Latin American Street Food
I’ve been a bad friend.
While I was busy eating my way around Latin America
I forgot your invitation.
Can you nibble on these photographs instead?
This is the streetside cuisine I risked illness to consume.
You know how much I love to eat.
Healthy or otherwise, my bliss body appreciated every bite.
Raw fish served on the street in staggering heat. Does this scare you? Understandable.
While in Panama City I stumbled upon the Mercado de Mariscos, an authentic local fish market near Chinatown. Groups of men fresh from work sat at large umbrella covered tables in front of the bay whistling at the two gringas passing through. Loud Latin beats surrounded us. A large decorated Christmas tree graced the center. Styrofoam cups came brimming with octopus, shrimp, sea bass, snapper, or one of the many other varieties on display in big white buckets surrounded by ice. The cost was $1-3 for a hearty serving. Does it get any better than this?
But if you still say no to ceviche, I won’t judge you. I’ll just eat yours.
I stood on the street in Taganga for half an hour before my eager mitts were granted a Colombian arepa. I had heard that arepas were the best street food in Colombia, and that these were the best arepas anywhere. The street vendor, an elderly Colombian who only brings his treats to town after dark, artfully rolled each ball of cornmeal between his agile fingers. Banana leaves made a bed for the formed patties. Smells of warmth and comfort wafted in the air. I waited patiently behind women placing their household orders of upwards of twenty arepas. When mine was ready he sliced into it like a fluffy piece of pita and stuffed salty white cheese, guacamole, and spicy sauce inside. Heaven.
One early morning in the Tayrona National Park I walked to spend some time with the sea. I found a man selling arepas of a different degree. He opened his griddled pocket, cracked a whole egg inside, and deep fried the parcel much to my delight. I ate it smothered in salsa, my toes in the sand.
“Pati! Pati!” he sings soulfully on his bicycle weaving the potholed street. His genuine smile reveals several gold teeth.
“Pati! Pati!” we sing in his honor.
Anyone who has been in Puerto Viejo even for a day knows this song. A food vendor and farmer from the Caribbean town of Bluefields in Nicaragua fills his basket with little handmade turnovers filled with beef or sweet plantains, called “pati”. The delicate pastry crumbles between your teeth. The flavorful filling leaves you wanting more.
On Little Corn Island an impossibly tall local man made trips around the island barefoot selling his pati to tourists on the beach. I’ll tell you a secret: his were better. In fact, I wish I had one in my mouth right now.
If you can climb like a monkey and own a machete there is tropical fruit everywhere. Those of us who did not grow up shimmying palm trees and perfecting our knife skills appreciate the street fruit vendors all over Latin America.
In Colombia and Nicaragua particularly carts covered in colorful cups of watermelon, papaya, mango, and pineapple don every corner. Made to order fruit salads with exotic varieties previously foreign to me we served from women in Cartagena dressed in exaggerated Caribbean garb.
Eat at your own risk but I never turn a juicy papaya.
Street food in Mexico is on another level. For less than a dollar you will taste some of the best food of your life. This sope I had in downtown Cancun, aka the real Cancun without beaches, all-inclusives, or tourists, was up there.
Sopes are fried cornmeal patties topped with all kinds of goodies like tender shredded meat, saucy beans, crumbled cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa. Oh my god oh my god oh my god.
I will never forget the first time I tasted steak. I was 21, on a date, nervous as could be, and consequently sauced. The bite of filet mignon was possibly the most savory thing I had ever tasted. So savory it overwhelmed my vegetarian palate. I hated it. But I politely ate some. Did I mention I was on a first date? (Spoiler: we never went on a second one.)
I grew up eating tofu burgers and black beans. Shredded carrots with balsamic vinegar was my go to snack as a kid. (I know, I’m weird. Like, really weird, you have no idea.) So steak was never a dietary staple of mine… that is until I arrived in Colombia.
Flavorful, butter tender grass fed beef is everywhere. And cheap. In the charming beach town of Palomino on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia I had this paper thin carne asada for breakfast. Ya. Breakfast.
I know. So cliche.
But seriously, SO GOOD!
The food in Mexico is incomparable to most places in the world and these tacos were no exception. I got them at a food court. Let’s class that up a bit: I got them at an outdoor culinary market. I think each taco cost about fifty cents. I handed the vendor the equivalent of a five dollar bill for a taco. She looked at me like I was insane. I visited several vendors before I could break the bill. My favorite? A perfectly fried chile stuffed with cheese inside of a tortilla smothered in salsa.
Another stand out taco I ravaged was in Tulum. The best taco al pastor I’ve ever had. Saucy tender pork with a thick piece of grilled pineapple. Now that’s livin.
Bolitas de Yuca
“Que es eso?” I asked and pointed. “Yuca!” he shouted over the traffic and chattering loiterers on the streets of Granada.
I shrugged and ordered a few. I never pass up fried street food. Seriously, you could fry a toe and I’d probably still like it.
I opted for spicy cabbage instead of honey. “I’m watching my sugar intake” I said between oily bites.
Yuca is a type of root vegetable popular in Latin America. They stew it, fry it, make desserts out of it. It’s truly versatile and delicious. In pastry form it takes on an indescribably glutinous consistency.
These little fried yuca balls were possibly more fun to eat than they were delicious. Come on, they’re so cute! How can you resist?
Has a bite of food ever brought you genuine bliss? Eating this pupusa on the street in Masaya, Nicaragua was one of those moments.
I arrived in Masaya with no expectations, no map, and no plan. I headed towards the covered tents from the dusty bus depot. Rows of colorful brassieres and shoes made in China mingled among live chickens and papayas the size of my head. I wandered the maze snapping photos with the dedication of a mom at prom.
And then I ate this pupusa.
On my way back to the bus depot I saw a darling Nicaraguan brace face teenager playing remixed Mariah Carey tunes from her street cart. She was making pupusas. Two thin corn patties become one encapsulating a sheet of white cheese. Grilled until crispy and melted then topped with spicy cabbage slaw. I sat on the curb and devoured it.
Pipa (aka Young Coconut)
“Hey can you cut us some too?” my friend shouted from her beach towel as a handsome bearded beach wanderer climbed a coconut tree with agility, machete in hand. Moments later a large two toed sloth rustled his head from between the branches with the speed of a cat. He climbed down, coconuts in hand, and we drank the sweet nectar in the Caribbean waters of Playa Chiquita.
As far as I’m concerned young coconuts are the ultimate Latin American street food. They cost next to nothing… absolutely nothing if you own a machete or make friends with those who do… are unbelievably hydrating, utterly delicious, and the soft flesh is more energizing than a cup of coffee.
What is some of the best Latin American street food you’ve experienced?