Food, glorious food. An essential, integral part of the travelling experience. Before we left home, I wondered: what would the food be like in Latin America? Would the kids eat it? Rice and beans, said James. They eat rice and beans. OK then, I said. Well, at least we have Europe.
As it turns out, while rice and beans are indeed common, the cuisine of Latin America has moved on. Peru now scales the culinary heights, with three restaurants in the world’s top 50, and many, many more offering delicious offerings, including Peruvian-Japanese fusion food. At the other end of the scale, fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza and pasta are ubiquitous, ensuring unadventurous palates are also catered for. We have enjoyed a varied and mostly delicious diet. Here are many of the highlights, as well a couple of low-lights.
While Lima is famous for its wealth of innovative restaurants, we enjoyed the food in Arequipa more. Meals at Pasta Canteen were incredibly cheap and delicious with high quality home-made pasta and salads that came in cute jars (add dressing and shake). The highlight was a splurge lunch at Zig Zag, that included a trio of meats – including Alpaca – seared and served on a volcanic stone. Eliane was in raptures over a dessert involving passion fruit mousse, burnt caramel and meringue.
Maryluz’s home cooking using locally grown organic ingredients on Isla Amantani also stood out – quinoa pancakes for breakfast anyone?
While we didn’t partake of the local delicacy, Guinea Pig, we observed a number of people who did and it’s clearly not always an enjoyable experience. We recommend waiting for a restaurant that’s known to specialise in it or it could turn out to be a real low-light.
Ecuador for us was all about seafood. I still dream about the rich crab risotto (more crab than rice!) and BBQ prawns and octopus we had in Guayaquil. That meal was a revelation to Eliane, who announced that she finally understood why people eat seafood! Since then, her attitude has radically transformed and she now orders and enjoys fish, octopus, prawns and other seafood for the first time in her life.
I had my own revelatory moment at the Kioskos in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, when I ordered a shrimp ceviche. Ceviche is a regular feature on menus throughout South and Central America, but I wasn’t in raptures over it until I tried the soupy Ecuadorean version with lime, coriander, tomato and red onion. Such a fresh taste! This was the start of a ceviche love affair that continued all the way to Cuba.
We ate a lot of menu del dias throughout South America. With the kids sharing one serving it was a very economical option. The best was in a little restaurant in Salento called Etnia arte y sabor and comprised a starter of AMAZING carrot soup – oh I wish I had that recipe – followed by a main of either grilled chicken, pork or local trout with rice, beans and salad. Everything beautifully cooked and seasoned to perfection. To finish there was a teeny-tiny brownie with a generous blob of dulce de leche (i.e. caramel) on top. Of course, every menu del dia also comes with a glass of freshly squeezed juice or a limonada.
We found the food in Antigua to be better than other parts of Guatemala. Highlights included our colourful organic meal at Caoba farm cafe and Randy’s sausages, particularly the Argentinian chorizo with chimichurri. We had another very tasty menu del dia at Rincon Tipico, comprising a huge plate of roasted chicken, potatoes, coleslaw and as much fresh juice as we could drink, for an extremely low price.
Now Belize is definitely a rice and beans kind of country. At Martz Farm we had home-cooked meals and while rice and beans often featured, each meal was wholesome and hearty and the food was one of the highlights of our stay.
Mmm… Mexico. We got off to a great start with lunch at our taxi driver’s family restaurant on the side of the road. We all dug into a heaped bowl of ceviche, followed by amazing tacos and a garlic prawn dish. Add tortillas (fried and fresh), salad and a big jug of ice-cold limonada and there was no way we could finish it all.
Mango-coco-ginger icy-poles on the beach at Tulum stand out in our memory and there are plans to try and recreate them when we get home.
We enjoyed the traditional Yucatan food in Valladolid at almost every meal, but the best was at La Selva. The girls were happy to try all the different, unfamiliar looking offerings including lime soup, salbutes and panuchos (deep fried tortillas filled or topped with local meat or vegies) and lomitos de Valladolid, pulled pork in a tomato sauce topped with chopped boiled egg. The tacos here were the best we’ve ever tasted anywhere, ever.
The pig! We were so lucky to be invited to a traditional Cuban meal on our first night in Cuba. This ranks as one of the most memorable meals of my life. Deceptively simple, it consisted of arroz negro (i.e. rice and beans), a coleslaw-like salad, steamed or boiled cassava and that completely delectable, melt-in-the mouth pork, with its crunchy/chewy crackling… Although the pork was undoubtedly the star of the show all the other elements were so well-cooked and tasty that we just kept eating and eating until we couldn’t stuff another bite in.
In Cuba we finally got to eat lobster, at last. While lobster was a regular feature on menus in parts of Ecuador, Colombia, Belize and Mexico, it was never available as our travels coincided with the lobster breeding season. My hope is that by the time we got to Cuba the lobsters had finished breeding, because we ate it, again and again. Even when we didn’t specifically order lobster there would be big segments of tail in seafood pastas and paellas – it was hard to avoid! We did have one slightly uncomfortable experience though, when a woman at the next table ordered lobster and the meal was so large that she left a huge chunk – fully half a large lobster tail – on her plate. Once we noticed we quickly averted our eyes, it just looked so WRONG.
It was in another Cuban restaurant that we experienced the biggest culinary low-light of the trip, so far. It should have been great, one of the best rated restaurants in lovely Cienfuegos, with a stunning view out over the bay. But my shrimp was too salty to enjoy and the girls’ meat was so tough it was literally inedible. What made it worse was having to pay more than US$50 for the privilege!
In terms of breakfasts, Cuba wins hands down. We only stayed in Casa Particulares and paid our hosts extra for a home-made spread. Every casa we stayed at provided a veritable feast, which typically included: freshly squeezed juice, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, toast, honey, jam, butter, eggs, a fruit platter artistically arranged, another platter of salad and cooked vegetables, a cheese and ham platter or cheese and ham toasties and some type of dessert – perhaps cake or flan or sweet biscuits. Our final casa, was the best of all, including cooked shrimps and home-made natural yoghurt, in addition to the rest.
But what about the drinks?
Before we left Australia our kids routinely drank water and almost never had soft drink or juice, which are both full of sugars. That all changed in South America where freshly squeezed juice is likely to appear as part of breakfast or lunch and is super cheap, by Australian standards. Depending on where you are, you can find strawberry, cherry, raspberry, pineapple, mango, guava, passionfruit, tamarind, papaya, orange – and a whole host of juices from fruits you never heard of before!
And while the kids were drinking juice, we were drinking cocktails. We tried to keep it authentic, with pisco sours in Peru, margaritas in Mexico, and Cuba libres, pina coladas and mojitos in Cuba (it’s all about rum in Cuba).
As well as cocktails, James drank various beers and we also drank wine when we could get an acceptable one for a reasonable price (tip: look out for Gato Negro). But on the whole, when life’s a beach…
you may as well suck down a coco-loco when it’s delivered to your palm tree!