How Latin American Countries Do Turkey — Spoiler, Not Dry

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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Over the years, much of the imagery and folklore surrounding Thanksgiving has been slowly debunked. As it turns out, the Pilgrims and Native Americans weren’t so buddy-buddy after all, and mashed potatoes were also not on the menu. However, documentation of the original celebration has proven that turkey, along with other birds and shellfish, was actually served to attendees back in 1621. So regardless of how much of the Thanksgiving narrative you’re willing to buy into, there’s still some truth to the popular tale—or at least when it comes to food.

This American tradition plays an important role in our nation’s cultural identity, even if its message or historical accuracy gets lost in the capitalist flurry of holiday shopping. Images of mashed potatoes, gourds, baked pies, and beautifully roasted turkeys have become symbols of America’s colonial past and, in many ways, its cuisine. But the turkey isn’t solely native to the U.S., even if it holds a special place in our nation’s psyche (i.e., our obsession with turkey cold cuts and the weird tradition known as the Turkey Pardon). This large feathered animal calls the entire North American continent home, with species found everywhere from Canada to El Salvador. 

Turkeys’ vast territory has made them a food staple in many countries, including Mexico, where turkey is a popular protein in its Yucatán Peninsula. South American countries also feast on turkey during the Holiday season, with the bird being a common centerpiece on Christmas dinner tables across the continent. This quintessentially “American” bird is, in fact, very American. Or rather, pan-American, with plenty of regional recipes to choose from. If you’re still planning this year’s Thanksgiving menu and want to include a Latin American twist, here are some recipes that will give your turkey a little more sazón. 

Pavo en kol

A traditional mestiza recipe from the Mexican state of Campeche, pavo en kol is a delicious take on the meat and polenta combos typically enjoyed in the winter months. Wild turkeys that roam southern Mexico are a specialty in this part of the country and are enjoyed in several ways, including roasted, grounded, fried, and more. This dish consists of roasted turkey that has been seasoned with flavors like salt, pepper, garlic, and achiote—the bright red paste made from annatto seeds. Achiote brings some subtly sweet and nutty notes to the bird, which are then enhanced by dressing the turkey with citrus juice (typically lime and orange.) Turkey is notoriously dry when prepared improperly, but the acid from the citrus brings tons of flavor and moisture to the meat. You’ll find recipes online that call for other spices and ingredients like cumin or tomato paste, so mix and match what sounds best for you when flavoring your Thanksgiving turkey. 

Then comes the last component to this dish, the kol—or col, depending on who you ask. This porridge-like base can be made from either flour or cornmeal, and consists of slowly mixing the dry ingredients into a saucepan of heated stock. You can stick to turkey stock for consistency or substitute with chicken, but make sure you whisk thoroughly to prevent lumps. Plate your roasted turkey on top of your kol, dress it with salsa, spritz some lime, and you have a bright pavo en kol. 

Pavo en escabeche

Pavo en escabeche is another Yucateco dish that’s commonly associated with the city of Valladolid. This briny and bold recipe is perfect for anyone interested in grilling their turkey this coming Thanksgiving. The key components to this dish are the recado blanco and escabeche (aka pickled onions.) The recado blanco is a spice mix of peppercorns, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, and Mexican oregano, to name a few ingredients. This mixture can be used to flavor the dish’s pickled onions and the turkey’s marinade, which gets slathered on with butter or lard for easy spreading. 

Once your bird has had some time to absorb all of those aromatic flavors, take it to a very hot grill where it gets some beautiful charing and color. Your grilled turkey pieces, which are not fully cooked through, get boiled afterward in a pot of water, vinegar, garlic, chiles, and more recado blanco to create a flavorful stew. Now that your turkey is finally cooked through, peel the tender meat off the bone, ladle some of that tangy broth on top, and garnish with your escabeche. With this recipe, no one will call your turkey dry or bland ever again. 

Sopa de lima

Yes, this is yet another Yucateco dish, but there is so much variety in this region of Mexico to choose from. When it comes to sopa de lima, turkey is not necessarily the main focus, but it sure is a delicious way of serving it. This tart soup is all about citrus—particularly the lima ágria fruit that arrived in Yucatán in the 16th century. The flavor of this fruit is somewhere between a lemon and lime, straddling sweet, bitter, and sour. You might have a hard time finding limas in American grocery stores. But no worries, limes, grapefruits, and lemons will do just fine. 

You’ll also commonly see this recipe made with chicken instead of turkey, but swapping poultry is no big deal either. Simply boil turkey legs in chicken or turkey stock with garlic, peppercorns, salt, pepper, and oregano until the meat is fully cooked (about an hour). Once you shred the meat and set it aside, strain the solids out of your stew, reincorporate the turkey into the pot, and bring the whole thing to a low boil. Now you can add your choice of citrus, whether it be limas or limes and grapefruit, and taste for salt. Feel free to add fresh avocado and cilantro on top or tortilla strips for some extra crunch. 

Pan con chumpe

If you look forward to leftover turkey sandwiches as much as we do, then El Salvador’s pan con chumpe is definitely worth giving a try. The turkey’s introduction to the Central American diet is claimed to date back to pre-Columbian times where Indigenous populations domesticated the bird across Mesoamerica. Nowadays, people in El Salvador enjoy turkey sandwiches, but with a combination of complex flavors. The sandwich’s relajo is what takes the cold turkey slices in your fridge to the next level. This spicy sauce is typically made from tomatoes, onions, garlic, and some fragrant ingredients like cloves, pumpkin seeds, and oregano. There’s also ancho and guajillo chiles thrown in the mix for a smoky but necessary heat. Like with all salsas, recipes may vary, so do your research and find one that sounds tastiest (or easiest) to you. 

Once the spices are ground into a powder and the fresh components are cooked in boiling water, blend everything together with some water to complete your Salvadoran relajo. This concoction gets slathered onto your warmed-up turkey slices, which afterward and placed inside a bolillo with tomatoes, cucumbers, radish, and lettuce. Add some Salvadoran curtido, olives, or mayo as well if you’re looking to get extra fancy with your flavorful pan con chumpe. 

Peru à brasileira

Brazil’s peru à brasileira is full of sweet and savory flavors, and more importantly: delicious farofa. Farofa, or toasted cassava flour, is a staple side dish in Brazil that’s commonly eaten alongside feijoada, the national dish. This grainy, toasted flavor is naturally nutty but is great at absorbing the flavors of whatever salt or fat you cook it in. The farofa served with this Holiday dish can be personalized to your specific taste, but it typically starts with a base of onions cooked in oil or butter before adding linguiça sausage, olives, raisins, ripened banana, and cilantro. The main rule of making farofa is to have plenty of oil or fat to prevent burning in the next step (so add a splash of oil if you notice things are looking dry.) Once all of the other ingredients gently come together over medium heat, slowly begin incorporating the cassava flour while stirring constantly. You’ll know it’s ready when the farofa is toastier in color and has a crunchy texture— roughly 6-8 minutes but follow package instructions. 

Spread butter underneath your turkey’s skin and stuff its main cavity with your sweet and savory farofa before roasting in the oven. In the end, you’ll get something that’s faintly similar to traditional American turkey with stuffing but with a little something extra. 

Pavo en mole

Mole is far too varied to get into the nitty-gritty details, so this turkey recipe is more so a concept rather than a specific dish. Pavo en mole is one of the tastiest and easiest ways to burn through all of your turkey leftovers before Christmas time. Regardless of whether you prefer mole poblano, negro, amarillo, or coloradito, you can make your mole yourself or venture to the supermarket to buy some pre-made paste. There is no shame in not making mole from scratch these days, especially since a traditional recipe has at least 30 ingredients. Will it taste as good as your abuelita’s mole? We can’t confirm nor deny, but know that you have options that can save you a lot of time. 

Turn your mole paste into a silky smooth sauce with your choice of broth and add your shredded turkey to the mix. You can sautee your turkey meat beforehand to warm it up and add some nice texture on the outside as well. Enjoy this delicious and easy dish with warm tortillas, or with enmoladas and rice. Invite some friends over for some pavo en mole and we can promise you that those turkey leftovers will be gone by the time they leave. 

Tamales de pavo

Tamales are one of those perfect masa-based vessels that can be customized in so many ways. Tamales de pavo is a perfect example of that and can be filled with pavo en mole to create a nutty, semi-sweet tamal with tender turkey meat. Cook your shredded turkey in salsa for a spicier filling, like tamales verdes de pavo with serrano chiles and tomatillos. You can also toss it into a sofrito if you’re not looking for too much heat and find a tomato-heavy sauce when your fork cuts into your tamal. 

Whether you’ve made tamales yourself or simply enjoyed them, you know variation is key, so feel free to mix and match recipes until all of your turkey is dealt with. The best part of this method: tamales fare well in the freezer and can be there for you when you’re hungry and looking for something quick but delicious to eat.