While every nation in South America has a distinct culinary tradition, shaped by local crops and waves of immigration, there is one element that unites them all: a serious sweet tooth.
It's no surprise that these countries love dessert: this is, after all, where cane sugar comes from. Brazil is the world's leading producer of the stuff, and Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru have a long history of growing sugar cane along the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
Where milk and sugar are staples, and sweetened condensed milk reigns supreme, nothing figures more heavily in desserts than caramel and its kin. Mexico's sugary goat milk caramel is known as cajeta, but South America has half a dozen names for the stuff, each with slight regional variations. (A friendly bit of advice: Don't try to ask for cajeta in Argentina, where that word is street slang for a female body part.) Dulce de leche, which translates to "milk candy" or "sweetness of milk", is found across Argentina and Uruguay. It's made by simmering milk, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda until the milk turns brown, thick, and gooey—or slowly heating a can of condensed milk in a pot of boiling water. Chileans and Ecuadorians love their manjar, which resembles dulce de leche sans vanilla, while Peruvians and Bolivians call it manjar blanco and retain the vanilla. Colombia and Venezuela share similar arequipe habits, and typically eat their caramel with obleas (thin wafers), but Venezuelans also have a variation called dulce de leche cortada: essentially arequipe with lemon juice, generally cooled until dry and sturdy.
Each region's unique specialties reflect the area's history. Brazil's native fruit and coconut-laden sweets pop up in preparations influenced by Portuguese and African traditions. In Argentina and Uruguay, inspiration comes by way of Italy, and you'll spy gelato on just about every corner. Peru's desserts echo traditions from all over the map: the Incan legacy, Spanish colonists, and more recent Chinese and Japanese immigration.
If you travel to South America, the array of unusual desserts can be daunting...but delicious. Here are a few iconic sweets to add to your must-eat list.
In the United States we celebrate birthday parties with cake, but in Argentina, it's always the chocotorta, or "chocolate cake." Its popularity is, in part, due to its simplicity: A tub of dulce de leche, a tub of queso crema (something like a hybrid of sour cream and cream cheese), store-bought wafer-like chocolate cookies, and brewed coffee. (Kahlua is optional if you're after something a bit boozy.)
The chocolate wafer cookies are quickly dipped in coffee to soften and placed in a baking dish. The queso crema and dulce de leche are mixed together to form a creamy filling, and spread on top of the cookies. Then, a second layer of soaked cookies is added on top, more dulce de leche filling, more cookies, more dulce de leche, and so on. Stick the ice-box chocolate cake in the fridge to chill for a few hours, cut, and serve. It's one of those simple desserts that ends up craveable, offering the perfect ratio of cookie to dulce de leche cream filling and a subtle hint of coffee flavor.
Helados de Paila: Ecuador
Ecuador's version of ice cream, helado de paila, dates back to 1896 when 16-year-old Rosalía Suárez, of Ibarra, Ecuador, harvested ice and snow down from a nearby peak. More than a century later, it's still made as she first prepared it: A large copper wok is placed in a basin over ice and straw, and filled with concentrated fruit juices (for sorbet) or a cream-milk-egg mixture (for ice cream). Then, the liquid is continuously stirred and spun with a wooden spoon until it begins to freeze, harden, and create a pliable, soft consistency. Street vendors will prepare the helado de paila to order and serve immediately, while most ice cream shops make it in advance and store in low temperature freezers. Popular flavors include blackberry, mango, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, tamarind, passion fruit, and unusual local fruits including guanábana (soursop) and sour naranjilla (which looks like a baby orange, but has a markedly acidic flavor). The original Doña Rosalia's ice cream parlor is still owned by the Suárez family in Ibarra.
When Jamie Oliver dissed Brazil's most beloved confection, the country erupted in just as much outrage as it did when the soccer team was humiliated at the World Cup. Similar to a truffle, this ultra-sweet two-biter is made from sweetened condensed milk heated with cocoa powder to form a paste, then mixed with cold butter and rolled into small balls—which are then rolled in toppings like brown sugar, sprinkles, coconut shavings, or almonds. They're often eaten at birthday parties.
Suspiro Limeño: Peru
At a Peruvian restaurant, it would be unusual not to find suspiro limeño featured on the dessert menu. This classic postre dates back to 18th-century Peru and translates to "sigh of a woman from Lima." It's made from a creamy manjar blanco caramel base, topped with a huge dollop of Italian meringue perfumed with port and cinnamon, and served in individually portioned glasses. Sugar atop sugar, it's only for those with an insatiable sweet tooth.
Uruguayan food might not be known internationally, but this cake certainly should be. Named after a native Uruguayan bird, chajá starts from a sponge cake base and a peach syrup that's spiked with a few tablespoons of rum. Add on layers of meringue, fresh peaches, whipped cream, and dulce de leche, then smother the whole cake with mounds of whipped cream and top it off with more sweet crisp meringue and peaches. The sugary cake is light and fluffy and while there's a delicate trace of peach and rum flavor, the whipped cream, dulce de leche, and meringue definitely star.
Canjica de Milho: Brazil
Every year in June during the annual corn harvest, Brazilians chow down on canjica de milho, a sweet, thick corn gruel dessert made with hominy (whole white maize kernels), sugar, milk, and often cinnamon, sweetened condensed milk, and peanuts. It's a dish mostly found in southern Brazil, which originated within African slave and Afro-Brazilian communities during the late 17th century. The hominy soaks overnight before simmering with the milk until it becomes very thick and creamy, with a texture reminiscent of rice pudding.
Generally eaten to celebrate Independence Day, pastelitos are a point of Argentine patriotic pride. Flaky puff pastry is filled with sweet quince or sweet potato paste and formed into a flower or pinwheel shape, then deep fried in lard or sunflower oil until golden brown. It's finished off with sugary glaze, and topped with festive sprinkles.
Imagine the lovechild of a spice cake, a pumpkin pie, and a beignet, and you'll get an idea of Peru's picarones, which date back to Peru's colonial days. Potatoes are everywhere in Peru—more than 3,800 varieties are grown there—so even the desserts are papa-packed. In this case, camote, a type of sweet potato, is mixed with macre, a type of squash, to form a silky purée. It's combined with flour, sugar, yeast, and anise, formed into a round doughnut shape and deep fried. The light and airy sweets are then drizzled in chancaca (chopped raw sugar dissolved in hot water until it forms a molasses-like syrup), and served immediately.
These sweets may not be as popular as they once were, but still make appearances at almost every old school bakery and on tables during holidays. Manjar is spread and sandwiched between two flat cracker-like biscuits before it is covered in sweet and fluffy meringue for a bite that's creamy, sugary, and crunchy all at once.
Dulce de Guayaba: Paraguay
Paraguay has its share of unusual dishes—like empanadas served between two pieces of white bread, and chipa bread made with manioc flour and cheese—but my favorite is the dulce de guayaba. Boiled guava is puréed with sugar and water (and often pectin) to form a thick sweet-tart gel that can be sliced and served with a cracker or piece of semi-hard white cheese. It's exactly what cheese course dessert lovers should be eating for the postre.
Some call it flan, some call it crème caramel, but in Venezuela, our jiggly egg and condensed milk friend is called quesillo. Unlike versions found in other parts of the world, this local rendition calls for whole eggs, instead of just yolks, to give an airy, less dense texture. It's topped with a thin caramel syrup for a touch more caramel flavor.
These puffy meringue desserts served inside ice cream cones are sold on the street in Ecuador—outside schools, in main plazas, and at open markets. Espumilla, meaning "little foam," may look like ice cream or whipped cream in a cone, but it's actually a very sweet meringue cream dessert, with a similar texture to lemon meringue pie, except mixed with tangy guava pulp instead of citrus juice. Vendors often add pink or yellow food coloring to give it a bright, attention-grabbing color. These foamy and fluffy treats are often served with sweet-tart blackberry syrup to balance the sugar overload a bit.
Plátanos Calados: Colombia
This simple dessert showcases the rich flavor of sweet plantain. Extremely ripe (almost black) plantains are combined with brown or muscovado sugar, water, clove, cinnamon, and lemon juice and simmered until the sugar transforms into syrup. The result is a soft, stewed-down sweet banana that takes on the spicy flavors of the clove and cinnamon. It's then served on its own, or with a soft white cheese.
Argentines can't get enough helado, and you'll find a heladería on almost every corner. It's closer to gelato in texture than American ice cream, and it's usually made with all fresh ingredients. For a first-timer, an order of dulce de leche and chocolate is the way to go. But on your second helado of the day, try sambayón (Argentina's take on Italian zabaglione, a custard tinged with sweet wine) and frutos del bosque (mixed berry, often raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, and red currant).
Ice cream delivery is particularly popular in Buenos Aires, especially during the summer months bringing as little as 1/4 kilo of helado to your door at no extra charge. My local ice cream shop claims to deliver over 350 kilos per day during the peak of the season.
Torta de Mil Hojas: Chile
The mil hojas is popular throughout South America, but particularly in Chile. Also known as the "Thousand Layer" or "Thousand Sheets," this cake might not literally have one thousand layers, but it's still a dessert of gargantuan proportions. Manjar is spread on sheets of wafer-thin puff pastry dough to create a cake that's generally 10-15 layers high, and then the entire concoction is covered like frosting for the ultimate manjar overload with crunch, flaky pastry bits in each bite. Every family makes a slightly different version: some decorate the cake with nuts, others even call for Chilean pisco to be applied to each layer.
Torta Bejarana: Venezuela
To talk about this cake, we have to look back to Venezuela in the 18th century. Wheat didn't grow in Caracas and imported flour was very expensive across the country, but the Bejarano sisters crafted a cake to sell that was based on ripe mashed plantains and corn-based breadcrumbs instead of flour. The sisters became an instant success. Today, the base of the batter is made from plantains, sugar cane, breadcrumbs or ground bread, butter, and egg to give it a dense, almost banana bread-like texture, flavored with a light touch of cloves, cinnamon, and allspice and showered with handfuls of sesame seeds. Its sweetness is mild enough to please those who like their desserts on the savory side.
Alfajores: Argentina and Uruguay
While Argentines are more vocal about their alfajor love, we have to give Uruguay some credit too: they do hold the Guinness World Record for largest alfajor ever made, weighing in over a thousand pounds. There are many different versions of this popular cookie, sold both fresh in bakeries and packaged at convenience shops, but they generally consist of dulce de leche sandwiched between two soft, thick cookies, then either rolled in coconut shavings or covered in chocolate.
Tawa Tawas: Bolivia
When in Bolivia, beware: consuming tawa tawas may cause an insatiable daily craving. A wise Bolivian baker once told me all you really need for a perfect postre is a piece of deep fried bread. Flour, egg, and baking powder make up a dough that's rolled out, cut into triangles, and then fried in hot oil to become a miniature pillow. It's similar to a sopapilla except bite-size, topped with powdered sugar and drizzled with raw honey.