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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Uruguay

Historic Diet

Uruguay has a decent variety of plants and animals so when the first people arrived to the region they had many food sources available to them. This began with the plant life, which is somewhat limited compared to some South American countries, but is still quite diverse as rains and rivers make much of the land good for the growth of plants.

Fruits and other plants made up the majority of the historic diet as there was an abundance of these foods in the region. The most significant food from the region is the pineapple, which is native to the region, but this plant was only one of many that comprised the historic diet. Cassava (yuca), yams, mango, papaya, guava, passion fruit, and many lesser known fruits and vegetables were also important. In some parts of the region the people also had access to pine trees and peanut trees, both of which provided another important supplement to the diet: nuts (or legumes in the case of peanuts). There were various other plants that provided foods, including beans.

The early people also used the native animals for food, primarily sea food and small mammals, but these food sources were much less significant than the plant life. These animals include rabbits, catfish, pike, salmon, crabs, squid, and others.

Culinary Influences

At about the same time the first people arrived to the region that now makes up Uruguay, new foods arrived to the region. These arrived from winds, animals, and with the first settlers. This spread of foods included tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), peanuts, potatoes, melons, squash, cassava, papayas, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and other foods. Today all of these foods can be found in most, if not all South American countries, including Uruguay.

With a vast array of foods available, these early settlers used plants and animals to form their diet, including both the plants native to the region as well as those later introduced. From this point, into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

The Europeans arrived and settled the region in the 1400-1500s and most of them demanded the same foods they ate in Europe. This led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Some dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these dishes required ingredients that weren't present in Uruguay so these settlers found local foods to use as substitutes, while at other times they introduced new plants and animals to the region.

Much of this European influence came from Spain as the region became a Spanish colony and most settlers were from Spain. This led to the introduction of Spanish-styled soups, stews, desserts, and fish dishes. Even today the heavy Spanish influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in Uruguay use local ingredients so they are quite different from Spanish cuisine.

Other European countries also influenced the foods as the Italians introduced pasta, pizza, polenta, and desserts like gelato. The Germans introduced pastries and cakes while also helping influence the grilling culture. Even the Greeks made an impact with foods like gyros and desserts, including loukoumades.

Despite adopting many local plants to be used for European-inspired dishes, the Europeans also introduced many new plants and animals to the region. Although hundreds of plants and animals were introduced to the region by the Europeans, a couple of the most commonly consumed of these are wheat and rice. They also introduced new animals, most particularly pigs, chicken, and cattle. Other plants and animals were also introduced and are now common in Uruguay, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance. Among these, some are commonly used like onions, cilantro, black pepper, garlic, and limes, but others are not as common, including broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, lemons, and oranges.

The cattle were very important in many ways and one of the greatest draws for European settlers to Uruguay was due to the vast lands available for ranching. This made cattle and other animals one of the largest industries in the region and also led to the growing Uruguayan culture. Today this ranching past has created asado (barbeque), which is a feast of grilled and smoked meats (and vegetables), which has since became an important aspect of the local culture and diet.

Since the late 1800s the diet has been constantly changing, but during this time the changes have taken place due to technological changes. Better transportation and storage techniques allow the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, which are now easily accessible in large cities. During this period the cooking techniques and the eating culture has also been altered as fast food has been introduced, as have already prepared frozen foods.

Despite the recent changes, most people prefer a home cooked meal or going out to a restaurant. The restaurant scene has grown in recent years and large cities, like Montevideo, are now home to various ethnic restaurants, which haven't changed the local foods, but rather only added to them.

When & Where to Eat

Most Uruguayans begin the day with breakfast, which is often small and centered on coffee or tea. Although numerous foods can be served for breakfast, many people just have a small pastry or bread with their beverage.

Breakfast is small in part because lunch is not. Throughout most of Uruguay lunch is the largest meal of the day and many people close shops to eat at home from about noon to 2:00 or 3:00 pm. This meal generally consists of multiple courses and usually includes soup, meats, rice, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, dessert, and coffee or tea. In many areas lunch is still followed with a siesta or nap. In some cities, including Montevideo, there is a growing trend to have shorter lunches and many times these lunches are eaten at work or a nearby restaurant. In these cases lunches tend to be much smaller as dinner takes on the day's most important meal.

Dinner in most of the country tends to be small and takes place very late, generally beginning at 9:00 or 10:00 pm as most people tend to have dinner in the home with family. For those people who remain at work during the lunch hour, dinner takes on the role as the most important meal as dinner is the largest meal of the day, but again it tends to take place late and with family. For large gatherings, parties, or business dinners this meal is also larger than that of lunch and may take place in a restaurant (especially in the case of business dinners).

Staple Foods

Beef: perhaps not a true staple, but beef and other grilled meats are so common they are the centerpiece of many meals
Bread: breads are served with many meals or are a part of meals, like sandwiches
Crepes: commonly served with breakfast or dessert
Pasta: also known as "pastas" are found in many dishes due to the heavy Italian influence

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Asado: this is a general term for barbeque, but it is usually an event centered around meats and vegetables
Chivito: sandwich consisting of churrasco beef with mayonnaise, olives, mozzarella, and tomatoes
Empanada: meat or fish enclosed in a dough; in Uruguay it is often filled with cheese, although vegetables are also found
Pizza: pizza in Uruguay is a very popular dish, but is comes in various styles, including one that is similar to a calzone

Dining Etiquette

The Uruguayans tend to dress nicely, especially over meals with new friends or business acquaintances so if you get invited to dine with the locals in either a home or a restaurant be sure to dress nicely and, if at a business meeting, a jacket and tie are needed for guys and girls should wear a blouse or skirt. No matter where you're eating, be sure to arrive about 45-60 minutes late as this is when the Uruguayans tend to arrive.

Before sitting down let your host show you a seat as they may have a particular seating chart; be aware that men and women also tend to sit on opposite sides of the table so if they insist you seat yourself, try to follow this rule, but reserve the heads of the table for the host and hostess. Once you settle in try to avoid any sensitive subjects like politics or religion; also avoid business topics over a meal unless your host brings it up first as they usually do over lunch, but not over dinner.

The table setting is similar to that of North America or Europe so most people are familiar with it, but there are a couple things to remember when eating. First, always keep your hands above the table so they are in sight, preferably by resting your wrists on the edge of the table. Next, don't begin eating or drinking until your host or hostess invites you to do so. This is usually initiated by the words "buen provecho" to begin eating and a toast, perhaps as simple as "salud" before drinking. Also try to avoid pouring wine as there are a number of rules on how wine should be poured; the two most important being to never pour with your left hand and pour the bottle forward into the glass.

When the food arrives and you start eating, be sure to eat in the continental style, meaning the knife stays in the right hand and the fork remains in the left. You should use your utensils to eat everything except bread, which will often sit on the table itself or on your main plate as bread plates are uncommon. Also try to avoid cutting lettuce in a salad and if you pass food it should always go left.

Once you finish eating put your fork and knife together on the right side of your plate, prongs down and handles facing right, pointing straight up. When you are finished eating you may be offered dessert, coffee, tea, brandy, or another beverage, which is polite to accept. After this is done, look for cues to leave, as the Uruguayans feel it's rude to ask someone to leave so the guest must initiate this move. Of course mentioning that you should leave prior to the conclusion of dinner and drinks afterwards is just as rude so look out for cues from your host or simply offer to leave when you get tired.

If dining at a restaurant, summon the waiter or waitress over by making eye contact and saying "mozo;" you will not get a bill until you specifically ask for it. The inviter is expected to pay for everyone, but if you are not the host offer to help pay none-the-less. If you do pay, leave a tip of 10%, which is the standard tip amount at a sit down restaurant.

Celebrations & Events

There are a few foods tightly associated with certain holidays in Uruguay and one is served every month so if you happen to be in Uruguay during these celebrations be sure to try the local favorites, although it may be tough to avoid them in some cases. One of these celebration foods is called frankfurter kranz, which is a German dessert filled with buttercream or another filling and is found at nearly every celebration.

Other foods are only found at specific festivals. During Easter a dish fittingly called Pascualina (the Spanish word for Easter is "Pascua") is a dessert made from puff pastry, Swiss chard, and eggs, but is rarely found outside this rotating Christian holiday.

Every year on Christmas and New Year's budin ingles or "English pudding" is popular. This is basic pudding, but filled with fruits and nuts. Again this dish isn't as popular other times of the year, although it can definitely be found.

A local favorite and a dish you can get anywhere is gnocchi (or noquis). This Italian food was traditionally eaten on the 29th day of each month, or just prior to the monthly payday when funds were limited and this dish was cheap. Today many people continue this tradition and eat gnocchi at the end of each month, but again it can be found any time or the year.


Uruguay offers all the world's most popular non-alcoholic drinks, such as tea, coffee, juices, and soft drinks. However, for a local taste, try the indigenous drink, mate, which is made from the yerba mate plant in much the same way tea is made. Drinking this indigenous beverage is also a ritual as it must be drunk from a certain container (usually a gourd) and using a certain straw.

Uruguay offers nearly every popular international alcohol including beers, wines, and liquors. Most of these are imported international brands, but small local beers are popular. Many wines are from Uruguay itself, including their signature wines, made from tannat grapes. Their neighboring countries, like Argentina and Chile also import wines that can be easily found. To get a more authentic local flavor, ask for the grappamiel, which is an alcohol distilled with honey. It is generally only found in rural areas and is most commonly consumed in the cold winter months.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Uruguay, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013