Before travelling to South America, I read at least half dozen reports advising against eating street food. This little snippet of information escaped my memory in just my second week of travelling. I found myself in the run-down and dusty village of Quijarro on the border of Brazil and Bolivia, and the smell of soup that steamed the air was just too tempting not to try – and it looked delicious too.
It was only when I was half way through slurping up hefty chunks of vegetables and chicken broth that the sound-bites of travel advice came flooding back to me – and I was suddenly concerned what water had been used. Ahead of a 16 hour train journey, known colloquially as “The Death Train,” I was naturally concerned for my guts and potentially embarrassing bowel movements. As it turned out, I had no need to worry – and neither do you! Eating street food in Latin America is mostly safe and a very enjoyable experience, not just for the delicious flavours, but because of the local people you meet along the way. So here are my top 15 best cheap street platters you should try whilst travelling around Latin America on a budget.
1. Carne y patata kebab – Peru
As night draws in on the streets of Peru, you will find indigenous women stood in a plume of smoke searing chunks of meat on an Andean hotplate. The meat is an Andean delicacy known as anticucho, and for 4 soles ($1.59), this is going to be the best value for money meal you will find anywhere in South America. Served on a kebab skewer, you get four chunks of cow´s heart and intestines with a baked potato pinned on top. You´ll probably need two to fill you, but once you’ve had one, you know you´ll get a second one just for the taste.
2. Pastel – Brazil
For R$2 ($1.09USD), you won´t find a cheaper meal in Brazil than pastel. Eating out is more expensive than you would imagine in the biggest country of Latin America, though in the south you do get portions that justify the cost. Street food, though, is affordable and there is plenty of it, though one of the best is undoubtedly pastel, a thin crispy pastry stuffed with an assortment of fillings. The most common flavours are melted cheese and meat with a boiled egg, although the shrimp (camarao) is also very tasty.
3. Chorizo – Argentina
In meat loving Argentina, there´s barely a fish in sight – especially on the street. But there is no shortage of meat snacks such as the Argentinean favourite, Chorizo, the King of Sausages. These thick pork sausages are a sense of national pride, and Argentineans recommend their prized asset to all-comers. Grilled on a parilla, a sort of barbecue griddle, they smell delicious and taste even better. You´ll know you´re in eating distance of one as you will be drawn to the mouth-watering smell of barbecued pig flesh and a plume of smoke billowing into the air like a burning thatched roof. For around $1.50 pesos ($0.35USD), depending on the city, it´s a great value for money meal, and you will be hooked on Argentina´s best loved street food.
4. Empanadas – Argentina
Whilst in Argentina, somebody told me they could live off empanadas. It´s a possibility that she did because once you´ve tried one, you´ll want another, and with a good variety of fillings to choose, from you can have a different one for every meal every day of the week. Similar to the Cornish Pasty you get in England, empanadas are a crusty pastry with either a cheese, meat, or vegetable filling, or most commonly a meat and vegetable filling. Prices vary from one stall to the next and they are sold in numerous places, not just street stalls and bakeries, but also newsagent type kiosks. You shouldn´t expect to pay more than $5 pesos for one, (US$1.15) though if you want more than just a light snack most people will need at least two or three. If there are a small group of you, look for places offering bargain deals for a selection of 12 to 18.
5. Tapioca omelette – Brazil
Tapioca is one of the most popular street foods in Brazil – a light, crispy pancake with a filling of your choice, either sweet or savoury. The starch snack is made from tapioca roots and filled with a variety of flavours. One of the most preferred ingredients amongst Brazilians is cheese and ham, and you will find these from just about any vendor. If you like seafood, try the shrimp (camarão), which is soaked in a delicious seafood sauce. Alternatively, for the sweet-toothed among you, the coconut and leite condensado (condensed milk) is a real lip smacker.
6. Platanos Fritos – El Salvador
You´ll find Platanos Fritos in most Latin American countries. It’s somewhat of a favourite street dessert that has spread far and wide, but in my experience the El Salvadorians take this tasty dish to another level. This delicious dessert is slowly-fried bananas with a light caramel coating that is scooped from sizzling pots of vegetable oil and topped with condensed milk. In some countries they can be a little crunchy, but in El Salvador the soft texture melts in your mouth and bursts with flavour. It´s a favourite at breakfast, but is eaten at all times of the day and can be found wherever there are street vendors selling fast foods.
7. Tacos – Mexico
Tacos in Mexico are not the mincemeat filled pancakes served in Western countries. First of all they come in two types and with a wide variety of fillings. The most common tacos that are found everywhere are small tortilla breads made from wheat. You wrap it into an oblong shape around the filling of your choice, such as chicken, beef, cheese, or vegetables, and eat it out of your hand. The other type is super taco’s, a sandwich style belly-buster the size of a small birthday cake. These come with a wide variety of filling choices and are packed full. The traditional tacos are priced individually at around 13 pesos ($1.03) though you will need two or three to satisfy your appetite. The super tortillas have at least four fillings and feel like a brick wrapped in paper. They cost between 30 and 36 pesos ($2.40-2.85) and will satisfy even the biggest of appetites.
8. Buñuelos – Guatemala
Guatemalan’s are generally sweet-toothed which is perhaps why you see so many of them with gold braces attached to their teeth – a sign of wealth in the Mayan culture. One of their favourite street dessert is Buñuelos, fried balls of dough that look a little like Chinese chicken balls you get with a sweet and sour. They are served hot, dowsed in syrup and are absolutely delicious. They are most popular around Christmas, but if you look hard enough you will find them at any time of year. They cost around Q10 (US$1.25) for three balls which is reasonable in any currency.
9. Baleada – Honduras
Indigenous to Honduras and one of the most common street foods you’ll find is the baleada, a white flour pancake-sized tortilla stuffed with re-fried beans, cream cheese, and sour cream, though you will find some vendors offer a variety of fillings, most usually scrambled egg which is typical for breakfast. At 7LPS (US$ .035) baleada is a very inexpensive snack, and two would constitute a meal.
10. Tlayudas con carne – Mexico
Walk into a Mexican food market or local cafe and you are likely to be spoiled for choice. Most people will naturally make a beeline for the tacos filled with cooked meat, but there is another option you really don´t want to miss out on – tlayudas con carne. Originating in Oaxaca in the southern Sierra Mountains, tlayudas are only found in a handful of cities and are served on a large, thin, crispy tortilla with a combination of cooked meat, cheese, or chicken together with salad and avocado topped with a light mayonnaise-style dressing. If you like you could add the spicy condiments to give it a kick, but you may lose the natural flavour and kill your taste buds for a week. As a general rule, you may not want to add the condiments the Mexicans present you in little pots as they are always very, very spicy and ultimately the only thing you taste.
11. Tamales – Ecuador
Tamales are another favourite dish that is found in most Latin American countries and is most commonly wrapped in corn leaf, but in Ecuador they wrap it up with a banana leaf, an ingenious choice as it infuses a sweet flavour into the meal regardless of the filling and acts as a handy little container that is easy to hold. The tamales themselves are a mixture of cornmeal, spinach and meat fried in spices and are a cheap and sumptuous little snack which will set you back about US$1.50 at most.
12. Carimañolas – Panama
A popular snack you´ll find just about everywhere in Panama is carimañolas – boiled yucca balls stuffed with ground beef and boiled eggs and deep-fried to give it a tasty, crisp finish. Carimoñolas are so popular with the Panamanians that not only are they available from just about every street vendor and fast-food kiosk, but most people cook them in their homes as well.
13. Arepas – Venezuela
Street foods are so popular in Venezuela people huddle around food carts munching on a quick snack on their way to and from work. One of the most popular and tasty snacks is the arepa, which can be filled with any number of fillings – scrambled eggs, grilled meat, chicken salad with avocados, ham and cheese, fish, or just plain old vegetables. You will find at least 30 options on some menus! The dough used to make arepas is ground from maize and patted into a flat loaf which is then baked and lightly grilled. It is then torn open and stuffed with filling much like a pita bread kebab in Europe. On the street arepas are between 15 and 17 VEF (around US$3.50), but you will also find specialty arepa houses which charge about US$7.
14. Papas con cuero – Colombia
One of the more unusual street foods you’ll find, not only in Colombia, but South America is papas con cuero. This is a somewhat bizarre choice of snack consisting of greasy pork rinds, a bit like spare ribs, served with chopped potatoes, and a lettuce and carrot salad. It doesn’t sound too appetizing, nor does the direct translation of potatoes with pork skins, but the Colombians love it, and for US$1 it´s worth giving it a whirl. It´s one of those dishes you have to try to know whether you like it or not, but its colourful display, at least in most places, might just be the temptation you need.
15. Charque de llama – Bolivia
Bolivia is not renowned for its quality of food, in fact the majority is pretty bland, the rest of it is sweet and dry. However, there are a few street foods that will not escape your attention and are found all throughout the country. The best snack I found is Charque de Llama, fried llama meat served with corn and cheese. In fact, llama and alpaca are very popular with Bolivians, so much so you can even get a llama curry in La Paz!
The key thing to remember when eating street food in South America is to steer clear of anything cooked in a sauce or that comes with a salad that might have been washed in water that is not suitable for a delicate western stomach. Buen Provecho!
Read more from Richard Oldale on his website.
Photo credits: Arepas, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.