For me, food is more than just fuel; it represents the identity of many places and connects people to their roots. In Latin America, cooking is the magnet that brings families together. Meals manifest a sense of life-giving nourishment that binds those who cook and those who eat.
As the name suggests, Latin American cuisine combines a mix of cultural backgrounds, including the foods and preparations of indigenous peoples and the culinary influences and traditions of the Old World. The spices and herbs in adobos (broths) and sofritos (sauce or mash bases) are usually what give Latin American cuisine its distinct flavor (even though each country uses different key spices, and countries who share a spice may use it in different proportions). Thus, each country in Latin America has its own distinct cuisine based on how food from the indigenous culture mixed with Spanish colonial food and how that cuisine evolved over time (often absorbing the cuisines of immigrants , as in Peruvian cuisine).
Chef Adriana’s snapper ceviche. (Kathryn Sheldon/Institute of Culinary Education)
Latin American cuisine is very structured: even when we don’t follow a written recipe, the way many of us eat complete meals on one plate shows that for a Latin dinner, the experience is not complete. unless there is a sharp contrast of varied tastes. and textures from the first bite. We want lots of flavors and textures at the same time, so we layer the components.
Of course, the kitchen’s journey didn’t just begin in South and Central America. While much of Latin cuisine revolves around sourcing local fruits, vegetables and proteins, there are some deeply rooted techniques and flavors that originated in Europe. This knowledge was brought to the region during the Age of Exploration and blended harmoniously with the available flora and fauna.
You’ll find these principles resurfacing again and again with recipe names all over Latin America, and always with the same underlying goal: depth of flavor. The effect is the basic code that identifies sour, sweet, salty, and sometimes pungent and salty flavors. This dimension effect begins in the kitchen with each dish as the cook creates layers of seasoning. Even though a cook appears to be making a dish spontaneously, there is an internal structure of flavoring. Any good Latin cook understands this, even when combining the simplest ingredients. There’s an effortless appreciation and use of all that comes from the land and sea, and that translates directly into the food that Latin Americans grow up with and pass on to future generations.
One of the advantages of Latin cuisine is the basic simplicity of most dishes. A wide variety of flavors, colors and textures are obtained using, in most cases, the same basic ingredients. For this reason, learning to cook Latin dishes comes with a shallow curve compared to French, Chinese or Japanese cuisine. Latin influences flourish all over the world because simplicity combined with taste is a recipe to reproduce.
However, these influences, when in the right hands, will mix and mingle with local ingredients and techniques from a host of other established food cultures, resulting in new and interesting foods that follow a common thread through through history. Treating ingredients as if they listen and feel your company while you cook is one of the key secrets of Latin American cuisine that makes it so special to the rest of the world.
By Chef Adriana Urbana, Culinary Education Institute