The Joys Of Eating In Latin America
I am not joking here. Latin America food really gives you wings, and no I am not referring to anything amazing I have seen or done (and there has been plenty), nor to the famous Red Bull commercial. I am referring to food. Yes I know, as an Italian, I am picky about my food. Italians are generally used to eating very good food – from plain bread and sandwiches, to pasta, pizza, seafood, vegetables, meat and what not, we are all about great quality, anywhere, anytime. Another thing we normally think is that the more you pay, the better food you will have. This is normally true in the majority of Western countries, actually.
What I am learning in my Latin America trip is that here money does not necessarily buy you quality. You may pay a “fortune” (well, compared to the cost of living here) and have a terrible meal, or you may grab a quick bite at an eatery in a lost bus station and find out that it is actually delicious. The overall problem is that food is terribly monotonous. Food in Latin America simply isn’t that great. It is quite boring, to be fair.
Latin Americans do not really have a taste for much other than chicken, potatoes, plantains, rice. It is really hard to find vegetables or fruits on a menu, which is really strange, since they have a huge variety and the fruit you can buy at the market is actually delicious. Whenever I have a properly equipped kitchen in a hostel, I cook myself.
But finding the appropriate ingredients is a challenge. Pasta – which is possibly the cheapest food in Italy – is incredibly expensive. Bread is simply wrong to bread eaters like Europeans: it is sweet, it has butter and eggs, almost like a croissant (but they serve it with eggs, at breakfast).
Drinks are good. All over Central and South America, juices are delicious. I have just tried guanabana juice, lulo juice and maracuja juice. Not to mention even plain limonada or jugo de pina.
I will miss them once I am back in Europe and I will be forced to have that sad juice coming out of a carton.
Street food is interesting – like arepa, a tortilla made with white corn flour, kind of sweet, which they serve very hot and with whatever filling you may like. You can also find chorizo, corn on the cob, freshly fried potato and plantain chips, sweets of cheese and jam called bocadillos, and of course lots of freshly cut fruit.
Fruits and sweets are also normally sold in the streets or on the bus, along with warm or cold drinks, peanuts, fried plantains and anything (really) you may want, nevermind the smell of smoke, exhaust and the noise you may encounter in big cities like Bogotà. For sure, they are a delicious refreshment if you are walking in blistering hot Cartagena.
These are chontaduros. They sell it as a fruit, although to me it tastes more like a potato. I had mine with salt, but it can also be served with honey. A nice snack!
Once, in Colombia I have been really lucky and had freshly cooked lobster and crab just caught by a fisherman, which were delicious.
At times, when I have no kitchen and I am desperate for vegetables, I go to a chinese and order white rice and cooked vegetables. Although I generally regret it as the hygienic conditions of those places are a bit dodgy.
However, food at times a problem for me, to the point that I sometimes wonder if I’d rather not eat. First of all, fried chicken is available anywhere. In Latin America people apparently love it. They may call it “pollo frito”, “pollo a la broaster” or other names, but the concept is always the same: chunk of chicken, bones and skins included, breaded and deep fried. I can smell it anywhere, and it almost makes me nauseous. As for the rest, I went from interesting corn tortillas and tasty chicken in Guatemala and Honduras, to rice and beans (called “gallo pinto”) for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, of varying quality and taste – sometimes they would put coconut milk in it, and that was kind of tasty actually. Panama was overall terrible, not even on islands where lobster can literally be grabbed if you jump in the water could I find anything other than chicken and patacones (fried plantains croquettes), and their rice and beans (still present) was really bland.
Then Colombia came, and things got interesting. The only pizza and Italian food I have tried was so bad that I wrote a review on Tripadvisor, saying that it was an offense to Italians to cook that bad food. Then, in some places meals are served in tiny saucers. So, at breakfast, any waitress would tell you that they can offer you “huevitos, frutitas, cafecitos, jugitos, panecitos” – literally, small eggs, small fruit, small coffee, small juice and small bread. To me, this way of speaking sounded hilarious, till I saw that actually, they meant what they said. Tiny portions of everything, served in coffee saucers.
As for the rest, I often eat chicken of varying quality. For about a week, at dinner time, I had to put up with roast chicken and boiled whole potatoes, as for some reasons Colombians (in Bogota which is an enormous city) close everything down at 7pm (I have been told that Colombians like to eat dinner at home, and that only really fancy restaurants stay open for dinner). So, I often ended up ordering in and had to eat my roast chicken, potatoes and cooked plantain with my bare hands, sitting on my bed. But it surely was better than the one I had the night before.
It’s been so long since I have eaten diverse food, that I am now an expert on chicken and potatoes: I can say if they are freshly made or micro-waved, too!
Hence, I am actually developing chicken wings on my back. Chicken almost every day, for over 3 months. By the end, I will be able to fly back home without actually having to catch a flight!
But, at least in Colombia, there is a way to escape chicken – depending on the region you go to. I am now in Salento, in Quindia (coffee region) and they serve really delicious trout here, cooked in many ways. I like mine simply grilled, with some freshly squeezed lemon on it. Also, patacones here are made differently: they are soooo thin and crunchy. Same food, but prepared in a totally different way that makes it interesting all over again.
Peru is a whole different story – no matter what, food is great. After all, there is a whole culture of traditional Peruvian and Spanish food here, Peruvian chefs are world famous, ingredients are fresh and abundant and fusion cuisine is appreciated.
Care to read more posts about delicious food in Latin America? Read here