Understanding Nuance in Latin Cuisine
Latin cuisines are as varied as national and regional dialects
Finding great flavors and street food from the Mexican interior to the Peruvian highlands and all points in between—from south to Tierra Del Fuego and north to Ensenada, with Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex and New-Yorkican (Puerto Rico)—that’s the easy part. Translating those flavors into prepared foods that maintain the integrity and authenticity that consumers demand is the challenge.
Latin flavors are experiencing a strong upward surge, for good reason. There already are large parts of the US (especially California, Texas, and New Mexico) in which non-Hispanics are the minority. US Census Bureau data indicate that by mid-century, about a third of the population will be comprised of persons of Latin/Hispanic background. (Meanwhile, the Caucasian population is expected to drop from around 62% to about 56%.)
Zeroing in on these demographics turns the focus to that most powerful consumer group, the Millennials. An estimated one million-plus Hispanic Millennials will turn 21 this year. There’s even a word for this group: “Hispennials.” Predictions are that nearly a million more Latino Americans will turn 18 annually from now until at least 2028.
When creating foods and beverages to represent such culinary influences, it’s helpful to recognize that people eat just as they speak: with nuance, accent, regional inflection, subtleties, and context.
Understanding this growing demographic is a must for successful product development. But it also must start with the recognition that the population isn’t monolithic. “Hispanic” and “Mexican” aren’t synonymous. Moreover, there is significant variation even among different Mexican regions.
The broad Hispanic and Latin swath that drapes North and South America is a kaleidoscope of flavors, colors, ingredients, and preferences. Achieving “micro-authenticity” is the key to success. It isn’t just the Latin populations driving the Latin cuisine mega-trend. Latin cuisine is popular because of its flavor density, especially among those who want ramped-up flavors.
Marketing experts estimate that 90% of American and 80% of European consumers like hot and spicy foods. And 25% of US consumers say they eat spicy foods more often than they did even a year ago. While not all Latin cuisines are spicy, of course, there still is a strong association between hot peppers and many of the foods from South of the border.
The vanguard of Latin cuisines, and still among the most popular, is Mexican, and for many Americans, Mexican food is “the new Italian,” according to Johnny Hernandez, chef of La Gloria restaurant in San Antonio.
Word for Word
Today, as they learned with Italian food, many Americans are understanding the regional differences between, for example, Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex flavors. They also understand that these regional American hybrids aren’t authentically Mexican. Therefore, identifying a dish by region, such as Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, versus Mexico City-style enchiladas con salsa verde, is a “must” so as not to seem inauthentic or, worse, insensitive or uninformed.
“As a Latin American population, even within the Spanish language we share a lot of things with particular regional and national differences,” says Gibran Salazar, research and development chef for PepsiCo in Mexico City. “Sometimes a word means one thing in Argentina, while in Mexico the meaning is another thing completely.”
As an example, Salazar cites the word “choclo” (corn). In Peru, choclo is used as a garnish for ceviche, the popular marinated seafood dish of the coastal regions. In Mexico, a different kind of choclo is used in esquités, cups of toasted or grilled corn known on American menus as “Mexican street corn.”
“It’s possible to find inspiration in a lot of corn preparations,” says Salazar. “Corn is one of the ingredients that makes a connection across regions. But before launching a product, a lot of research is needed to define the particular consumer demand one is trying to satisfy.”
There are many more things to consider when selecting the types of foods or dishes to translate from street to refrigerator, freezer, or shelf. It’s about far more than ingredients or regional and cultural similarities and differences.
Determining the right flavors, the right texture and viscosity, or whether to go for a snack, side, main dish, or dessert—all are part of the decision-making process. Another layer to consider is whether to incorporate a healthful component into a formulation, or even if one should.
Technology enters the picture when making these translations. Specifically, the issue is whether the tech exists to facilitate translation of an authentic recipe to a batch formulation.
Begin with Basics
Often it is chefs in restaurants or food trucks who familiarize and popularize new ingredients, dishes, and flavors. A flavor trend might begin as something on a local chef’s menu. An upscale chef might pick up the muse and popularize the dish in the region. From there, mainstream restaurants adopt and popularize the trend. The next step: Research chefs turn the dish or initial flavor profile and ingredients into a new product launch.
When looking for dishes that can evolve from “street” to “batch,” Robert Del Grande, PhD, sees the foodservice format of catering as a bridge from great dish to prepared food. If a dish adapts well to catering, it can possibly make the leap to a package.
“Slow-cooked dishes such as barbacoa and short ribs are easy to do ahead and reheat,” observes Del Grande, a biochemist and James Beard Award-winning chef of Houston’s cutting-edge restaurant Cafe Annie and founder of the Cafe Express QSR chain. He notes that the popularity of short ribs started out this way because short ribs withstand the intensive process, holding up well to preparation, cooling, packaging, freezing/refrigeration, transport, reheating, and holding.
All these traits are good harbingers of processed product success—provided the end product tastes good, looks good, and registers as authentic.
One of the first things to consider when selecting formulations for such a process is moisture content. Wet or dry translates far better than, say, crispy. Recreating just-baked or fried texture is far more difficult than warming flavor-packed chicken molé or esquités.
Braising, a moisture-rich technique, adapts well to prepared foods, as per the short rib illustration. And many popular Hispanic and Latin dishes are braised or start with a braised filling: soups and stews, barbacoa, tacos, enchiladas, and tamales, for example.
Chicken and pork are neutral proteins that can take on any flavor tone. They are popular in most Latin and Hispanic cultures, although beef also works well. Of course, vegetables and starches are natural neutrals. Seafood is traditionally a challenge because of its fragility during the process of preparation, cooling, storage, and reheating.
Because street foods are easily adapted to snacking, new bakery and snack products are common end-points for traditional “street fare” recreated as prepared foods. They readily reflect the convenience and interactive nature of these flavor-dense dishes.
Often snacks lean toward the dry side of food preparation because dry foods are easier to “grab & go” and are more shelf-stable. Products and ingredients that are low moisture are perfect for shelf-stable applications, notes La Gloria’s Hernandez.
A challenge to dry foods, however, are their not-so-dry key flavor components. Fresh herbs are one example, as they are extremely delicate. Since herbs and spices form the language of most cuisines, they are largely responsible for adding flavor and authenticity, but they can easily lose their punch during processing. For this reason, dry spices are more common in transitioning to a batch process. They diminish less during the food’s journey from bench to table.
Regardless of whether a product is wet or dry, Hernandez believes that using fresh herbs—however challenging that might be—is one way to get truer flavor into prepared foods. The best translations take an herb and make it shelf-stable. He finds that a compromise between dried herbs and fresh in an oil-based flavor source such as pesto can be the most successful.
Hernandez and other chefs also agree that refrigeration produces a better product than freezing, encouraging product developers to look in that direction. Still, ever-improving freezing technology continually opens new doors for innovation.
Both moist and dry foods can take on a virtually unlimited combination of flavors, and Latin and Hispanic flavors are particularly versatile. The sweet spot seems to be in the spicy category, as far as expansion and new experiences go. Spicy, along with smoky and even sweet, gives a lot of room for creativity as well as authenticity.
Marketing experts report that consumers are demanding hotter, spicier foods. Not surprisingly, research shows that more than 50 new hot and spicy products were launched every day around the world in 2016.
“For the most part, everything is translatable,” says Tim Soufan, chef and senior partner for the Dallas-based consulting firm Food Think. “But only if you can get the flavor right. Flavor is important because a lot of flavor satisfies faster than food that lacks flavor.”
That means that hot and spicy flavors continue to represent great opportunity to satisfy customer cravings for regionalized and specialized types of food. Today’s consumers seek more flavor from herbs, spices, chili peppers, and any preparation that addresses flavor without more butter or oil and sugar, the flavor enhancers that most Americans have grown up on.
Chili peppers pose a dichotomy when it comes to consumers who claim to want flavor but not so much heat. Soufan cites a recent professional challenge: a chain restaurant asked him to develop a meat dish using the Bhut jolokia “ghost” pepper, known as one of the world’s hottest peppers. “I was shocked they wanted that,” explains Soufan, “because products developed for mass appeal usually aren’t ‘off-the-charts’ anything. When it comes to chili peppers, consumers like the idea of a really hot pepper if what they’re eating doesn’t taste too hot.”
To capture the flavor of ghost peppers without the heat, Soufan started with a base of mild roasted red peppers. He settled on an 80:20 ratio of mild to spicy peppers and added other complementary flavors. Caramelized onions, for example, can go a long way to tame heat while enhancing the flavor of a very spicy chili like the ghost pepper.
Soufan’s goal was to avoid “palate fatigue” with too much flavor or heat. “Twelve to 13 bites constitutes a typical meal,” he claims. “If every bite is intensely hot, sweet, salty, or savory, by the time you get to the fourth bite your palate is overwhelmed. The need is for flavor balance.”
Soufan often turns to a relatively new category of Mexican salsa gaining popularity. Known as salsa macha, it is excellent for flavor enhancement. Not nearly as well known outside of Mexico as Mexican red or green chili pepper and vegetable salsas, macha is a blend of chili pepper oil and nuts—a Mexican pesto of sorts, or a more simplistic variation of molé.
Comparing it to the Argentinian (via Basque) pesto of parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano, vinegar, and pepper flakes known as chimichurri, Soufan cautions that a little macha goes a long way and produces a lot of flavor impact.
Finding and providing the right level of pungency is critical. Pungency is the “heat” perceived by the eater. Moreover, that pungency is perceived in different areas of the mouth, such as front of tongue, back of throat, and nasal passages. And the pungency can be “timed” to be an immediate or increasing sensation, and to taper quickly or slowly. Controlling these variables is an important part of working with hot and spicy ingredients.
Liquid flavors—i.e., sauces and dressings that define a protein, carb, or vegetable—are the easiest ways to deliver tastes and sensations that consumers crave. The flexibility and creativity involved in sauce and dressing development mean that the opportunities are endless for developing well-defined regional flavors.
That flexibility also goes a long way toward developing fusion flavor blends to create new tastes, such as chipotlé- raspberry, a combo that rocked the flavor world several years ago. (For more on fusion flavors, see “New Food Fusion Trends,” bit.ly/2EWJQVF.)
Consumers are ripe for many of these developments because they desire new experiences, new flavors, and a sense of discovery when it comes to food. Many consumers today are better educated about food and regional distinctions. They enjoy sharing new food experiences and cross-cultural hybrids.
Dishes such as Columbian/Venezuelan arepas filled with gyro meat and Greek tzatziki sauce; or French crêpes filled with Michoacán-style carnitas, slaw, and barbecue sauce, are becoming increasingly common. Consistent growing demand for hot and spicy foods and consumer trends toward more heat yet more subtle, specialized flavors are feeding the ongoing development of hot and spicy products and menu flavors.
New technologies and new ways of using existing technology are clearing new paths to developing the next generation of Latin-influenced products. Del Grande points to technological advances in making powders for seasoning and other functions. Beyond mere dehydration, Del Grande singles out advances in powdering liquid ingredients such as soy sauce, garlic juice, and lime juice where the original flavors are highly preserved.
Powdered versions of liquid ingredients can be easily incorporated into food formulations, particularly snack foods like chips. Del Grande cites how such capabilities allow product makers to build on a simple Latin street food snack of potato chips sprinkled with chili powder and served with a squeeze of lime.
John Cox, chef of The Bear and Star, a Cal-Tex restaurant, promotes advances in food technology as a way “to create a more authentic, fresher experience.” Referring to advances in freezer technology and packaging as examples, Cox notes that whereas a few years ago he would have demanded never-frozen fish, today the “freshest possible” fish goes from hook or net to an onboard blast freezer, so the fish is frozen before decomposition can begin.
“Knowing how to cook and preserve a prepared food is important as well,” advises Hernandez. “Of course, the best way to make sure of a good finished product is to begin with very good ingredients, but technique is highly important to the quality of the result, too.” Explaining how small distinctions can make a big difference, he warns that the cooking process is where lots of mistakes are made. “If a food or dish is cooled and packaged properly, it has a better chance of tasting as good as fresh than dishes that aren’t handled correctly.”
Speaking the language of Hispanic and Latin flavors requires a deep understanding of the cultures and the regions, coupled with sophisticated research into ingredients, techniques, and technology. And it all begins with identifying the target market. Success requires using the best ingredients, the right meal or snack category, and up-to-date technologies to produce a final product that speaks to the authenticity demanded by today’s consumers.
Originally appeared in the April, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Up-Tempo Latin.