Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sampling Local Life on the Street

By Alli Sinclair

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel at both ends of the spectrum throughout South America. I’ve stayed in $2 a night rat holes and hotels that cost more per night than I could earn in a week (luckily, work paid for it!). The thing is, wherever I go, I tend to gravitate to the vendors selling food on the street. Not only is a great way to people watch, it’s the perfect opportunity to literally get a taste of local life.

So for those of you wanting to know more about street food in South America, here’s your guide:

Nothing is sweeter…
Than fresh toffee. Baños de Agua Santa, or Baños as it is affectionately known, is situated in the valley of Tungurahua Province in central Ecuador. Renowned for the hot springs dotted in and around the town, Baños is also famous for the toffee shops where you can watch a toffee expert sling a length of toffee on a nail in the doorframe, stretch it, and repeat the process until the delectable delight is beaten into perfection. Be wary though, if one of the toffee throwing experts asks you to have a try, make sure you tie back your hair and have a fresh change of clothes!

Cooked food that isn’t
When I first heard about raw fish marinated in lime juice, the first thing I thought was “well, that’s a good way to end up driving the porcelain bus”. But when a Peruvian friend talked me into trying cerviche, I was instantly hooked, so much so that I lived on it whenever I travelled the coasts of Chile, Peru, and Ecuador.

For those who don’t like “fishy fish” don’t worry because the citric acid cooks the fish so that strong fish taste disappears. What you’re left with is succulent fish in a sauce of lime juice, red pepper, onion, and cilantro. Depending on which country you’re in, cerviche may look like a soup or a mountain of fish stacked on a plate.

If you’d like to learn more or how to make it yourself, check out my post on the Cerviche Wars here.

Fast food at its finest
Empanadas, the staple of the budget traveller, are a much more interesting and cheaper alternative to fast food from the international burger and chicken chains. These stuffed pastries are available just about everywhere and you can choose between fried or baked, vegetarian or full to the brim with meat, peas, or cheese.

One of my most memorable empanada experiences was in the seaside town of Montañita, Ecuador. The lady down the road from my beach hut cooked the most amazing fried cheese empanadas and she topped it off with a choice of chilli sauce or sugar, depending on your mood. Mmmmm… que rico!

If you would like read about how empanadas can bond people from many nations and you want a recipe,click here.

Melting moments
Hands down, my favourite street food is ice-cream made and sold by an Argentine ma and pa. Sure, the large chains like Freddo in Argentina are up there in comparison to ice-cream around the world, but the real treat is eating these frozen treats that are sold directly by the manufacturer (ie a local family). As with any street food, you need to use your brain and assess hygiene standards, but usually you’ll find ice-cream vendors take great pride in their product and the chances of you getting sick are minimal.

With an array of flavours to choose from, making a decision can be difficult. My suggestion? Go for the dulce de leche. Be warned, though, once you’ve had it, every other flavour will pale in comparison.

And in case you want to know more about how Argentine ice cream has influenced my life, click here.

I could go on about horchata (a warm milky drink made from rice and sesame seeds), churros (the funnel cake of Latin America), tamales (empanada like stuffing but with cornmeal dough and kinda soggy), and platanos fritos (especially platanos maduro, the unforgettable pancake-like dish) but unfortunately I’d run out of room on this post!

With so much street food on offer, Latin America is the perfect place to exercise the taste buds and learn more about the locals. Language is never a barrier as food, like love, can create wonderful bonds. And if you try something and don’t like it, put it down to experience and be happy you’ve got yet another exciting travel tale to tell.

How about you? What’s your favourite street food? What about the worst one you’ve tried?


  1. I love the video of the toffee maker. What skill he shows. This week is making me hungry!

  2. The toffee making is very interesting, but I prefer the toffee eating!!! Thank God there is no taste testing available on here Alli, I would need new clothes by Friday!

  3. Yummy! I absolutely love ceviche! This is a great roundup of nice eats!