The Role of Desserts in South American Culture

South America is a varied continent, every of its 12 countries has its own gastronomy. In fact, the food scene in South America is highly regional, so you’ll find different types of food within the same country. 

The bountiful Amazon rainforest blesses some South American countries. Others enjoy the Andes mountain range. Some countries have spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and others of the Atlantic or the Caribbean up north! 

There’s no one South American cuisine but many. But what they all have in common is a rich sweet repertoire of desserts, baking treats and sweets. Let’s talk about the role of desserts in South America. 

South America’s Culinary History

South America has always been home to native cultures that have made the most out of the continent’s original ingredients. Corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, beans, cassava, plantains, quinoa and tropical fruit have been part of the continent’s food for thousands of years. 

Many of the ingredients used in South America today come from other parts of the world, including grapes, barley, wheat, beef, pork and chicken. South American cultures are a merger of cultures between the old and new world, and so is its food. 

When it comes to sweets, the continent relies on foreign ingredients. Sugar cane originated in Southwest Asia and was brought to the continent by the Spaniards and Portuguese explorers. Even the famous dulce de leche, a quintessential sweet ingredient in the country, came from abroad. 

Jug with cane sugar juice next to sugar cane pieces

To talk about the role of desserts in South American cultures is to talk about the assimilation of different cultures and the resulting new cuisine. 

Dairy in South American Desserts

Dairy in all its forms is vital in South America’s sweet menu. For starters, dulce de leche, the sticky spread made by caramelising sugar and milk, is quintessential in alfajores, cakes, ice cream and tarts. 

Dulce de leche jar with a wooden spoon


Butter, of course, gives richness to tarts and cakes. And even milk itself has been adopted in various sweet recipes. The famous “Tres Leches cake” or three-milk cake relies on condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk for a moist cake with no equal. 

Argentina has a rich cattle tradition, but so do Paraguay and southern Brazil. The immense ranching industry in South America results in the continent’s love for meat and allows the population to enjoy locally sourced dairy products. The combination of dairy with the local cacao beans resulted in chocolate, which is, of course, as popular in South America as it is in the rest of the world!

Fruits in South American Desserts

Tropical fruit is bountiful in South America; people have enjoyed it for centuries. Amazonian fruit includes guavas, soursops, açai berries and dragon fruit, and these are only a few easily recognizable fruits from dozens available.

South America’s cultural exchange with Europe also resulted in many fruits that found themselves at home on the warm continent, including papayas, bananas, strawberries and peaches. You’ll find dozens of fruit-based desserts in South America, and some fruits play a role in savoury food as well — plantains are quintessentially South American. 

Guava, soursop, mango and tamarind laid on a wooden table


Let’s not forget about grapes — the source of the lovely wine from Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. They, too, are a European import. And what about coconut? Coconuts come from the Central Indo-Pacific, but they now grow in every tropical region worldwide, especially in South America. What are your favourite fruit desserts? There are plenty to choose from! 

Baking Treats In South America

When the European conquerors arrived in South America, they didn’t find their staple food, bread. Instead, they found a variety of corn-based cakes, dumplings and breads. Some are still prevalent, like arepas and tamales, and there are sweet versions for both.

However, wheat was quickly assimilated into the continent, and with the help of experienced European bakers, a new range of bread-based desserts was born. Suddenly, sweet pastries, South American-inspired Viennoiserie, cakes and cookies that had never been seen before came to be, and many became a staple. 

Some South American desserts look very much like their European counterparts, like Brazil’s brigadeiro and French truffles or Argentina’s chocotorta and the Italian tiramisu. Mexico, although part of North America, shares South America’s gastronomic journey, and the country now has at least a hundred sweet pastries or “pan dulce.” The baking world is now richer, thanks to South America’s contribution. 

A tray with brigadeiros

Did You Know?

  • The term dessert comes from the French desservir, which means to clear the table. In Spanish, desserts are called “postre,” and the word comes from the root -post, which means after (dinner).
  • Interestingly, the word dessert and most popular desserts, like cakes as we know them, originated around the 17th century, right around the same time as South America was discovered.

But, what are the most popular desserts in South America?

There’s no easy answer since every South American country has at least a dozen popular desserts. Explore other articles on this site to read about the most popular desserts in different countries!

What makes South American desserts unique?

What makes South American sweets special is the merger of cultures with European, African and native influences. The combination of Old World and New World products is also unbeatable, making the continent’s dessert scene unique at many levels. Of course, South American people’s love for their desserts also helps!

Join our newsletter for more information about South American food traditions and desserts. For delicious pictures, follow our Instagram account. To make your own sweets, book and alfajores-making masterclass! Let’s share our passion for good food with a South American spirit — the continent indeed has something for everyone. 

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