Culture, Latin American Cuisine

A note about Latin American culture and cuisine

Before I delve into regional food cultures and recipes, I would like to give a very brief explanation of Latin American cuisine – which is kind of a misnomer in itself.  There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about it, and I wanted to address them before I went any further.

Latin America (Latinoaméricaconsists of those countries in the Americas that Spain and Portugal conquered and colonized. Often, when people say Latin America, they really mean Hispanoamérica – the places that only Spain colonized.

Each Latin American country has its own separate culture – and as a result, its own unique cuisine.  Indeed, each region within each country has its own distinct culinary specialties – just as the countries of Europe do (and really, just about everywhere). So “Latin American cuisine” really is a collection of different cuisines, rather than its own entity. More about that in a minute.

The biggest misconception I’ve found here in the U.S. is that if something is Hispanic or Latin American, it’s labeled “Spanish.” Only people and things from the country of Spain itself are Spanish. An Ecuadorian restaurant is not “Spanish”; a Mexican taquería is not “Spanish”; a Chilean person is not “Spanish.” I imagine the practice developed because many people from Hispanoamérica speak Spanish as their first language.  But each Latino/a person takes great pride in his/her country of origin, as well as the traditions from that country (in the same way that our ancestors’ traditions are important to us Americans). Also, it doesn’t even make any sense, if you think about it. I’m Swedish and German and an American… but because I speak English, suddenly I’m “English?” See what I mean? It’s kind of bizarre, really.

Another misconception is that all people who speak Spanish eat tacos and enchiladas. Those foods are from Mexico. You will not find them in most other regions, and particularly not in South American cuisine. Only Mexican and Central American cuisines use tortillas. In fact, in Spain, a tortilla actually means an omelette. And authentic Mexican regional cuisine isn’t found in a fast food chain… though that’s for another time.

Some foods, like tamales and salsas, can be found in many regions; but they vary greatly, depending on what is found locally. Take beans, for instance. Rice and beans is a staple dish in many Latin American cuisines – but it’s made differently in every country.  For example: in Cuba, you’ll find slow-cooked black beans; in Peru, fava and white beans; in Mexico, pinto beans; in Puerto Rico, pigeon peas; etc. etc.

So every Latin American country has its own distinct cuisine, based on how the indigenous culture’s food blended with Spanish colonial food – and how that cuisine evolved over time (often absorbing the cuisines of immigrants as well, such as in Peruvian cuisine).

In short, it ain’t Spanish!

So why put all Hispanic Latin American cuisines together? Well, they do share some of the same ingredients; and they do share the contributions of Spain, the colonizing country. Part of the problem is that here in the U.S., we have not had the opportunity to learn much about different Latin American countries. So, for lack of knowledge, we’ve just lumped them all together in this “Spanish” group. I don’t think it’s intentional; I was guilty of the same ignorance. But I thought I’d do my part to clarify things, now that I’ve gained a bit of knowledge about this topic.

I am enamored with all Latin American cuisines; and while I’m going to focus on Peruvian food – my hands-down favorite – I couldn’t imagine concentrating on only one. I will concentrate on Hispanoamérica; but I’ll touch upon Spain, Brazil and Portugal as well. So here in this blog, it’s not a “lumping”… but rather, a (hopefully) tasty mélange that will retain the trueness of each individual ingredient. (Okay, that was totally cheesy, but sincere nonetheless.)

Anyway, thanks for indulging me. Time for some food!