Latin America is well surrounded by seas and oceans, warm seas like the Caribbean or cold oceans like the southern Atlantic and Pacific. The south western coast of south America has the Humboldt Current, which is the most productive marine ecosystem in the world, as well as the largest cold water upwelling system. Approximately 20% of the world’s fish catch comes from the Humboldt Current. The diversity of fish species around Latin America is enormous and often a specie presents slight variations from one country to another, and sometimes the same fish is called different names. Some species are found only in warm waters, others are found only in cold waters, some are found in both.

In this blog I will describe the most commercially common species, giving their English name, the most common local names a photograph of a real fish and when possible a drawing to observe its features. At the bottom you will find some simple recipes to taste some of these fish. When traveling around Latin America you may encounter some local especies of fish give them a try, they are usually well prepared by the locals and very tasty.

BONITO: General Description: Bonito belong to the mackerel family and resemble small tuna, with which they are often confused. Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda) have silvery bellies and sides and a steel to purplish-blue back with dark blue slanting stripes. Pacific bonito (S. chiliensis) are silvery brown and about the same size as their Atlantic cousins. The slightly larger striped bonito (S. orientalis) is found along the Pacific coast of North and South America. Fresh bonito are highly prized in the north of Spain. In Basque country, this fish is served in marmite kua or marmitako, a fisherman’s stew ideally prepared and eaten at sea. Bonito is well-suited to escabeche. Bonito’s tasty meat is used fresh, dried, salted, smoked, and canned and may be cooked like mackerel and bluefish.

COD: Bacalao (Spanish), Bacalhau (Portuguese), this fish is usually not sold fresh, except maybe in

Dried Cod
Chile where it is captured, but is often sold dried salted in markets, it must be soaked in water with a little salt to remove excess salt before cooking. Even though it is not captured in the seas of Latin America all the European immigrants living among us have taught us to eat it and is very popular for Christmas and new year dinners. Cod has a mild flavor, so it takes well to rich sauces and strong seasonings.

Cazon in chunks
DOGFISH SHARK: Cazon in Spanish and cação in brazil. Is a small shark whose flesh is fibrous but is boiled in chunks, then shredded and cooked a second time with a sofrito (fried seasonings sauce) for added flavor. The resulting mixture can be eaten with rice and fried plantains or used as a stuffing for ""empanadas"", the fried half-moon shaped little pies common in Latin America.

FLOUNDER: Lenguado in Spanish and Linguado in Portuguese. The name refers to the family of flat fish, most species are found in cold waters, but some are found in the warm waters of the Caribbean and central America. Its white meat has a very delicate sweet flavor which should not seasoned and cook in excess.

GROUPER: Mero in both Spanish and Portuguese. Highly prized in most of Latin America, the Spaniards have a saying: "" De la tierra el Cordero y de la mar el Mero"" (From the land the Lamb and from the sea the Grouper). These excellent, meaty fish have few bones and its fillets are often blackened: coated with Cajun seasoning then pan-seared at high heat so that it is crusty on the outside and moist on the inside. The Grouper maintains its moisture even if overcooked, making it a favorite for restaurants. Groupers can weigh as much as 100 pounds, but 10 to 15 pounds is average, because of its large size and thick skin, grouper is usually sold filleted and skinned. This versatile fish can be fried, grilled, skewered for kebobs, pan-fried, breaded and fried, sautéed, or used to make chowders and fish stews. Larger whole groupers are suitable for baking, especially in a salt crust. Fillets from large groupers should be butter flied to reduce the thickness of the dense flesh.

Merluza frozen fillets
HAKE: Merluza in both Spanish and Portuguese is a deepwater member of the cod family. The fish have mild-tasting and sweet meat, with creamy flesh and a rather coarse, watery texture, but it is very economical and is often sold in frozen fillets. They are fairly bland fish that take well to all sorts of seasonings, bake, broil, deep-fry coated in bread crumbs or bat.

MACKEREL: Sierra in Spanish, Caballa in Argentina, Cavala or Serra in Portuguese. Its dark, full-bodied meat is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Mackerel flesh is gray when raw but turns off-white when cooked. The flavor is assertive. The oily flesh is firm and free of small bones. Marinate briefly in lime or other citrus juice or vinegar to whiten and firm the flesh before cooking. Is best cut as thick round steaks with the bone in the center.

MAHI MAHI: Dorado in Spanish and Dourado in Brazil. Long known as dolphin fish because they swim alongside boats as dolphins do. To make the fish more acceptable to consumers, they are now known by their Hawaiian name Mahi Mahi. The pinkish raw flesh is darker along the centerline and toward the tail; larger fish may have darker flesh. The lean meat is sweet with a mildly assertive flavor, firm texture, and large, moist flakes.

Huevas de Lisa (roe)
MULLET: Lisa in Spanish and Tainha in Brazil. Mullet average 3 to 6 pounds. The raw flesh is white and cooks up white, firm, and juicy. The roe of this fish is highly prized and is often referred to as Creole Caviar, it is sometimes sold fresh but most often is sold dried and salted. Mullets are best cooked whole, either baked, deep fried or BBQ.

SNAPPER: Pargo in both Spanish and Portuguese, Huachinango in Mexico. Usually red in color, its sweet white meat is highly prized for fillets. They can weight from 1 Kg (2 Lb) to 15 Kg (30 Lb), the small ones can be fried whole; the large ones can produce lots of thick fillets or be baked whole in a salt crust.

SNOOK: Robalo in Spanish, Camorim in Brazil. Snook may weigh up to 50 pounds, but average weight is 5 to 8 pounds. The flesh is dense and firm, delicate and flaky, and has moderate oil content and full-bodied flavor. This fish is suitable for serving with strong sauces.

WEAKFISH: Corvina in Spanish and pescada in Brazil. This fish is delicious and usually relatively inexpensive without pesky pin bones. Its name comes from its weak mouth, which easily tears and releases the hook. It has a relatively bland flavor suitable for strong seasonings or sauces. Their flesh is delicate and should not be overcook.

NUTRIENTS: Fish represents the healthiest form of animal protein, it contains fatty acids that are good for the heart, it usually has less calories than other animal proteins and contains lots of minerals that are good for the human body.

PROCESSING: Fish must be purchased fresh, there must not be any rigidity in the flesh, the eyes should be clear, the smell should be like the sea and no other. Fish are usually sold whole, gutted, fins trimmed and depending on the preparation with head and scales. Fish heads are good for making fish stock. For baking whole fish the scales must be left on the skin, the flesh will better sealed and retain all its flavor.

STORING: To store fish it must be frozen in individual fillets or steaks but it should no be kept more than 3 weeks because the flesh will dry out and loose most of its flavor. Whole fish should not be frozen more than 3 days before consumption.

GARLIC FISH FILLET: Very popular in seafood restaurants, it is simple and makes any fish fillet very tasty. In 1/4 cup of olive oil heat 1 tablesppon of butter, 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic and 2 red sweet chilies finely chopped, do not brown, stir and heat until you get some frying activity and garlic aroma is released, add 2 tablespoons of white wine, heat for a couple of minutes, then turn off heat, add fresh chopped parsley, drops of hot sauce, salt and pepper to taste, reserve. Season fish fillet with salt and pepper, pad it with a little flour on both sides, then sear both sides on a slightly greased hot pan, when fish is golden on both sides pour some of the garlic sauce over fillet and turn off heat, serve inmediately with some lemon wedges and a side of plantain chips or better yet patacones.

SALT BAKED FISH: You have not tasted the real flavor of fish until you have eaten a salt baked fish. Baking fish in salt does not add any seasoning to the fish, what you taste is the fish cooked in its own juices sealed in a salt crust. The best salt for this dish is rock salt, which in Latin America is usually sold in agricultural goods stores since rock salt is often fed to cattle and is very cheap. You must use the same weight in salt as the weight of the fish. The best fish for baking are oval shaped flat fish with scales such as grouper or snapper, long and round fish are not appropiate since they may not cook at the center. The fish must have all its fins and entrails removed but must have its scales and head. The fish must fit comfortably in a baking pan inside a typical oven. In the baking pan you lay a bed of salt roughly in the shape of the fish, lay the fish and cover with the rest of the salt, if necessary throw a few drops of water on the salt for easier shaping. The salt crust should roughly follow the shape of the fish. A good size fish would be 60-70 cm long ( less than 2 Ft.). The fish should be baked at 350F for 2 hours. Once baked you crack the top salt crust, discard the salt and cut the skin at the very crest of the fish from the back of the head to the tail, the skin should peel very easily and expose all the cooked meat. Serve with steamed vegetables (carrots, brocoli, cauliflower, chayote, potatoes, yuca, Etc.) and various sauces for dipping the fish morcels. A good sauce for fish is tartar sauce, you can also make a garlic mayonaise by blending 1 cup of mayonaise, 4 cloves of garlic, juice of 1 lemon, drops of hot sauce and a pinch of sugar; another good sauce is parsley sauce (perejilada in spanish or parsillade in french), blend 1 cup of packed parsley, 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 clove of garlic, drops of hot sauce, juice of 1 lemon, salt and pepper to taste.

SHREDDED FISH: This is the most economical way to eat fish in Latin America, people will buy some cheap fish like cazon (shark) or Corvina, boil it in chunks in salt water, let it cool then shredded it by hand and season it by stewing in a sofrito (fried seasonings sauce). A 2 Kg (4 lb) whole fish will yield about 1 Kg (2 Lb) of shreded flesh, prepare a sofrito with 2 cups of oil, 1 large onion finely chopped, 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped, 10 each red and green sweet chilies (aji dulce) deseeded and finely chopped, 1 hot chile (or to taste) deseeded and finely chopped. Heat the seasonings in the oil until they start frying and releaseing aroma, add the shredded fish and stir ocasionally until all liquid has been absorbed, about 10-15 minutes, add some chopped green onions, parsley, salt, pepper to taste, stir and turn off heat. If you want to add some color heat a teaspoon of achiote (annato) seeds in oil until they color red the oil, remove the seeds and add the seasonings for the sofrito. You may also add extra flavor by adding a cup of coconut milk, raisins, sliced green olives and capers when you add the fish to the sofrito, this way you will cook a deluxe dish. Serve with lime wedges, rice or plantains. You can also use this fish mixture to stuff things like empanadas or pies.

FISH CEVICHE: There are many recipes for ceviche, it is often said that if you place 10 latinos in a room
there will be 10 Ceviche recipes. In general you would use a fresh white flesh fish like corvina or grouper, the juice of a sour fruit such as lime or passion fruit, fresh seasonings for flavor and looks such as red onions,red chilies, garlic, celery, leeks, cilantro, Etc. I will give you my favorite recipe but there are many others which are very good. Place 4 cups of fresh fish sliced in strips into a bowl, add enough lime juice to make sure every strip of fish soaks, you may combine lime and passion fruit, or lime and orange, but lime juice should be most of the liquid. Refrigerate bowl and let marinate for about an hour, ceviche taste best when freshly made. Cut a small red onion in thin slices, finely chopp 10 each of red and green deseeded sweet chilies, 1 (or to taste) hot chile deseeded finely chopped, 1 tablespoon of finely chopped cilantro, salt and pepper to taste, these are the essential seasonings however you may add others you like, I usually add some chopped leek, some people add Celery; I have seen some recipes with chopped fruits like semiripe mango or pineapple, but always fruits that are somewhat acid, nothing ripe or too sweet. Add the seasoning mixture after you marinate the fish and serve chilled. Ceviche is usually served with plantain chips, tortilla chips, Yuca chips, soda crackers, Etc. For a good discussion on Ceviche follow this link:

FISH IN ESCABECHE: Oily fish like Mackerel or Tuna are apropiate for cooking in escabeche, this is a vinegary sauce used to cook fish around the mediterranean which we Latins learned from european inmigrants. Have 4 thick fish fillets, prepare the escabeche with 1 cup of oil, 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of white wine, 1 bay leaf, 1 onion sliced, 1 carrot sliced, 2 garlic cloves sliced, 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon each of dry oregano and thyme, 1 hot chile sliced in half, salt to taste, heat all ingredients in a large pot until they release their aroma, about 10-15 minutes. Over a hot pan with a little oil sear the fish fillets on both sides, transfer the fillets to the escabeche sauce and heat 5 more minutes, if necessary you may cut the fish in chunks, you may add some sliced green olives and small capers for extra flavor; let cool and serve, or refrigerate in a glass or ceramic pot for later; to serve let stand at room temperature some 30 minutes, serve with some crusty bread for dipping in the sauce. Fish in Escabeche can keep in the refrigerator for upto 2 weeks.


  1. I've been trying to figure out what the different fishes here in Colombia are, this has been really helpful!

  2. Thanks for the very informative post.

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