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eating away: south america

Maria Middlestead’s travels through South America involved eating everything from manioc in the Brazilian Amazon to guinea pig in the Andes.

The Brazilian Amazon only does vivid. Taking small boats to paddle in the dark, we were surrounded by creatures that wanted to poison or eat us. Tip: don’t get lost. Locals drink more lemongrass tea than coffee. The dominant starch is manioc, lengthily prepared to defuse its cyanide content. There was manioc bread, cake, crepes, ice-cream, polenta-like batons, and a savoury crumble to sprinkle on heart of palm salad, roast flamingo or one of the 1,000 species of edible fish. Many are large, meaty and strongly flavoured from the tropical fruit that tumbles into the water. Fish are responsible for ‘planting’ 80% of wild fruit trees.

Rio is a hot, sensory explosion – and that’s just the people. Every colour and waist circumference walks semi-clad and proud. I joined enthusiastic anthropologist and guide, Vinicius, for the 6 hour Eat Rio walking food tour. At markets and vendors we sampled orange cashew juice and avocados with the girth of rock melons. A popular breakfast or snack was a bowl of what looked like melted chocolate. This was raw acai seeds ground and pureed with local stevia. White, crunchy, toasted tapioca gets sprinkled on top. Seriously good. At region-by-region cafes we tried cod fish croquettes, dried beef with manioc, pumpkin with black beans, and the quenching national cocktail: caipirinha made with lime, sugar and cachaça. This clear looking-and-tasting alcohol is produced from distilled fresh cane juice rather than from by-products as rum is (http://eatrio.net/eat-rio-food-tours).

In Argentina, our experience was that the multiculturalism of Rio was noticeably absent. I walked in a tide of short slim brunettes and saw no other skin colours. In old-world café Parilla Pena, a beef empanada is offered automatically as a starter. The menu shows a large diagram of beef on the hoof from which you choose your cut. They are renowned for their superb steaks with piquant salsa-like toppings. I asked for a half portion. The meat arrived hanging over the plate and was about 5cm thick. No one in the nation must suffer from iron deficiency.

Arriving in Lima, the hotel welcomed us with coca leaf tea – the same plant as for cocaine but a different variety. I imagined explaining its harmlessness to NZ Customs. Instead I snacked on a tasty vegetarian quinoa burger. Later for dinner we shared anticuchos (beef heart on skewers) with hot sauce; tamales (seasoned corn dough baked in corn husks); and stuffed pepper rellenos. All are accompanied by more forms of ever-honoured corn and potato, including causas. These are small mounds of seasoned mashed potato with innovative meat, veg, and seafood toppings. This was the land that gave the world the potato and the education continues.

Visiting small Andean towns is like going back hundreds of years. Parents and four children might share the same bed with long strands of quinoa drying in the rafters above them. Guinea pigs were among the first mammals here and they are reared for food (the meat tastes oily and sweet, a bit like duck) as are alpaca (similar to veal or steak, depending on the cut). Men finish farming and head for the dirt-floor bar. We try chicha there: pink beer made from red corn.

Lima’s Central is ranked number five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Each dish on its 11-course menu is inspired by Peru’s diverse elevation levels, from the Pacific to the Andes. First was a green sea lettuce cracker with black sea snail and limpet dip. “Jungle” was a carb lover’s dream, with a tiny round loaf made from macambo nuts, potato and cassava flour. The dish representing the corn-growing region featured five individual corn kernels, larger than broad beans. Filled with corn pudding, poised on a jus of corn husks and beef stock, they were topped with cracker shards made from the five colours of corn, and tendrils of crisped corn silk. It was an exceptional meal that honoured tradition and creativity.

From the Amazon to the one of the world’s best restaurants: suitable bookend contrasts to this remarkable continent.