Mexican food is so popular in the United States that tacos and salsa are as ubiquitous as hamburgers and ketchup. But there’s a huge amount of other Hispanic food to explore, from lesser-known regional Mexican specialties to stews developed on a Chilean archipelago and everything in between. Here are traditional foods from Spanish-speaking countries you probably don’t know about, but will want to try ASAP.
Origin: El Salvador
A pupusa is a thick, round cake made of corn masa flour and cooked on a griddle. They’re eaten without utensils as a snack, but can become a meal when filled with savory ingredients such as beans, cheese, and pork. Curtido, a spicy cabbage slaw, and red salsa usually accompany them as condiments. They are the national dish of El Salvador, and there’s even a National Pupusa Day the second Sunday of November.
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You can get these sub-like sandwiches packed with beef or chicken, cheese, and all kinds of toppings all over Venezuela. They’re a popular street food, and practically anything goes with fillings, from corn kernels to crispy potato sticks. No matter what, there will always be lots of sauces inside, from a vibrant green avocado salsa called guasacaca to pink sauce (known as salsa rosada), a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise.
A relative of the pupusa and quesadilla, baleadas are thick flour tortillas folded in half and filled with mashed red beans. Cheese, scrambled eggs, and crema are also common fillings, though meats and other ingredients sometimes make appearances. They’re eaten at all times of the day and often sold from street vendors.
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Origin: Colombia and Venezuela
Another variation on the griddled corn cake, arepas in Colombia are often stuffed or mixed with cheese before cooking; in Venezuela, they’re commonly split open after cooking and stuffed with fillings such as cheese, shredded chicken, and beans. Whether you prefer them plain with butter or bursting with fillings, they’re a tasty snack.
A sandwich especially popular in Guadalajara is drowned in a spicy, brightly colored sauce made with chiles de árbol. The torta ahogada is made with a crusty roll so when it’s dipped or covered in sauce, it doesn’t fall apart. It’s generally filled with fried pork and topped with raw onions and radishes. A less spicy version is sometimes available with a sauce made with tomatoes — and becoming more common in the U.S.
Cochinillo asado is a Spanish roasted suckling pig. Pigs no older than 5 weeks are used, roasted whole on a spit in an open brick oven. The meat is fall-apart tender, with very little fat and crispy skin. It comes at a steep price, so it’s normally a meal reserved for special occasions in restaurants.
Likened to a Mexican pizza, tlayudas are made with a thin, crispy corn tortillas the size of a dinner plate. They’re griddled and topped with layers of refried beans, asiento (unrefined pork lard), cheese, shredded cabbage, strips of meat (or chorizo in some cases), and usually a sprinkle of red salsa. You can find them in Oaxaca where they originate, but also increasingly in the U.S.
Origin: Probably Puerto Rico
Plantains are ubiquitous in Caribbean and Latin American cuisine, and one of the best snacks made with them are tostones. Slices of green plantain, which is more like a potato than a banana, are fried until soft, smashed into a flat disc, and fried again until crispy. Sometimes they’re served with garlic dipping sauce, and sometimes whole plantains are cooked in the same manner and used in place of bread for a sandwich called the jibarito. Tostones likely originated in Puerto Rico, though they’re popular all over the Caribbean and Latin America.
Practically the national dish of Guatemala, pepián is a meat and vegetable stew that’s a blend of Mayan and Spanish cuisines. It usually contains chicken, though beef and pork can be used, along with roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, and spices to create a thick sauce. Vegetables such as corn on the cob and carrots are often added, as are fruits such as pears.
Cuba’s signature dish is ropa vieja, which translates to “old clothes.” It’s much more appetizing than that name sounds, with beef braised until it’s falling into shreds, kind of like worn-out clothes (though the name may also come from the tendency to make the dish with leftovers). The meat is stewed with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, spices, and olives, and served with rice to soak up the delicious sauce. Most Cuban restaurants in the U.S. make it.
Not to be confused with the corn or flour tortillas of Mexico, a tortilla in Spain is a tapa made of eggs and potatoes, similar to a frittata. Whisked eggs and cooked potatoes are combined in a skillet with plenty of olive oil and cooked until firm. It can be served hot, but is most often cut into small squares and served at room temperature as a bite-sized snack in a tapas bar.
While many people are familiar with Mexican ceviche, the seafood dish is just as popular in Peru — with a few distinctions. Fresh fish is marinated in a strong citrus juice, often with the bright yellow aji amarillo chile, then served with fat kernels of boiled or toasted corn, chunks of sweet potato, and a pile of shaved red onion on top. The juice, called leche de tigre, is sometimes served in a small glass alongside for drinking.
Carnitas and a generic pork option are found all over Mexican restaurant menus in the U.S., but cochinita pibil is a much more interesting, flavorful variation that’s not as ubiquitous. It’s a dish from the Yucatan that’s made by slow roasting pork in banana leaves with bright red achiote, sour orange, garlic, and other spices. Thanks to the acid in the marinade and slow roasting, the pork is tender and succulent. It’s usually served with pickled red onions and a bright, searing habanero salsa.
The chunky, salsa-like dish that passes as gazpacho in the U.S. is often much different than the gazpacho in Spain’s Andalusia region. There, it’s a smooth, cool soup made with tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables at the peak of summer. It’s thickened with stale bread, making for an almost creamy texture. Drizzles of peppery olive oil and sherry on top are musts.
Lomo saltado is a delicious example of chifa cuisine, the food cooked by Chinese immigrants to Peru with local ingredients. It’s a stir-fry made in a wok with strips of beef, onions, tomato wedges, soy sauce, and aji amarillo paste served with rice. French fries are served either alongside or tossed into the stir fry. It’s a unique blend of Chinese (wok cooking, soy sauce, rice) and Peruvian (potatoes, aji amarillo) influences.
Origin: Puerto Rico
Mofongo is a starch lovers dream. Green plantains are fried, then mashed in a wooden tool called a pilón (like a mortar and pestle). It’s mixed with copious amounts of garlic, salt, and often chicharrón — fried bits of pork. The dense mixture is shaped and served topped with all kinds of meats and sauces, though it’s fantastic plain as a side dish as well. You can find this savory, garlic-filled staple at any Puerto Rican restaurant, though it hasn’t made the jump to mainstream American cooking yet.
A dish from the Chilean archipelago of Chiloé might just be one of the world’s oldest recipes. Archaeologists found a 6,000-year old cooking pit there with what held an early form of curanto, a stew made with various meats, seafood, and potatoes. Nowadays, it’s still cooked in a pit covered with rhubarb leaves and dirt to seal in the heat and cooking juices. It contains whatever meat and seafood are on hand, plus sausage and potato dumplings.
Ecuador’s national dish is encebollado, a fish stew. It’s generally made with albacore tuna, though other types of fish can be used, along with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro in a brothy sauce. Boiled cassava or yuca (the same plant tapioca comes from) is used as a starch, with pickled red onions being crucial to the mix.
South America’s version of hot dog carts sell choripán, a sandwich of grilled chorizo sausage served in a bun or crusty bread roll. In Argentina, it’s served on the streets and outside sporting events. The chorizo can be topped with lots of different sauces, but green, herbal chimichurri made with parsley, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar is a popular choice.
The South American cousin to mozzarella sticks, tequeños make a great snack or party appetizer. Many types of cheese can be used, but squeaky, firm queso blanco is most common — a stick of it is wrapped in a pastry-like bread shell and deep fried. It’s a natural dipping item, so it’s often served with guasacaca, guacamole, or pink sauce.
Origin: Dominican Republic
With a name that translates “to die dreaming,” morir soñando is a drink that has much to live up to. It’s made from a blend of orange juice, sugar, evaporated milk or other dairy, and crushed ice. It’s reminiscent of a dreamsicle, and must be made expertly or it will curdle. When it doesn’t, it’s incredibly refreshing in the hot Caribbean sun.
Originally enjoyed by the Guarani tribe in Paraguay, mate is a beverage now enjoyed in many places in South America. It’s made by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate in hot water like tea — though unlike tea, it’s not strained before being served in dried gourd. A metal straw with a strainer on the end is used to drink the caffeinated beverage without ingesting the leaves. It is the national drink of three countries: Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The history of alfajores, a sandwich cookie, travels from the Arab world to Spain, then to South America. The cookies are extremely popular in Argentina — small and round and, though most often held together with a filling of dulce de leche, coming in many flavors. The cookies are often rolled in shredded coconut as well.