With the possible exception of Argentina, most people don’t associate Central or South America with cheese. Like all of Latin America, these countries are a mix of indigenous cultures, colonizing forces, immigrant influences, and varied terroir, climatic extremes, and levels of industrialization. They possess some of the most biologically and geographically diverse habitats on earth. As a result, the cuisine and agricultural practices of each country have developed accordingly.
The use of dairy may not be particularly diverse in this part of the world, especially when it comes to styles of cheese, but it’s an important source of nutrition and income in rural areas, and a part of nearly every meal.
While writing a book on cheese during the course of this past year, I tapped into my rather obsessive love of both street food and South America for inspiration. As I learned during my research, the sheer variety of cheesey street snacks from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego are as varied as the ethnic influences responsible for their creation. Read on for a tasty tribute to queso.
Arepas: These flat little corn or flour cakes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama may be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re usually stuffed or topped with a melting cheese, but may also feature meat, chicken, seafood, egg, or vegetables.
Anafres: Essentially Honduran nachos, composed of giant tortilla chips, refried beans and melted cheese. Named for an anafre, the coal-fired clay pot the dish is served in.
Pupusas: This Salvadorean staple is similar to an arepa: a thick, griddled corn cake stuffed with meat, cheese–usually a mild melting variety known as quesillo–chicarrones (pork cracklings), or queso con loroco (cheese with the buds or flowers of a vine native to Central America).Choclo con queso: Boiled corn with slices or a chunk of mild, milky, fresh white cheese may not sound like much, but this roadside and market staple of Peru and Ecuador is irresistible. The secret is the corn, which is an indigenous Andean variety with large, white, nutty, starchy kernels. It’s satisfying as a snack all by itself, but it’s even better between bites of slightly salty queso.
Empanadas (empadinhas in Brazil): Perhaps the most ubiquitous Latin American street food, riffs on these baked or fried, stuffed pastries can be found from Argentina (where they’re practically a religion) and Chile to Costa Rica and El Salvador. The dough, which is usually lard-based, may be made from wheat, corn or plantain, with fillings ranging from melted, mild white cheese to meat, seafood, corn, or vegetables. In Ecuador, empanadas de viento (“wind”) are everywhere; they’re fried until airy,filled with sweetened queso fresco and dusted with powdered sugar.
Quesadillas: Nearly everyone loves these crisp little tortilla and cheese “sandwiches.” Traditionally cooked on a comal (a flat, cast-iron pan used as a griddle), they’re a popular street food and equally beloved Stateside.
Provoleta: This Argentinean and Uruguayan favorite is made from a domestic provolone cheese. It’s often seasoned with oregano or crushed chile, and grilled or placed on hot stones until caramelized and crispy on the exterior, and melted on the inside. It’s often served at asados (barbecues) as an appetizer, and accompanied by chimmichuri (an oil, herb, and spice sauce).
Queijo coaljo: A firm, white, salty, squeaky cheese from Brazil; it’s most commonly sold on the beach on a stick, after being cooked over coals or in handheld charcoal ovens; also known as queijo assado.
Croquettes de Queijo: Cheese croquettes, a favorite appetizer or street food in Brazil.
Coxinhas: A type of Brazilian salgado (snack), these are popular late-night fare. Typically, coxinhas are shredded chicken coated in wheat or manioc flour that have been shaped into a drumstick, and fried. A variation is stuffed with catupiry, a gooey white melting cheese reminiscent of Laughing Cow. Like crack. Crack.
Queijadinhas: These irresistable little cheese custards are a popular snack in Brazil. Like Pringles, stopping at just one is nearly impossible.
Pão de queijo: Made with tapioca or wheat flour, these light, cheesy rolls are among the most popular breads in Brazil.
[Photo credit: Empanada, Flickr user ci_polla; food vendor, Provoleta, Laurel Miller]