When thinking about Latin American cuisine, there are plenty of things to celebrate. It’s unique, spicy, comforting, and properly represents the locations and people it originates from. Above all else, though, lies a fact about Latin American cooking that can get easily overlooked: it’s simplicity.
On the surface, Latin American cuisine might seem complicated because of the variety of flavors, colors, and textures that chefs are able to achieve. However, if you dig a bit deeper these things are managed by just a handful of ingredients that are almost always locally sourced and historically significant.
These five Latin dishes are the best example of that fact. They all contain only three basic foundational ingredients and are as simple and minimal as they are delicious. And just as a disclaimer, the three ingredients don’t include salt, pepper, or any other seasonings, spices, or herbs that might elevate the main elements but don’t directly contribute to what this writer would consider an ‘ingredient.’
Here are five Latin dishes with only three ingredients.
1 | Tamales
Ingredients: Corn masa, shredded pork, green olives
Many of the dishes on this menu can be as complicated or simple as the chef wants to make them. Not tamales. They are classically minimal by design and will probably never change. They are perfect the way they are and will always represent the most refined, delicate, and unwavering of Mexican dishes.
Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, however. Tamales require a deft hand and a labor of love in order to reach the high bar they are set at. The masa itself is a tricky business, requiring just the right ratio of corn to lard and a mixing technique that’s been passed down through centuries of family tradition.
2 | Ceviche
Ingredients: Fish, lemon juice, hot peppers.
Ceviche comes in many varieties depending on which city you’re in and what mood the chef might be in that day, but these three ingredients remain steadfast in them all. Ceviche is raw fish that has been cured in salt and lemon juice, typically spruced up with a selection of hot peppers. It’s fresh, minimal, and completely refreshing.
The beauty of ceviche is that you can find it in almost every Latin American country because most of them are heavily influenced by the sea. Each place uses different fish and complementary ingredients, making it one of the most culturally diverse dishes in the entire region.
3 | Chili Relleno
Ingredients: Poblano chili, cheese, enchilada sauce
Whoever thought stuffing a chili pepper with cheese, frying it to a golden crisp, then smothering it in spicy enchilada sauce is a genius in my book. The three ingredients that make up chili relleno are perhaps the three most iconic in Latin American cuisine.
Few things in life are more satisfying than seeing a piping hot plate of chili relleno plopped down in front of you, except for maybe stuffing it in your mouth as fast as your pain tolerance for scorching hot cheese will allow. Proceed with caution, and proceed in ecstasy.
4 | Chicken Empanadas
Ingredients: Pastry dough, oil, shredded chicken
These delicious hand pies are a staple in Peruvian cuisine and come in a variety of types and flavors. This recipe calls for shredded chicken as a filling, which should be prepared ahead of time and kept warm in a shallow pool of its own salty juices.
The pastry dough is filled, folded, and fried until golden brown and typically served with some kind of creamy sauce for dipping. This is Latin street food at its finest, and shine because of its simplicity and versatility in the culinary world.
5 | Pupusas
Ingredients: Corn dough, ground pork, salsa
This popular Salvadoran street food is made atop of broiling griddle, where lines of thick corn tortillas stuffed with savory filling bubble, brown, and puff up until ready for consumption. This recipe calls for ground beef as the heart of the pupusa, but one could fill these little corn treats with just about anything they can put an imagination to.
Pupusas should be eaten while wandering through the streets of San Salvador with a foggy head and a loopy smile, covered in fresh salsa and late night dreams. They are a little slice of Salvadorian culture and a can’t miss for Latin American travelers.