More Mosaic, Less Melting Pot
The New Latin American Cuisine is Truly Food without Borders
While the rise of Latin food may not be surprising in an increasingly diverse America of daring diners, the defining characteristics of the cuisine might well be.
First are the attributes most prized in Latin cuisine — flavorful, simple, fresh, local. Sound familiar? Beyond that, however, there are no definitive traits that connect all Latin food, according to a cadre of industry experts.
“Explaining Latin cuisine is similar in many ways to describing Asian cuisine, and trying to compare Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese styles of cooking,” says Sergio Remolina, CHE, Director of Latin Cuisines Studies at the Culinary Institute of America. “They’re all completely different, and even within one South American country, you’ll find an enormous range of inspirations. Location plays a key role, with the Amazon region one of the richest places on the world in terms of food, plants, birds, reptiles; the coastal region reflects Spanish, Japanese and Chinese influences; the Andean region favors potatoes and foods that thrive in high altitudes; and as the world’s fourth largest country, Brazil’s food is extremely varied, including a unique African legacy.”
And if you mention the frequent association with Mexican food, a collective groan is heard from our Latin American experts. “Many Americans think it’s all the same – rice, beans, chiles and tacos – and that there’s no real distinction between Mexican dishes and the many foods of South and Central America, although they vary greatly in terms of ingredients, techniques and origins,” says Melissa Abbott, Vice President of Culinary Insights for The Hartman Group. “Food media is doing a good job changing these perceptions, though, and consumers are hungry to discover the nuances and explore the differences.”
Students of history and avid globetrotters will be rightly fascinated by the incredibly diverse sagas of each Latin American country. But adventurous eaters and the chefs who feed them may be the most intrigued of all.
Millennials in particular, Abbott says, are driving the change, finding a genuine connection with Latin food culture that taps into their most cherished values — a non-binding set of rules for preparation, sociability, shared experience and co-creation at the table. “It’s the perfect storm,” she says, “because Millennials love to mix it up, but with authenticity. Italy and France have very ingrained traditions for their cuisine, but Latin food culture encourages experimentation, and a real interaction with the food and your fellow diners.” That conviviality is what sets the culture apart, placing paramount importance on celebrating the cuisine and people as one, says Abbott. “It’s one of the best lessons we can take away.”
Likewise is the respect for local, seasonal foods, prominent in Latino culture for years. “That’s paramount in Latin America, to buy what’s in season at the markets,” says Karen Hursh Graber, a food and travel writer with years of expertise on the subject. “The American palate is a little jaded that way. We’re learning, though, it’s better to not have everything exactly when we want it, but make use of the resources that are readily available.”
What’s next on the Latin American horizon? Abbott predicts we’re just beginning to see the surge of Peruvian concepts, with Argentina and Brazil on deck, all with an emphasis on sustainability.
South America’s largest country, with 8 million square kilometers and an unprecedented mix of people, cultures and flavors.
Portuguese, African, German, Italian, Syrian, Lebanese and Japanese. Today Brazil is home to the largest community of Japanese people outside of Japan.
Street foods, including the coxhina, a deep fried teardrop shaped dough that will fill you up for the whole day, says Abbott. Churrasco is Brazil’s version of cowboy barbecue, invented by the gauchos; originally a method of spit roasting cuts of meat by the fire, the slow roasting and basting process has remained similar for the last two centuries. The national dish, feijoada, is a rich, smoky stew of black beans brewed with a variety of salted and smoked pork and beef products and served with rice, collard greens or kale, orange slices, and topped with toasted cassava flour.
The main ingredients
The Amazon in Northern Brazil: home to the world’s largest river, replete with rare fish and exotic ingredients like pupunha hearts of palm and jambu, a green used in soups. Super-fruits harvested from the depths of the Amazon include cajú, acerola, passion fruit, acaí and jabuticaba.
Northeastern Brazil: sun-dried, jerked, and salted meats form the foundation. Other indigenous ingredients include manteiga de garrafa, a Brazilian ghee; the cucumber-like maxixi; and specialty manioc flours called farinhas.
Bahia: African traditions define this vibrant region, including fried farinha bean fritters, street food that’s peddled all day and night in the capital, Salvador. The moqueca is Bahia’s go-to comfort food, a clay pot stew featuring freshly caught shrimp, octopus or lobster thickened with coconut milk and seasoned with dende oil, yellow onion, tomato, green bell pepper and cilantro.
Southeastern Brazil: The Portuguese-influenced salted pork and beef products and manioc-based farinhas and tapiocas are mainstay ingredients, along with hot peppers. Rio street foods include barbecued prawns and codfish fritters, washed down with cold, fresh coconut water. Try Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha, made with fresh lime juice and a rum-like distillation called cachaça.
Sources: Culinary Institute of America, the Hartman Group, Smithsonian Magazine
Boston’s Brazilian Barbecue
Since 2012, traditional churrasco (barbecue) dishes have been sizzling daily at Oliveira’s Steak House in Boston. Billed as bringing “the selection, spices and seasonings of Brazil to its skewered meats, pork sirloin, chicken, sirloin steak, sausages and more,” the concept proved successful enough to open a second location in 2014.
“This is fast food for busy Americans, but we offer a lot of choices, more than 12 types of beef, and you can choose ala carte, by the pound or rodizio (the traditional way of preparing fire-roasted meat and serving tableside),” says Edilson Oliveria, owner.
As in Brazil, fresh produce is the rule and seasonings are authentic and special. Beef is seasoned with sea salt and slow roasted/grilled over an open flame in the age-old tradition. Dishes change on a daily basis — on Tuesdays, you, you might dig into beef stew, sautéed collard greens, fried plantains, pork ribs, mashed beans, steamed chayote, baked chicken with potatoes, sautéed zucchini spaghetti with red sauce; and on Fridays enjoy codfish with potato, steamed cabbage and squash, Brazilian porridge, beef tripe cooked with white beans, pork loin with onions and roasted chicken. One of the most popular: the signature item is Brazil’s national dish, feijoada.
Are American palates responding? “The time is right,” states Oliveira confidently. “People didn’t know much about Brazilian food before, but the concept has spread to non-Brazilian people in the last few years since we opened. Our food is fast, but it’s healthy.”
European-based culture, with globally renowned beef and wine. The Spaniards brought in cattle in the 16th century, sparking the beef-centric cuisine that still reigns today.
Italian, sparked by the arrival of thousands of immigrants between 1850 and 1950. A new wave of immigrants from other Latin American countries is bringing Colombian, Bolivian, Ecuadorian and Venezuelan foods to the menu.
The main ingredients
Beef is the main item; many types of pasta and ravioli; risotto; corn; yucca; dulce de leche (a sweetly satisfying sugar and condensed milk mix) in desserts.
Asado, the Argentinian barbecue, popularized by South American cowboys known as gauchos, sided with vegetable-based salsas and salads. Also try picada, a plate of appetizing finger foods that can include preserved meats, cheeses, olives, pickled vegetables, french fries, slices of bread, and peanuts; empanadas, a pastry packet stuffed with meat, egg, potato, or dessert-style with dulce de leche; and choripan, Argentina’s favorite street food, consisting of grilled chorizo (meaty sausage), chimichurri (a spicy condiment of garlic, olive oil and pepper) on a crusty bread.
Peru is home to one of the most important civilizations on earth, the Incas, who were very sophisticated in terms of food process. In the 1840s, Chinese immigrants arrived, followed by the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century. More than a century later, Peru’s Japanese and Chinese groups have established roots, forever altering the country’s national identity.
Asian, Incan, European, African.
The main ingredients
Cold and warm currents come together at the coastline, making fish and shellfish prominent. Corn, llama, guinea pig from the Andes; more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes; quinoa; manioc root, the base of the Peruvian food pyramid; peanuts; rice.
Pisco sours, in classic lime or with jungle or Amazon fruits; anitcuchos, or skewered meats; cancha, a crunchy toasted corn. This is the birthplace of ceviche, a dish of Incan origin, where raw fish was left to marinate and cook in acidic Amazonian fruits. Today’s ceviche is flash marinated in lime juice or leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), but as Remolina notes “every chef has their own special recipe and the act of making ceviche is almost sacred.” Common ingredients include highly acidic Peruvian lime juice, celery, garlic, ginger, red onion, aji limo and cilantro.
The Asian Flavors of Peru
Important ingredients Introduced by the Chinese and Japanese include:
- Aji-no-moto (MSG)
- Algas (algaes)
- Bonito (dried fish flakes)
- Cebolla china (scallions)
- Cilantro (Chinese parsley)
- Kion (ginger)
- Salsa de Ostion (oyster sauce)
- Vinagre de arroz (rice vinegar)
- Sillao (soy sauce)
- Ajonjolí (sesame seeds)
- Tamarindo (tamarind pods)
Nowhere is Peru’s Chinese influence felt more strongly than in Lima, home to Barrio Chino, one of the first Chinatowns in the Western hemisphere. In Peru’s more than 2,000 Chinese restaurants (chifas), Cantonese cooking is in great demand, with top sellers including fried wantons seasoned with aji dipping sauces and sweet and sour tamarind-based dishes. A favorite Peruvian-Asian fusion is lomo saltado, made with meat, tomatoes, red onion and potatoes, and served with a side of rice. Peru’s Japanese restaurants, among the best in the world, feature Nikkei cuisine, merging traditional Japanese techniques with ingredients from Peru’s Pacific coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. The strong Japanese-Peruvian connection is seen in the popular tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche.
Source: Culinary Institute of America