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Latin influence finds way to plates


Viva Latin America! Until quite recently, hollering these words probably wouldn't rally your troops to the dinner table. Yet, with an ever-growing Hispanic population in the United States, flavors from south of the border are increasingly finding their way into El Norte's cupboard.

And what better time to experiment with them than summer, when picnics and barbecues encourage meal preparations that are more improvisational? So, as you weed your vegetable garden and hose off the grill, why not put on Remixes, the groovy CD by Brazilian songstress Bebel Gilberto, and allow yourself to be seduced by Latin American cuisine? It's not only delicious, but good for you, too.

No, we're not talking about what's served at your local "margarita mill" -- those balloon-shaped burritos, for instance, or nachos encased in a seal of cheddar cheese. True Latin cuisine, like that in the Mediterranean, emphasizes eating lots of fish, fruit and vegetables, is overall low in salt and fat and sparing with sweets, dairy and red meat.

"For years, now, it's been well-known what a healthy eating pattern is. There is a gold standard, and it's called the Mediterranean diet," said K. Dunn Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit food issues think tank based in Boston. "But the Latin American diet has profound similarities."

"In fact, it may be the new, improved gold standard," agreed Dr. Hannia Campos, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Campos and Gifford were among dozens of chefs, food scholars and journalists who gathered in Mexico City a few weeks ago to discuss the Latin American diet and why it is exploding in popularity all across the United States, but especially in urban centers -- like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Miami -- that have vibrant Hispanic communities.

When counted by the U.S. Census Bureau, all Latinos are clustered under the broader name of Hispanic, though this ethnicity wasn't broken out separately until 1970. Then, of 203 million U.S. citizens counted, 9.6 million were Hispanic, or 4.7 percent. By the year 2000, of 281 million Americans, 35 million were Hispanic, or 13 percent of the population. An estimated 50 million Hispanics are expected by 2010.

This rapidly expanding demographic is increasing the demand for Latin food, but there's a process of "retro-acculturation" going on, too. Whereas earlier immigrants from Mexico, Brazil or Cuba may have felt the need to assimilate foods of their new home in America, their children are rediscovering recipes left behind.

Certain Latin dishes, of course, are already familiar to the average American's palate -- guacamole, salsa, quesadillas, fajitas or ceviche. Consumer brands that are poised to capture a larger market include Haagen-Daz's vanilla ice cream with dulce de leche, Mission Hill's best-selling line of tortillas and Corona Beer, which is currently No. 2 in global consumption. Even almonds and peanuts are being touted as "healthy Latin American snacks."

As noted cookbook authors such as Zarela Martinez, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy struggle to coin new descriptions for it -- Pan-Latin, Nuevo Latino or even Florribbean -- by any name, the Latin American diet is hot, hot, hot.

Defining Latin America

Not counting the Caribbean islands, Latin America includes 26 sovereign nations, spanning from Mexico down to Cape Horn at South America's bottom tip. In between is everything from the Andes Mountains to the flower-filled meadows of Patagonia, the Amazon's murky waters to crystal-clear waterfalls of Uruguay and Paraguay.

Latin America is not a monolith, but a conglomeration of many different peoples and tastes joined together by language (primarily Spanish, but some Portuguese) and a zest for good food.

"Regardless of their nationality, the home kitchen is the first loyalty of most Latin Americans," said Maricel Presilla, a New Jersey-based chef and restaurateur. "A melange is who we are, and it is what we eat."

"Food is almost holy to Latinos," agreed Cecilia Pozo Fileti, president of Latino Health Communications in Ann Arbor, Mich.

When the Spaniards made landfall in 1492, they were amazed to find New World markets that far exceeded the bounty of those in the Old. Though the three main staples were various cultivars of maize (corn), potatoes and beans, there were also countless types of mushrooms, avocados and tomatoes, as well as leafy greens, roots and vegetables.

"The conquest destroyed every aspect of Indian culture, except for food," said Dr. Adolfo Chavez, head of the applied nutrition department at the University of Morelos, Mexico.

Spanish and Portuguese colonists were astonished to see chefs prepare exquisitely refined stews made from pumpkin seeds and chiles, all with little or no meat. Meals were finished off with delicate desserts made from cacao.

Spanish ships soon facilitated the transplanting of highly regionalized foodstuffs across all areas of conquest. Tomatoes, for instance, that grew tastelessly in the wilds of Peru were cultivated in Mexico. At the same time, the indigenous population quickly accepted such European imports as cows, chickens and pigs.

"A shotgun marriage," is how food historian Elisabeth Luard describes this cross-pollination of cuisines in her cookbook, The Latin American Kitchen (Laurel Glen Publishing, 2003). Luard notes that chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes and corn were all embraced by the conquistadors and soon were being exported to Europe.

During 500 years of contact between Europe and the Americas, in fact, nearly all European foods were accepted -- but not vice-versa. Even today, traveling anywhere in Latin America is to encounter produce you've never seen before: prickly pears, granadilla or chayote, to name only a few.

"There are hundreds of native Latin foods, all rich in nutrition, that are in danger of disappearing and need to be rescued," said Chavez.

What's next?

It seems unlikely there'll be a huge surge in American popularity of such specialties as gusanos de maguey (worms that grow beneath cactus leaves), escamoles (ant eggs) or chapulines (grasshoppers) . Yet, food experts who convened in Mexico City reached some consensus about which Latin components they predict may jump next into the mainstream.

Formerly "exotic" fruit and vegetables will become more common, like the guava, green plantains or potatoes grown in countries like Ecuador and Peru that are blue, purple or are shot through with stripes of color, like Saturn's rings. The next big chile pepper? Guajillo.

Expect more recipes to include concepts like sofrito (a sauce "starter" made of sauteed onions, garlic, celery and peppers); adobo (a paste rubbed into meats before grilling, usually made of chiles and spices, mixed with roasted onions); or pepian (a rich, flavorful stew flavored with toasted chiles, sesame and pumpkin seeds).

Citrus flavors, cinnamon and cardamom may enjoy a new vogue. Bear in mind, too, that because the Latin American diet is so rich in intensely flavorful herbs, spices and chiles, cooking requires much less salt.

"Extremely complicated dishes, like the Mexican moles from Puebla, will not make it in America," said Nick Spinelli, executive chef at Kraft Foods in Glenview, Ill. "But things you can use to quickly season something else - like chimichurri -- may.

Chimichurri, a condiment made from thyme, parsley, onion, vinegar and olive oil, goes nicely with grilled meats, poultry and fish. Think of it as Argentina's ketchup.

"It used to take 10 years to introduce a new flavor into the American diet. It's now down to about two," Spinelli said. "Look at chipotle peppers. Four years ago, they were really 'out there.' But now, McDonald's owns a chain of fast-food restaurants by that name."

There is a certain poetic justice to this because Latin America once also encompassed huge tracts of the United States, including Texas, California and Florida. These lands are being taken back, one stomach at a time.


Makes about 3 cups

3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2/3 cup white-wine vinegar

2 cups olive oil

Place the thyme sprigs in an empty wine bottle along with onion, garlic and parsley. Add vinegar and oil. Shake it up, and let it infuse for a couple of days. Ready when you are. Keep in refrigerator.

- From "The Latin American Kitchen" by Elisabeth Luard (Laurel Glen Publishing, 2003)

Per serving (based on 48 servings): 80 calories; 0 grams protein; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1 milligram sodium

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