American consumers are coming to recognize that the term “Latin cuisine” encompasses far more than the foods of Mexico and Central America or even the few dishes from South America that have hit the mainstream here.
Creative chefs are probing into the interior flavors of indigenous cultures within the countries of the southern part of the Western Hemisphere as well as moving beyond Hispanic flavors to delve into the non-Hispanic culinary traditions of countries such as Brazil, Guyana, and Suriname.
In working to incorporate flavors and foods new to the average US consumer, research chefs are tasked with focusing on the characteristics that make a food authentic. To turn their findings into successful formulations, the chefs also must divine at what quality level such ingredients and flavors may be introduced into food processing while still maintaining authenticity.
Equally important is the recognition that the chefs in those regions are also pushing boundaries. Chefs north of the border must keep their eye on the “next big things” to trend in Central and South American food innovation.
As Mexico is America’s closest southern neighbor and the one most familiar to North American consumers, this examination of current trends starts there. Mexico is also one of the larger Latin American countries, and culinary trends of late have focused on indigenous cultures, such as Aztec, Toltec, Olmec, Mayan, and Mixtec. From these interior peoples, centuries of common agriculture and commerce shaped many ingredients and foods.
Maize, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, avocados, tomatoes, tomatillos, cacao, and herbs are fundamentals. Yet, each of these has its variations. The herbs or chili peppers used in, for example, Baja on the far northwest coast of Mexico will be distinct from those used in a place like Quintana Roo on the extreme southeastern point of the vast country.
While agriculture developed a common base of squash, corn, and beans called “the three sisters,” animal protein sources ranged widely from seafood to fowl (turkeys and ducks) and, later, to chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle. The last four were colonial contributions, as were rice, wheat, garlic, cinnamon, and the use of domesticated animals for dairy products.
BETWEEN THE OCEANS
Central America consists of seven mainland countries on a thin strip between North and South America, plus the Caribbean islands, including Cuba. Most of these countries adopted corn and beans as welcome additions to plantains, coconut, yuca, winter squashes, potatoes, papaya, coffee, and cocoa. The diet of the original peoples was strongly seafood-based, although wild deer also landed on the table.
Cuisines from the southern end of Mexico and some countries in Central America, especially Costa Rica, are typically mild in spice, with rice and black beans served at every meal and plantains used often. Squashes, especially winter squashes, are common, and used in both sweet and savory dishes, such as puddings and stews.
Central American (and Caribbean) foods most familiar to US consumers include fried plantains, black beans (especially in sopa negra, black bean soup), tres leches (“three milks”) cake, arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), and gallo pinto, a rice and beans dish simmered in coconut water and usually eaten for breakfast.
Among the most popular Latin cuisines of recent years are the foods of the South American countries, especially Peru. Many of the ingredients listed above are used in the dishes of this country, but here the potato is most dominant. The potato is believed to have originated in Peru, with the purple variety one of the oldest of the more than 3,000 varieties known.
Other ingredients common to Peru (and much of South America) include maize, quinoa, chia, cassava, plantains, passionfruit, and a flavorful yellow chili pepper known as aji amarillo. Fresh seafood is common and often appears in the national dish, ceviche, consisting of thin slices of fish with onion, coriander, and aji peppers, marinated in acidic juices to coagulate the proteins and add flavor. Ceviche migrated northward to Mexico, where it typically is made with tomatoes and a mix of seafood, including scallops.
Iberian influences brought both Old World and Moorish flavor traditions to the traditional Peruvian specialty, juanes, which consists of chicken and rice with boiled eggs, turmeric, cumin, and oregano. Native influences include cooking the mixture in bijao leaves (similar to banana leaves) and serving it with a side of cassava (also called yuca or manioc) or bananas.
Japanese and Chinese influences arrived in Peru between 200 and 500 years ago, shaping the cuisine in a manner that led to many fusions of techniques and ingredients. This combination is expressed in lomo saltado, a stir fry of beef, rice, potatoes, and soy sauce. A highly popular native Peruvian dish is roasted cuy — guinea pig.
While this would be a tough sell for product developers in the US, it could gain favor using a substitute meat such as chicken or even rabbit and prepared it “cuy style” with the flavors of Peru. These would typically include aji de Huacatay, a puréed salsa made with aji peppers, lime, garlic, and Peruvian black mint or mint marigold.
Brazil is the largest South American country and the most topologically diverse, with coastal regions, mountains, plains, wetlands, and the Amazon rainforest. This diversity was exploited first by the Portuguese, who brought their own influences, but the region’s native ingredients include cassava, peanuts, peppers, pumpkin, black beans, palm (for fruits, oil, and edible shoots), and an astounding wealth of fruits and herbs. Indigenous peoples also relied on dried meats, dried prawns, and freshwater fish as staples.
The Portuguese brought limes and pigs and introduced the sugar trade. The Spanish arrived later, bringing sausage making, rice, and dairy production. These influences resulted in Brazilian favorites such as feijoada (a black bean stew that includes both beef and pork), polenta, chorizo sausages, and the now widely familiar churrasco — a meal of flame-grilled fresh meats. Brazilian flavors are bold but not spicy, with garlic, white rice, and cassava at every meal. Strongly sweet desserts also are favored.
LONG ON TRADITION
Argentina and Chile, on either side of the Andes mountains, boast vast grasslands and some rainforests. The indigenous peoples ate mostly squash, melons, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, seafood and fish, and (later) lamb. The capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires, is considered the “most European” of South American cities and welcomed a number of immigrants from Central Europe over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Those influences are well-
reflected in the country’s cuisine traditions.
One of the most notable parts of Argentine cuisine is the consumption of beef (around 150lb per person annually). Italian, British, German, French, and Spanish settlers brought garlic, wheat, certain herbs, eggplant, pasta, tea, pigs, and dairy production.
The variety of visiting explorers changed some techniques of Argentine cooking, but not its ingredients. There are pastas like fideo and raviolis, breaded meats, stuffed sausages, lamb, dulce de leche (sweetened milk custard), quince paste, alfajores (originally a Moorish pastry of honey, almonds, flour or breadcrumbs, and spices), dried fruits, and olives. There is also a large variety of bread and pastry products made throughout the country, from sweet to savory, as a result of the European influences.
Access to these products produced empanadas (fried pockets of corn or wheat filled with savory or sweet fillings), cazuelas (slow-cooked clay pot stews), croqueta (a savory filling breaded and deep-fried), chimichurri sauce (a pesto of fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and chili peppers) and the most Argentine of all, asado, the Argentine barbecue. The flavors of Argentina have been traditionally mild in spice, but rich with garlic, pepper, and herbs, and multiple foreign flavor influences, especially from Europe and the Mediterranean region.
Developing or extending existing lines of Latin-inspired food products is a stepwise process. After first selecting the target market desired, the key is to use the complement of ingredients associated with both the original formulation and the cultures of the prospective end-users in production of the foods. Those end-users do not have to be of the same culinary culture as the original recipe; today’s consumers recognize and appreciate when companies respect cuisine authenticity.
While there are obviously regional variations in original dishes, it’s not necessary to fear applying the recipe that best lends itself to batch production. As long as the ingredients and execution are true, using this roadmap for formulation should result in some measure of success.
Some challenges include that authentic ingredients are not always available, or are seasonal, or can have consistency or production challenges. And for more exotic ingredients, acquisition can be pricey. All of these factors must be considered and validated before any decision about production can be made.
An additional consideration is that the marketplace is always changing and innovating. But this only leads to the “New Latin” mindset when ideating and producing new food products. With a thorough understanding of the identifying flavors for each cuisine, new product innovation can proceed confidently and successfully.
There are many new technologies to facilitate product development, such as freeze drying, liquefying and spray drying to a powder, shelf-stable packaging methods, and vacuum distilling to capture the “essence” of an authentic flavor in order to preserve it. For example, a chef could craft a Peruvian dish with a pre-made aji amarillo pepper purée drizzled on top.
Another example is creating a New Latin version of Costa Rican gallo pinto by preparing the beans and rice, freeze-drying them, and packaging with coconut water and freeze-dried, shaved plantain pieces in separate pouches. When the consumer heats the meal, sprinkling the plantain shavings over the steaming beans and rice will rehydrate the plantains and deliver the authentic flavor desired. Or, in “cross-pollinating” a Brazilian and Mexican version of carne asada, adding lime juice to a paste of garlic, herbs, and peppers to baste the food with during reheating can provide a concert of flavors both familiar and novel.
As is always true in the culinary arts, it is important to have a firm understanding of the culture a food comes from and its origins in order to innovate successfully and create modern flavor combinations for new food launches. Keeping a recognizable base and substituting one or two ingredients in a classic recipe will keep it authentic but give the consumer a new appreciation and open the door to future opportunities for innovation.
Matthew Jost, CEC, CRC, CBJ, is a Business Development Chef for Kellogg’s Foodservice. With a degree in Culinary Arts from Kendall College, and a degree in food science from Kansas State University, Jost is also a certified Research Chef and Certified Executive Chef. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.