and sugar empanadas on just about every street corner in Ecuador. Some vendors prefer to stuff with fruit, and if you can handle all that dough, you can have an empanada for dinner AND dessert.
There are usually bones mixed in the empanada stuffing, especially in rural or financially downtrodden areas. Learn the Heimlich for skeletal misadventures.
Plantain trees are plentiful and grow all over Latin America, making their fruit a staple just about anywhere you go. When green, the plantain is cooked like a potato, and made into Tostones, or Patacones, which are more or less the Latin American version of the potato chip. You’ll usually get a patacone with a standard almuerzo, kind of like a bread basket in France. They’re usually really salty, and taste nothing like you thought the banana-looking plantains would. When ripe, plantains are fried to make platanos maduro. Think caramelized bananas, but sweeter, thicker, and juicier—like everything else in Latin America. Putting IHOP into the depths of shame, the best thing these guys do with plantains is a pancake-like treat made from maduros known as maduro lampreado.
Tamales are made from cornmeal dough and stuffed up with a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies before getting wrapped up in a plantain leaf and boiled. They can be kind of soggy but spiced-up authentically right, you shouldn't let the texture stand in your way of good eats. Tamales are usually organized in street carts by the meat that’s inside, so knowing a few Spanish translations, such as “pollo”( chicken) and “ carne de cerdo” (pork), can be key in picking out your tamale soulmate. Like empanadas, tamales can be made sweet and are especially popular around Christmas time.
A milky drink, usually served warm, this delicious treat is all the best memories of teat-sucking childhood blended into an alcohol-free cocktail guaranteed to cure even the worst homesick-blues. While some recipes call for milk, most horchata is actually made from rice and sesame seeds (great for lacto-tards) and flavored with a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla, nuts and sugar.
Originally a Spanish dessert that was traditionally served with a chocolate dipping sauce, churros are now the funnel cake of Latin America, found on the street and at carnivals just about everywhere. They’re just simple fried pastry dough, usually coated in sugar and sometimes filled with dulce de leche, chocolate or fruit. A crispy stick of gooey-centered sunshine, no doubt they’re well worth the enormous calorie intake and the stomachache that follows.
Simple dishes such as arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), gallo pinto (spiced rice and beans cooked together),and arroz y frijoles (simple beans and rice) are sold by street vendors all over Latin America. Easier to identify, and equally as common, are carne asada (grilled meat) and pollo frito (fried chicken). Pan Dulce, sweet bread, is also commonly sold on the roadside by small-statured abuelitas (grandmas). These traditional simple meals are hearty, authentic and easy to swallow.
As you work your way through this yummy list, bear in mind that some foods have names that vary slightly depending on what country you’re in. If a name is off by a few letters or has been compounded with another word, chances are it’s the same dish with a local twinge. A churro by any other name would still taste as sweet. Once this stuff hits your digestive tract, make sure to show the cook your gratitude—and don’t hesitate to say it a few times: “Que rico!”