Vegan South American Food
When I was growing up in the seventies my mom worked as a travel agent. She would bring home travel paraphernalia — posters, brochures, pens, buttons and postcards — with teasing exotic visions of faraway lands. Before I had set foot anywhere in the world other than Florida, I fell in love with the idea of someday traveling the world.
One of my favorite postcards was of the world-famous Copacabana Beach in Brazil. The pictures of it – with the sugar loaf mountain looming in the background and the tropical palms – were haunting, and I remembered them even as an adult. My wife and I named our son Rio, and after saving up enough frequent flier miles we thought it was time to go to Brazil.
We went down in search of the legendary sands of the Copacabana, and we also went in search of food. What we found was a wonderful mix of indigenous South American ingredients with Portuguese influence and often touched with African spice. Like most of the Americas, Brazil is a melting pot – a delicious consequence of exploration and colonization. We found a vegetarian feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, that was served in a clay pot, its spicy fragrant steam mingling with the salt air of the beach footsteps away. The vegetarian version tops stewed black beans with fresh hearts of palm, orange, and collards.
We also found a vegetarian moqueca, a Brazilian classic traditionally made with fish stewed with coconut milk and chilies. The vegetarian version did not disappoint, made with several varieties of squash in a rich coconut broth scented with fresh cilantro, chilies and lime.
Our hotel was located in a hillside neighborhood called Santa Teresa, and in wandering we came across a stunning restaurant built into the hill under the tree tops. There we ordered a dish that the menu described only as “fresh hearts of palm.” We were surprised when a giant roasted heart of palm was brought to our table and carved for us by the server. The beautifully roasted tender chunks of white palm flesh were served with chimichurri, a pesto-like Argentine condiment as ubiquitous in South America as ketchup is in the United States. The flavor was extraordinary compared to canned or jarred hearts of palm. Until you’ve tasted it fresh and local you have not tasted this amazing vegetable.
One thing we always search for when traveling is spice, chilies and hot sauce. And Brazil might have one of the best hot sauces around. The Malagueta, also known as a piri piri in Portugal is a perfect pepper to make hot sauce out of, tangy, deep and delicious and full of flavor. Not just a simple surface burn but a tingly rich and vibrant taste that wakes up any dish from French fries to deeply layered black bean soups.
Now it was time to get to Copacabana Beach. After having a drink at the Copacabana Palace across the street dusk was coming and we meandered over across the street. There were guitarists strumming bossanova music on the beach promenade and kids playing soccer on the beach. The sun was just during a set and the scene was electric. I was very aware of my feet as they were stepping across the street and on to the promenade and then on to the sands of this real life postcard. After taking it in we found chairs on the promenade at a little cafe. We munched on crunchy biscoito globo, an addictive, crunchy street snack made out of yuca flour, ordered some fried yuca to be a carrier device for the malagueta hot sauce on the table and another round of juicy caipirinhas.
Back home we dove even deeper into South American cuisine, eating it every place we could find here in Philly and in New York and DC. South American cuisine is as varied as European cuisine. Comparing one to the other would be like comparing Spanish to German to French to British. It’s just not done. Peruvian cuisine may be the most fascinating of them all. Birthplace of the potato and home to some of the most extraordinary cooking on the planet. We did a crash course of Peruvian eating in Miami a few years ago and one of our favorite dishes we had was papas huancaini which we translated into our own potato dish for V street. Taking a baked potato and frying them in crispy wedges and topping them with a rich aji Amarillo sauce (Peru’s most famous chile), dried olive, peanut and cilantro. Who in the culinary world can get away with putting peanuts, olives and cilantro on the same dish? The Peruvian chefs can and they pull it off effortlessly in a fascinating mix of flavors and textures that just seem to always work.
The Colombians and Venezuelans gave us the arepa, the ubiquitous corn cake that most central and South American countries have in some form or another. It’s so simple and yet so delicious, basically a simple corn pancake cooked on the griddle, then either topped or filled. This gave way to the pupusa in El Salvador and Nicaragua, a fluffier stuffed version of the arepa traditionally served with a pickly cabbage cilantro salad known as vigoron.
Just like North America, South America seems to be a melting pot of cultural culinary influence form Europe. The Portuguese in Brazil, the Italians in Argentina (where supposedly the pizza rivals Naples) and the Spanish, well, everywhere.
They came with their recipes and embraced the local ingredients and cooked and cooked. Layers of tradition and foreign influence all mingling in the pot. And it’s ours to taste.