It is easy to view Latin America as one homogenous block of nations. All, with the exception of Brazil, speak Spanish. Nearly all were conquered during one of Christopher Columbus's explorations of the New World. All have benefited from the influences of immigrants from other nations. Yet each Latin American country is distinct in its own right—particularly where its unique flavors of food is concerned.
The West Indies islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico are both surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. They are both tropical. Yet, their meals contrast greatly. While Cuban food is generally mild, relying on its omnipresent "mojo" sauce for its unique flavor, Puerto Rican food can be wildly spicy. Cuba's culinary roots reflect both its African and Spanish heritage; its Haitian influence as much as the French who colonized Haiti. Puerto Rico's cuisine also demonstrates African and Spanish origins, with the American influence being undeniable.
Mexican cuisine is likely most familiar to our palettes in the US, although its true variety is often lost on Americans who view it as little more than "fast food." In truth, this Latin American nation offers a fusion of foods from cultures thousands of years old. The Mayans and Aztecs not only cultivated the corn now essential to so many Mexican dishes, they also harvested chocolate, chili peppers, and wonderfully exotic at the time delicacies like the avocado. All of these ingredients remain modern staples.
Despite its small size, Central America's Costa Rica enjoys an amazing diversity of climates ranging from rainforest to mountain ranges. Its northern Caribbean coast is one of the world's largest producers of bananas. Nearer the middle of the country, sugarcane and coffee plants spread to nearly every empty plot, no matter how small. Along the Pacific Coast, one's menu depends upon the abundance of the sea. There are simply no generalities when it comes to Costa Rican cooking.
Perhaps it is South America that holds the most surprises. Fourth in size after North America, this continent is one of geographic extremes. While Venezuelan coastal cities regularly deal with temperatures in the hundreds, its mountain peaks are sub -zero year round. Here, fresh produce is always in season and the Italian influence is obvious in Venezuela's "Latin Americanized" versions of lasagna and other pasta dishes.
Colombian meals are hearty affairs, relying heavily on beef, pork, and seafood. Soups and stews are particular favorites, regardless of the weather forecast. Spanish mainstays like rice and beans are go-to meals, while coffee and chocolate beverages are enjoyed from morning to evening.
Brazil was not colonized by Spain but rather Portugal. Like the US, it has a substantial immigrant population comprised of Germans, Japanese, Middle Easterners, and others. The cuisine is a broad, bold representation of all of these cultures. To Brazil's south lies Argentina. Like Brazil, Argentina's acceptance of settlers from other lands adds to its cuisine's diversity. But, Argentina places a uniquely delicious focus on beef. The centuries-old gaucho tradition tradition of open-air barbecuing is alive and well, as evidenced by the fact that Argentines consume twice as much beef per person per year than North Americans. But don't be mislead into thinking this is a one-ingredient nation. The ocean provides a bountiful selection of seafood like salmon and shellfish, and its fertile vineyards produce some of the world's finest wines. Desserts are expected, not neglected in Argentina—many of them served with the silky, sweet sauce known as Dulce le Leche.
Peru, once the home of the Incas, mastered agricultural techniques several millennia before other civilizations. The ancestors of nearly all potatoes cultivated worldwide were born here, as were lima beans, sweet potatoes, maize, squashes, and other produce. Like Mexicans—whose chili peppers Peru's farmers adopted and cross-pollinated with their own native species—Peruvians prefer their food both spicy and citrusy. Ceviche, literally "cooking" fish in the acid of lemon or lime juice, is a flagship of Peruvian cuisine. A large Chinese population in Peru has popularized "chifa." Although these menu items are prepared using traditional Asian cooking methods, typical Asian ingredients are scarce in Peru. They are therefore swapped out for indigenous selections. The result is a delicious integration of two powerful flavor profiles. Chile is a ribbon of land on South America's Pacific Coast. While the sea yields a multitude that have become synonymous with the Chilean culinary scene. The foods of the indigenous peoples are still cooked and served much like they were in that bygone era. Every bit of an ear of corn is utilized, from its kernels to its husk, and beans appear in nearly every hearty bowl of seafood stew or vegetable soup.
A Taste of Latin America is not only a cookbook—although the recipes are flavorsome examples of what make this region's cuisine incomparable. It is also a journey through the history and daily lives of the people of Latin America. Come along and experience this world as a few ever will. Buen provecho!
A Taste of Latin America is available now!