Latin American cuisine has a mixed genealogy. Like its very name, it is a blend of the foods and preparation styles of the native peoples of Central and South America and the culinary traditions of the European peoples that “discovered” the new land.

Latin American cuisine begins in the Halls of Montezuma, when Hernando Cortez met the Aztec chieftain. Cortez's brigands may have marched away with the gold, but they left behind sufficient seeds of Old World cuisine to mix with the culinary patterns of the native land. The pattern was similar throughout Central and South America.

Hot, Hot, Hot—But Mostly For Flavor

Culinary experts regard Mexican food as the most interesting and complex in Latin America, perhaps because it has the deepest roots in the indigenous cuisine of mezo-America. The “mestizo” phenomenon—blending the food of the indigenous tribes with Spanish cuisine—commenced in 1519 and developed over the next three centuries, picking up a French influence along the way. Mestizo found freedom and emerged as a respectable cuisine after the masses received the first bones of recognition from the ruling class following the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

“Like all cuisines, Mexican cooking is constantly evolving,” notes restaurateur and food author Rick Bayless, one of North America's preeminent authorities on Mexican cuisine.

Dozens of chiles provide the flavor base of Mexican foods. Bayless, who is chief chef and owner of two Chicago culinary landmarks, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, emphasizes that these “hot peppers” are used not as much for their heat as for their flavor.

The staples of the cuisine are corn and beans—pinto, black and other kidney varieties. The corn is presented primarily in tortillas, flat bread-type products also made with wheat flour.

“There was little meat in Mexican cuisine before the Spanish influence,” says Bayless. “Spanish cuisine was all based on meat and brought pigs, cows and chickens into the Mexican meal.”

Latin American cuisine, with distinctive flavors provided by seasonings, vegetables and other components, has an increasing impact on new foods development.

Strong Regional Cuisines

“Mexican cuisine is actually comprised of six strong regional cuisines,” explains Bayless. “And each varies more than the cooking in Maine differs from meals in the American Southwest.”

Tacos and enchiladas are snacks or simple eating foods in Mexico, but they are not what fine Mexican dining is all about. “Those bold, spicy, tangy foods are satisfying, like a hot dog, but the rest of Mexican cuisine consists of more long, slow-simmered dishes with real depth to them,” says Bayless.

The food of the Vera Cruz region is derived largely from the Mediterranean, due to heavy waves of Spanish immigrants. It is a light cuisine employing fish, olives, capers, and olive oil. Move away from the area, however, and more characteristic Mexican foods emerge.

The most famous food in Mexico comes from the central region. The food of central Mexico is based on moles and other complex sauces. “A lot of Americans think that mole is one sauce but, in truth, moles are numerous, running pale green to jet black in color,” says Bayless.

Southern Mexican cuisine also is focused heavily on moles, and dark red chile sauces but with more ingredients mixed in—wild greens such as amaranth, lamb's quarters and other meats, with lots of herbs and spices rarely found in the kitchens of even fine dining establishments.

Moving up to the Yucatan Peninsula, the cooking suddenly becomes very different. Moles are absent. Snack dishes like enchiladas and tortillas become harder to find. This is an area that specializes in barbecued meats. Cooked chiles yield to fresh chiles in a cuisine much lighter and closer to Pre-Colombian than any of the other Mexican styles. Papadzules, a typical dish of the Yucatan, combines hard-boiled egg, tomato and pumpkinseed sauce, and often is served with tortillas.

Mexican soups appear in a variety of classifications, from elegant creamed soups of puréed corn or dairy base to tortilla soups and chicken-based soups. One classic is made with fresh, non-melting cheese, avocado, threads of chicken and dry chile. Pozole, a pork and hominy soup, is another popular food.

Nicc’s Häagen-Dazs (San Ramon, Calif.) promotes its new Tres Leches ice cream as a “new take on a beloved Latin American dessert. Three different milks—pure cream, sweetened condensed milk and skim milk—blend wonderfully with pieces of lightly rum-flavored sponge cake and a sweet swirl of golden caramel.”

Nuevo Latino

While Mexican cuisine may have stirred a hidden lust for spicy south-of-the-border foods, other cuisines from Latin America now are proving hot, hot, hot in North America, as well.

Bob Golden, of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., sees a “real explosion” of Latin American culinary interest across the nation, particularly in his home-base area of Chicago. Caribbean, Brazilian and Argentine cooking is coming on strong in urban restaurants, with other Latin American cuisines planting seeds among the U.S. populace, also.

“We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in Latin American food interest,” he says. “Mango and guava in beverages, various beans used more commonly, the popularity of plantain chips, more sweet potato products…a lot of these products are in packaged food format already.”

Cuban cuisine typifies the Caribbean style of eating, and North American chefs have used it as a base for an innovative fusion of tastes. “A lot of chefs are taking culinary influence from the Caribbean cuisines and putting their own twists on them,” notes Chris Bupp of the Mambo Grill, a popular Chicago restaurant offering a mix of Latin American cooking. Guava-glazed roasted chicken is one example of this development. Boniato, a sweet potato-type product found in southern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, is popular with pork dishes and used in such pan-Latin comfort foods as boniato au gratin.

Like Americans, Mexicans today are turning to lighter foods. “Mostly their foods are lighter in the balance of foods put on the plate,” says Bayless. “Now the balance has shifted to less sauce, more uncooked vegetables, better quality ingredients in both vegetable and meat, and more emphasis on the raw condiment on the plate—fresh cilantro and chopped onion. And, fewer tortillas.”

Tamale Molly (Santa Fe, N.M.) manufactures several varieties of hand-tied, gourmet, vegetarian tamales, featuring all-natural ingredients. Some of the offerings include Pine Nut Mushroom, Black Bean and Mexican Chocolate tamales. The company donates all of its profits to local food banks.
Foods from the Dominican Republic have a spicy zing that carries over today in such Dominican-inspired foods asbombas de camarones, shrimp-stuffed balls of a mashed baked potato with chipotle peppers and cilantro and served with a mango-pineapple salsa. Spicy stews likefricassee de pollo, a chicken dish made with lime, peppers, onions, bacon, and carrots, typify the cuisine.

Stews and stew-like soups also reign among Guatemalans. Pepian, a dark brown stew and authentic dish that traces back to the indigenous people, is a typical dish, as is Hilachas, a tomato-based stew with shredded beef. Black beans are a Guatemalan staple, and a growing familiarity with them among North Americans enjoying ethnic food forays no doubt has helped advance the popularity of this Central American cuisine in parts of the U.S.

Some of the country's foods bear similarity to Mexican foods but have their own distinctive twists, notes Wendy Deborde of El Tinajon restaurant in Chicago. The Guatemalan tamal consists of cornmeal and meat covered with red sauce and wrapped in a plantain leaf. “Guatemalan cooking uses a lot of spices, but they are not hot spices,” explains Deborde.

Foods such as chile rellenos are nearly mainstream items in North America.

South American Delights

In South America, the cuisines are as divergent as the climate. Tropical fruits and fish dominate menus in the north while meats—especially beef—reign in the south.

Churrasco is a popular Brazilian meat fest and a specialty of folks in Rio de Janeiro. Waiters bring skewered meats to the tables—a style called “rodizio”—and diners choose their favorites. Fish like pirarucu, dorado, and peacock bass (tucunare) are menu fixtures in the north.

Don't look for American-style salads, but beans, yams, sweet potatoes, and squash are prominent. The primary vegetable is cassava, called manioc, and it is a Brazilian staple that also is used as a condiment.

Malagueta is a common ingredient in the Bahian cooking of the northeast, where palm oil and coconut milk also are commonly used ingredients. Portuguese-style desserts like quindim, made of eggs, coconut and sugar, are exceedingly popular as are other dishes incorporating fruit. Like the Caribbean region, Brazil is noted for its fruit juices and an alcoholic beverage based on sugar cane—cachaca. It serves as the base for caipirinha, a cocktail served with the citrus limon.

Countless other cuisines and cooking styles pervade Latin America. The gauchos of the Pampas made the Argentine beef barbecue the emblematic meal of the nation. But creative dishes incorporating starches, beans and vegetables are adding dimension to modern Argentine cuisine. Argentine dishes use plenty of red peppers and pinto beans.

South American cuisine is rich and varied, a vast treasure of culinary discovery that we can barely begin to tap here…Chilean empanadas (a turnover pie served in multiple forms)…Costa Rica's gallo pinto (the ever-present fried rice and black bean dish)…The search never ends.

Nor does the opportunity for processors to delight North American consumers with Latin American-inspired foods.

Website Resources— Information on the cuisines of Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean and more— Rick Bayless; his restaurants and publications— Tamale Molly website