Culture

From Pasteles to Lechón, These Are The Best Nochebuena Foods Around Latin America

We may not have proof, pero no hay duda alguna: Latinoamérica is home to some of the best holiday meals in the world. Bringing together ingredients like chile, aceitunas, cebolla, tons of puerco, corn, and yes, queso sagrado y bendito, our countries’ festive dishes are as diverse as nuestra gente themselves.

From Colombia, to Cuba, to Ecuador, Latin America knows how to make the holidays a time que no se olvida jamás – especially if accompanied by un buen arroz con pollo, cinnamon-dusted coquito, maybe some flan de queso for good measure, and naturally, Héctor Lavoe’s entire discography. Because what is Nochebuena without salsa-stepping to “Aguanile” or “El Cantante”? Even if you prefer some classic Juan Luis Guerra-style merengue, all we know is that un buen ritmo is best paired with some fire Navidad-ready meals.

While picking just a few classic holiday meals from all of nuestros países would be downright treason, we’ve decided on one definitive comida festiva for each country in Latinoamérica. These dishes are the corazón of each Christmas spread, and bring back los mejores recuerdos with loved ones. We’re salivating just looking at these photos — but as we know, nuestra comida es la mejor ever. Enjoy!

1. Venezuela: Pan de Jamón

We couldn’t begin any other way than with Venezuela’s most prized Nochebuena to Nochevieja offering: a tender, pull-apart, buttery bread loaf filled with ham, olives and raisins. Pan de Jamón is where it’s at for everyone from Caraqueños, to “Maracuchos,” to Margariteños, typically prepared at least a day before the festivities start. Comforting, salty, and slightly sweet, eating a pan de jamón truly feels like stepping into a warm bakery, or rolling right into your bed after a long day.

2. Chile: Pavo Relleno

Chileans can’t live without a hefty dose of pavo relleno every holiday season, consisting of juicy turkey meat filled with a variety of ingredients you might not expect. Far away from American Thanksgiving-style stuffing like bread cubes and celery, Chile brings on todos los mejores sabores with ham, lomo, chestnuts, cinnamon, bacon, garlic, and even refreshing fruit. Yes, this recipe usually calls for some sweet, delicious cut-up oranges and apples to be stuffed inside the turkey, accentuated by wine and raisins. Truly, the most decadent, luxurious holiday meal — and we’re here for it. 

3. Costa Rica: Queque Navideño

While savory meals will always have a place at our table, los postres hacen la vida más dulce. Luckily, Costarriqueños have got us covered with their famous queque navideño, a dense rum cake filled with all kinds of fruit and nuts. Ticos love serving this after a Christmas dinner usually consisting of pork legs, rice, and tamales, savoring the sweet, canela-tinged cake with rompope (slightly similar to eggnog). Queque navideño traditionally brings together brown sugar, orange juice, walnuts, almonds, rum, dried fruit, raisins, ginger and lemon peel, creating a complex, layered, deep flavor que es para morirse. 

4. Guatemala: Tamales Colorados

Let’s get this straight: most Latin American countries serve a kind of tamal come Christmastime, and no, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Whether you call them tamales, pasteles, or hallacas, Nochebuena isn’t Nochebuena without soft, corn-based dough wrapped in a corn (or plantain) leaf — sin discusiones! Guatemalans can be found serving tamales colorados throughout the whole holiday season, which are traditionally filled with chicken or pork, tomato and chile-based salsa de recado, and olives. Wrapped in banana leaves and imparting the right amount of spice, these are some of the best tamales ever.

5. Perú: Panetón Peruano 

Perú is known for all kinds of gastronomic works of genius, including global phenomena like ceviche and lomo saltado, and their holiday array is just as legendario. While they usually dine on roasted meat and ensalada rusa tinged with beet juice, Peruvians’ Christmas dessert is just as good. Panetón Peruano is a traditional holiday fruit cake, but it’s not the dry, bland kind of fare you might be thinking of. Muy diferente, panetón derives from Italian panettone, but is flavored with chirimoya extract, sweet wine or rum, made denser with evaporated milk, and might even include some tropical fruits like dried watermelon or papaya. Serve it with creamy chocolate caliente!

6. Puerto Rico: Pasteles

Yes, filled, corn dough-based, leaf-wrapped treats are a thing all around Latinoamérica, and that includes the island that brought us Bad Bunny, mofongo, coquito, and even the late Walter Mercado. Puerto Ricans know a thing or two about having a good time (cue “Pégate” by Ricky Martin) and know just as much about making delicious meals, especially for a festive season that goes way into January. Like every Boricua knows, pasteles are a must-have for the holidays, made of corn dough filled with masa de cerdo, chicken, or yuca, always wrapped in a large banana leaf. Puerto Rican sofrito makes this recipe come to life.

7. Colombia: Ajiaco 

In Colombia, ajiaco soup is part of any joyous occasion that needs just a bit of coziness, and the festive navidades are no exception. Ajiaco is perfect for bringing some comfort to the Christmas table, coming together as a hearty broth that includes chicken, corn, potatoes, onions, cilantro, carrots and cream or milk to make it thicker. This soup is traditionally a Bogotá-based dish but is made all throughout Colombia, accompanying some cumbia, vallenato, champeta, or salsa rhythms well into the New Year. We love ajiaco for making a huge dish that easily serves guests and all their plus ones, because what are the holidays without the calidez de nuestra gente?

8. Honduras: Torrejas

Sure, Honduras is known for Christmas-ready, meat-filled nacatamales, not to mention all that delicious pork, but their quintessential holiday dessert nos tiene locos. Torrejas are traditionally served at the end of Nochebuena, on Christmas day, or any other late December night after dinner — they’re just that good. This sweet offering is made out of thick bread, eggs, vanilla, butter, cloves, and cinnamon, sometimes including milk for even more moisture and some orange peel for citrus-y goodness. While you might think it’s similar to french toast, it is completely set apart by being sweetened by panela or papelón, an unrefined raw sugar made from cane juice that’s found in all kinds of Latin American dishes. Serve this with warm honey and a dust of cinnamon!

9. Panama: Arroz con Pollo

In Panama, no Navidad is complete without some mouthwatering arroz con pollo, which is classically prepared for all kinds of festive occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. This dish is the epitome of comfort and family-style cooking, and while many other countries have their own versions of arroz con pollo, Panama’s iteration is a little different. Of course, it brings together rice, chicken, onion, peas, sazón and adobo, but it also includes unexpected ingredients like raisins, olives, pimento peppers, beer, Worcestershire sauce, and saffron for una explosión de sabores. The extra additions make Panama’s arroz con pollo even creamier, making it the most inviting navideño meal.

10. Argentina: Pionono Navideño

While Argentinos are known for their epic asados, chock-full of different kinds of meat including chorizo and vacío, there’s more to their festive lineup than first meets the eye. Yes, there’s probably a barbeque in the picture somewhere (the traditions of las Pampas run strong), but the South American country brings together all kinds of snacks and side dishes to savor throughout the night — even before getting to all those dulce de leche desserts. Pionono navideño is a cake roll that is both salty and sweet, combining a light, delicate sponge with savory ingredients like ham, cheese, mayonnaise, peppers, lettuce and tomato. Hard-boiled eggs and olives are added for un poco más de sabor, and let’s just say we’ll happily have the whole roll.

11. Bolivia: Picana

Spending the holidays in Bolivia is all about savoring the piping-hot, epic picana navideña, a soup that’s eaten right at the strike of midnight on Nochebuena. This dish is hearty, cozy, and best served en familia, made up of a broth base, chicken, beef, lamb, and tons of vegetables like carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes. Spices like chili pepper and oregano make it lleno de sabor casero, and wine and beer give the broth a boozy kick that’s super-savory. Eat it at 12 A.M. with your abuela, tíos, primos, parents, in-laws, and friends, dando las gracias por tus seres queridos.

12. Cuba: Puerco

If you’re Cuban, chances are your navidades are always filled with a helping of puerco asado, or the most tender pork with heavenly crispy skin. Cuban puerco is what dreams are made of, whether pull-apart and shredded fresh out of the oven, served with a garlic, onion and oregano traditional mojo sauce, or going family-style with un puerco entero on a spitfire in a caja china (this makes for the best chicharrones). Whatever way you go, holiday puerco is a Cuban tradition that will take you from the 24th all the way to Los Reyes Magos, best served with congrí rice and maduros.

13. México: Romeritos 

México querido, the land that gave us Frida Kahlo, tacos al pastor, Luis Miguel and so much more, is known for its constant buzz of creativity at every turn. Mealtime mainstay mole sauce is a work of art in itself, notoriously combining more than 20 ingredients like chocolate, garlic, and chipotle to make a multi-layered, deep flavor. The Christmas dish romeritos combines classic mole with romerito leaves, potatoes, nopales, garlic, and shrimp, creating a creamy, thick concoction that’s perfect para un toque calientito on cold winter nights. The romerito plant was traditionally used by the Mayans as a nutritious food source, and makes for one of the best cenas navideñas on the planet.

14. Ecuador: Hornado de Chancho

What can we say, Latinoamérica likes its pork, and Ecuador follows suit with their delicioso hornado de chancho, a slow-roasted pork leg that is flavorful, just a bit spicy, and unbelievably tender. Ecuatorianos love serving this dish come Christmastime with buñuelos filled with everything from cheese to yuca, plus turkey and the canela-imbued warm drink canelazo. But hornado de chancho is the star of the meal, marinated for up to three days in a mix of garlic, onion, lemon, cumin, oregano, orange juice and beer. The alcohol in the beer makes the pork even easier to desmenuzar, and the spices make it the ultimate comfort food (especially when served with a side of potatoes).

15. Uruguay: Asado 

It’s no secret Uruguayan food culture is all about embracing red meat, and having regular asados is a tradition that extends through generaciones – joining together family, friends, and co-workers in the beauty of an amazing matambre or some costillas. The holiday season only gives Uruguayans more of a reason to partake in asados, jazzing up the affair with some decadent lechón and cordero. And vegetarians, not to fret: most extra-festive asados also include barbecuing corn, eggplant, potatoes and provoleta cheese, giving the entire meal a woody, deep aroma that defines the tradition. Plus, everything is doused with the parsley and oregano-tinged, olive oil-based chimichurri, so it’s basically perfect.

16. Dominican Republic: Moro de Gandules con Coco

Dominicanos know that no holiday season is complete without puerco asado, ensalada rusa with tons of juicy apples, and pastelón de plátano maduro, a deep-dish casserole that’s creamy and savory-sweet. They have their pasteles in banana leaves, and empanadas like cativías, but nothing compares to the country’s moro de gandules con coco. A rice dish that incorporates rice, pigeon peas or gandules, cilantro, capers, olives, tomato and lots of coconut milk, this is the most comforting meal on any Dominican Christmas table set-up. The result? Flavor that rivals fuego artificiales on Nochevieja, and a moist, slightly-sticky texture from the coconut that is downright-decadent. 

17. El Salvador: Panes con Pollo

In El Salvador, the holidays are all about bringing la familia y los seres queridos together, inviting all the primos, tíos, plus one’s, significant others, friends, and vecinos that anyone can think of. Because what’s a true Christmas without celebrating with others, and being grateful for a feast full of buena comida, risas, abrazos, and a bit of chisme from your Tía Graciela? So, Salvadoreños know that the best holiday food strategy is making grandes cantidades that everyone can snack from, including endless quesadillas and chicken tamales on their festive table. But the true genius meal is their panes con pollo, filling French bread with tons of tender chicken, tomato, lettuce, radishes, carrots, mayonnaise, mustard and some chile verde. While you might have this on Nochebuena, panes con pollo are great as a Christmas daytime lunch, making use of leftover chicken from the night before.

18. Paraguay: Chipa Guazú

We love a creamy, thick, comforting casserole, and Paraguay’s chipa guazú is one of the best in the world. This deep-dish, family-style meal comprises fresh ears of corn, eggs, milk, onions, and queso paraguayo, a white cheese made from milk curd. While this food might look dessert-like to the naked eye, it is actually savory-sweet concoction that is frankly inolvidable. Paraguay has a whopping 70 different kinds of chipa, or cakes made out of corn. This one is a surefire staple at any asado, birthday, las navidades, or even año nuevo. Impossibly comforting and cozy, chipa guazú is often served with tons of barbecued beef and pork, followed up with a fruit punch called clérico and dulce de leche treats.

19. Nicaragua: Arroz a la Valenciana

The land of lakes and volcanoes is known for many things: its scenic beauty, its larger-than-life

Bosawás rainforest, Ruben Darío’s epic poetry (here’s looking at you, “Canto de Esperanza”), and yes, it’s jaw-dropping, delicious food. Come the holidays, Nicaraguans pull all the stops to make every festive night lo más increíble del mundo, playing everything from palo de mayo to reggaeton, and serving up trays of pollo relleno, all kinds of nacatamales, and rosquilla cookies with corn and cheese. But their arroz a la Valenciana está a otro nivel, ever-present in all festive celebrations and made of rice, chicken, ham, onions, tomato sauce, green bell peppers, beer or wine, and chorizo for good measure. A hearty, savory dish for the whole family, este arroz is typically made in large quantities to take you through Christmas week.

20. Brazil: Bolinho de Bacalhau

Finally, how could we not list Brazil’s bolinho de bacalhau dish, accompanying traditional Natal foods like pernil, natalino ham with apples, and classic farofa, made of cassava. Bolinhos de bacalhau have a salt cod filling, blended with potatoes, onion, garlic, and parsley and coated in breadcrumbs and eggs. Fried to a perfect, browned crisp, these bolinhos are adictivos, and pair amazing with some lime juice, hot sauce, or salsa rosada (A.K.A. our friends ketchup and mayonnaise). Warning: bolinhos de bacalhau go scarily well with prende-la-fiesta Christmas songs like “Sino de Belém” and “Boas Festas,” plus rhythms ranging from samba, to bossa nova, to the country-pop-tinged, very singable sertanejo.

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