Soups of South America

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

South Americans love soup! Ranging from delicate consommés to hearty stews and comprising breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert, soup has played an important role in daily fare since pre-Columbian times. Most soups are simply flavored, drawing inspiration from the foods of indigenous populations and evolving over time as Europeans, Asians, and Africans contributed flavors and ingredients.

Soups thickened with grains, dried maize (corn) or beans, quinoa, amaranth, potatoes, or squash have ties to pre-Columbian times. One ancient soup called sanco comes from the Andean highlands, where wild greens are frequently added to the soup pot. According to Maria Baez Kijac in The South American Table, these old-fashioned thick-as-polenta soups were mostly all meatless before the Spaniards arrived. Another thickened pre-Columbian soup, found only in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, uses corn or barley and is sweetened with fruit. These sweet soups are served as dessert drinks and are favorites on special holidays, such as Carnival and Day of the Dead.

Other soups incorporated European recipes, spices, and Old World ingredients with New World foods. Early Spaniards and Portuguese added meats, milk, and cheeses and adapted their recipes to include locally grown fruits and vegetables, such as yucca.

Feijoada is a popular Brazilian black bean soup that originated in the clay pot bean-and-vegetable stews of Portugal. This hearty stew is sometimes enhanced by tropical fruits, and feijoada is now one of the most popular dishes in Brazil.

Main dish soups are popular all over South America. One soup, called locro in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, is porridge-like with hominy (dried corn), beans, squash, or sweet potatoes. Another soup, called chupé in Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, is more like a stew and includes potatoes, cheese, vegetables, and occasionally eggs. In Bolivia, chupés are dairy-free and usually served for lunch, the main meal of the day.

A thick soup, called sancocho in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, is made with chunks of boiled meat, potatoes, or yucca in a broth and is served with a side dish of rice. Sancochos can be simple or elaborate, depending on ingredients and flavorings.

When it comes to seasonings, South American soups are fairly simple, and they have been that way since pre-Columbian times. One or two herbs or spices listed in recipes may, at first glance, seem bland, but South Americans typically rely on a hot pepper purée (made with dried or fresh peppers) to season soups at the table. It’s as common as salt and pepper, and just a spoonful of this fiery red pepper sauce is enough to flavor a bowl of soup. Another sauce, the onion-based sofrito, is also served on the side and stirred into soup at the table.

Common South American Ingredients

  • Annatto - This ingredient comes from a pod on the achiote tree. The reddish pulp around the pod’s seeds is scraped off, dried, and ground into a powder. The flavor is slightly peppery with hints of nutmeg. Look for annatto in Latin markets or specialty foods stores.
  • Hearts of Palm - Slender, ivory buds on a cabbage palm tree, hearts of palm are abundant in tropical climates, where they are grown as commodity crops, canned, and exported. Look for hearts of palm in the international aisle at grocery stores. Once the can is opened, remove the hearts of palm to a non-reactive container, cover, and refrigerate for up to a week.
  • Hominy - This is dried yellow or white corn that has been separated from the hull. To remove the hull from dried corn, soak it in lye or lime. (This step is not for children or careless adults.) Look for hominy in cans or buy the dried version.
  • Plantain - This large, firm banana has a mild taste and is used in ways similar to potatoes. When selecting, keep in mind that plantains ripen like bananas. Unripe specimens are green; the ripe versions are yellow with black spots that become more prominent as they ripen. Typically, recipes call for either the ‘green’ variety or the ‘ripe’ variety.
  • Yucca - Yucca (also known as cassava or manioc) is a staple root vegetable that is native to South America and has been cultivated for centuries. It is highly perishable and should be eaten within four days of harvest. Look for yucca in specialty foods stores. Check the produce section, and look for the big brown root with a thick, liberally waxed brown skin. (The wax preserves the yucca.) Remove the skin with a sharp knife, cutting carefully. If you can’t find yucca, use peeled white or red potatoes — not starchy russets — or you can use sweet potatoes or yams.


(Serves 4)

A traditional Indian comfort food, this soup has been served throughout time with few changes. It can be served for breakfast or late in the evening for dessert.

Look for dried corn in Latin American markets, farmers' markets, or specialty foods stores. Look for dry hominy at specialty foods stores or check websites like <>.

  • 1 cup cracked dried corn or hominy
  • Cold water to cover corn or hominy
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 Tablespoon polenta blended with 2 Tablespoons water
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons coconut milk
  • 2 Tablespoons Rapadura or dark brown Florida Crystals (vegan sugar)

Rinse the corn and soak overnight, covered with plenty of cold water. If you need the corn the same day, place it in a heavy casserole with water to cover, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover, and allow to stand for 1 hour.

Drain corn and place in a heavy soup pot. Add 6 cups water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until corn is soft, approximately 1 hour. Stir in the polenta-water paste and the salt. Continue to cook, uncovered and stirring frequently, for approximately 30 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Total calories per serving: 178 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 37 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 6)

In the highlands of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, quinoa is queen. Quinoa grows best at high altitudes, and it provides perfect protein for this tasty recipe. This soup thickens as it cools; simply add water when reheating.

  • 1 Tablespoon canola or olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeño, chopped (If you don't want too much heat, remove seeds and veins.)
  • 1 Tablespoon oregano
  • ¼ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • 4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock or water
  • 1-½ cups soymilk or one 14-ounce can lite coconut milk
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • ¼ cup cilantro

Heat oil in a stock pot, add onions, and cook until wilted. Add the quinoa, carrots, potatoes, garlic, and jalapeños. Stir and cook for a few minutes. Then, add oregano, tomatoes, and stock or water.

Simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Add milk and peas and cook for 5 more minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Total calories per serving: 319 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 57 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 211 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams


(Serves 4-6)

There are many versions of Brazilian black bean soup, some with and some without tomatoes. Many versions also incorporate orange juice. Oranges grow abundantly in Brazil, one of the world’s leading producers of the fruit.

  • 1 cup black beans, sorted, rinsed, and soaked overnight
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 head garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon coriander
  • ½ teaspoon liquid smoke
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • Juice and zest of 1 orange
  • 1 medium or large tomato, chopped
  • 2 cups shredded collard greens
  • 1-¼ cups chopped cilantro

Add the black beans, water, garlic, cumin, coriander, and liquid smoke to a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer on low for 1 hour or until the beans are done.

Add the salt, pepper, orange juice and zest, tomatoes, and collard greens. Simmer until greens are soft. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Note: Liquid smoke is available at many grocery stores, usually in the condiment section near the ketchups and barbecue sauces.

Total calories per serving: 201 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 303 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams


(Serves 6)

The Portuguese influence is everywhere in South America. This recipe, borrowed from Portugal and popular in Brazil, is one example. It incorporates the sweet potato, a South American native.

This soup is usually served with sausage on the side, and the meat is added like a condiment at the table. I used a vegan substitute for the sausage; the chipotle-infused Field Roast sausage worked so well that my meat-loving friends couldn’t taste the difference.

  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 medium yellow or red potato, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 sweet potato, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 bunch kale (approximately 16 ounces)
  • 2 or 3 vegan sausages like Field Roast, cut into bite-sized pieces

Heat a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions and oil.

Stir and cook until onions are soft. Add garlic and potatoes and stir to coat with oil.

Add 6 cups water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add salt and pepper, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 20 minutes or until the potatoes are fork-tender.

While the potatoes cook, wash the kale and remove the stems. Cut the kale into thin strips and then chop into very tiny pieces.

Drain the potatoes, but reserve the cooking liquid. Mash the potatoes and then return them to the pot with the cooking liquid.

Add the kale, stir, and cook for approximately 3 minutes or until the kale turns bright green and is barely cooked. Remove soup from heat. The soup thickens as it cools; add boiling water if a thinner soup is desired.

In a medium skillet, lightly brown the vegan sausage substitute. Serve on the side so people can add the amount that suits their tastes.

Total calories per serving: 199 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 25 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 625 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

A sancocho is a thick stew, popular in Colombia and Ecuador and traditionally based on chicken or fish. This vegan version incorporates chunks of Field Roast, a brand of seitan (a wheat-gluten protein substitute). You could also try various soy-based meat replacements.

This soup has a thick base made with yucca and green plantains. Recipes for sancocho vary, but most versions include cilantro, corn, garlic, onions, and peppers. The yellow color comes from Mexican saffron or annatto seeds, but you could try real saffron at home.

A sancocho is often served with a side dish of white rice. The rice is spooned into the soup, or you can ladle the soup over the rice.

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 hot pepper (habanero or jalapeño), chopped
  • 1 sweet pepper, deseeded and sliced
  • 1-1/2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 head garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican saffron
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 6 cups low-sodium vegetable stock or water
  • 1 small yucca, peeled and sliced
  • 2 green plantains, peeled and sliced
  • 5 medium potatoes, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 6 ounces Field Roast or seitan, cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn (optional)
  • 1 can lite coconut milk (optional)
  • Juice of 1 lime (optional)

Heat a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, peppers, and oil and sauté until peppers are soft. Add the garlic, saffron, and cumin. Stir and continue to cook for a few minutes.

Add the stock or water, yucca, plantains, and potatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add the Field Roast or seitan, corn, and coconut milk, and stir until the Field Roast or seitan and corn are heated. Add lime juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Total calories per serving: 443 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 88 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 320 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams


(Serves 4)

A favorite of many South Americans, this creamy soup usually contains milk, but you can easily replace the dairy with soy, rice, or coconut milk. Here is a version with coconut milk.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ cup sliced scallions
  • 2 cups low-sodium vegetarian stock
  • One 14-ounce can lite coconut milk
  • One 14-ounce can hearts of palm
  • 1 Tablespoon rice flour
  • Paprika or cayenne
  • Salt to taste

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add oil and scallions. Stir and cook until soft, and then add stock, milk, and hearts of palm. Stir and cook until well-blended.

Place one cup of the mixture into a blender and purée until smooth. Repeat with the remaining mixture, puréeing one cup at a time. Return the puréed mixture to the pan. Sprinkle rice flour over the top, stir, and heat until mixture thickens to desired consistency. Sprinkle with paprika or cayenne, and add salt to taste.

Total calories per serving: 196 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 506 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Makes 1/4 cup or 8 servings)

This is a common condiment that is spooned into individual portions of soup at the table. The closest chile relative of the South American manzano chiles are habaneros, so use these if you can’t find manzanos.

10 manzanos or habanero peppers, washed, cut in half, deseeded, and chopped
2-4 Tablespoons water
Pinch salt

Place peppers, a few Tablespoons of water, and salt into a blender. Purée until smooth, adding more water as needed. Transfer to a small container and refrigerate for up to a week.

Total calories per serving: 23 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 1 grams
Sodium: 23 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal.