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Food Product Design: Cover Story - November 2000 - Nutritional and Beneficial Ingredients 38032

December 1, 2000

30 Min Read
Food Product Design: Cover Story - November 2000 - Nutritional and Beneficial Ingredients

December 2000

Latin American Foods: Livin’ la Comida Loca

By Susheela Uhl
Contributing Editor

Most North Americans enjoy the multidimensional flavors of Latin America. Established Mexican communities in Texas, California and the Southwest have shared chiles, nachos, burritos and fajitas with us since the 1800s. From this early exposure to Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, North Americans’ "Latin romance" has continued to grow, and many Latin American foods are now mainstream. Salsa has replaced ketchup as the number one condiment in the United States. Teenagers love tortilla wraps, chile peppers take consumers to new flavor dimensions and tacos, black bean soup, enchiladas, rice and beans, and fajitas are essential menu items at quick-serve and chain restaurants.

Today, consumers can get authentic regional Mexican profiles from the Yucatán and Oaxaca. Many are exploring the full range of Latino fare, including Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian, Brazilian and Dominican recipes.

Why are Latino foods so popular? Consumers want more zest in their meals. Latino foods offer complex, flavorful ingredients derived from diverse cultures. Latino foods take ingredients introduced by ancient Aztecs, Mayans and Incas and combine them with flavors and recipes of its diverse groups of immigrants, including the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Middle Easterners, Africans, Chinese, Japanese and Germans, to create exciting, varied cuisines.

The dramatic growth of the U.S. Latino population has fueled its culinary popularity. By early this century, Latin Americans will surpass the African-American population to become the nation’s largest minority group, and by 2040 they will make up one in five Americans.

Many consumers travel to Latin America and these markets have been opened up through NAFTA. Vacations, culinary tours and business trips taken in the Caribbean and Mexico have expanded consumers’ tastes in Latino cuisine.

As the United States becomes more exposed to Latino cultures and foods, there is not only an increased demand for authentic Latino foods, but also for Latino fusion foods. These combine flavors or ingredients from different Latin regions, as well as Latin with traditional American cooking.

Creating Latin flavors

How do we create successful Latin products for target markets — mainstream consumers, Latinos, regional U.S. or global? Food product designers who wish to market Latin-American products successfully in the United States or overseas must understand that changing the label’s language is not enough. Products for the different regions of Latin America have significant variations. The foundation for creating authentic or fusion-style Latino products is to understand the cultural and regional differences in flavors, colors and textures. We need to look into their cuisines — how their foods are eaten, their origins, cultural influences, ingredients and preparation methods.

The Latin-American category includes the Spanish-speaking people from the United States, Mexico, Caribbean, Central and South America and Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Their taste differences are as great as their similarities, based on their country of origin, as well as their socio-cultural adaptation to the United States.

Of the U.S. Latino population, Mexicans make up the largest group, followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans. The other segment of the growing Latino group is the Central and South Americans, such as the Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Peruvians and Colombians, which has been growing since 1970. As with the immigrant population in general, Latinos tend to live in urban and coastal areas, and around large cities in the United States. However, each region has its own unique population mix, which gives rise to specific regional Latino profiles. Designing products for each region requires awareness of the different population segments there.

Because Mexicans are the largest Latino group in the United States, Mexican dishes greatly influence our tastes for Latino foods. Mexican food has been one of the three most popular ethnic cuisines for the last 20 years and today, North Americans are exploring the more authentic regional profiles. Cuban, Puerto Rican and the new Latino cuisines, such as Peruvian, Brazilian and Chilean, are following suit.

While changing demographics increase demand for regional Latin cuisines, one important trend is the growing popularity of Nuevo Latino, Pan Latin, Floribbean or Nuevo York styles. In those cuisines, "new" flavors are produced by combining traditional American and other ethnic foods with Latino flavors or different regional Latin-American flavors. These flavors appeal to those who want Cajun with Chilean, Brazilian with Japanese, Italian with Mexican or Cuban with Peruvian. This infusion of Latin ingredients, preparation techniques and meal presentation will continue to give new forms to Latin foods. As these markets continue to incorporate the eating patterns of new immigrants to these regions, the fusing of Latin flavors will continue to transform the regional markets in the United States.

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Cuisine by country

The flavors of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean differ depending on geographical diversity, economic differences, cultural influences on cooking, and ingredients grown — mainly rice, chiles, corn and potatoes.

Culinary staples, including corn, rice, quinoa, wheat or potatoes, depends on the growing terrain. Generally, corn is the staple food throughout Latin America, with wheat, quinoa and potatoes popular in South America, and rice in the Caribbean and coastal regions. Latino food is milder where European-influenced, and spicier and hotter where indigenous populations have a greater effect. Hot chile peppers are used extensively in Mexico’s Yucatán and Oaxaca regions, Brazil’s Bahia, and the Andes of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

Almost all Latin American cuisine emerged from Mestizo-style cooking, with influences from indigenous Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Africans and Chinese. Mexico’s northern regions, influenced more by Mennonites and the United States than Spanish or Indians, has milder food, with shredded beef, poblanos, wheat-based tortillas, caldillos (stews) and pico de gallo. Along the north Pacific coast, unique seviches, seafood dishes and pozoles (pork-hominy stews) prevail. Down south, towards Oaxaca and the Yucatán, spicier and hotter foods predominate, influenced by indigenous Mayan and Caribbean populations.

The culturally diverse Oaxaca region of Mexico has the most varied cuisine of Mexico, with unique moles, chilapitas, salsas and tamales flavored with chipotles, epazote, hierba santa and tomatillas. The southern Yucatan, influenced by Mayan, Caribbean, Floridian and other cuisines, uses local flavors in combination with "foreign" flavors. Popular dishes include cochinita pibil (pork roasted in a pit), papadzules (tortillas with pumpkin-seed filling) and chilmoles (black seasoning) that contain recados pastes and habaneros.

Veracruz, influenced by the Spanish and North American Creoles, has tomato- and garlic-based sauces, sweet spices, olives and coconut. The Bajio region of Queretaro and San Miguel has Spanish and indigenous Indian influences and uses cheeses, avocados and anchos for enchiladas, gorditas and unique stews. Central Mexico, with Spanish, Iberian, Muslim and indigenous groups, contributes mixiotes (cooked in maguey leaves), pipian verde (green pumpkin sauce), delicious rice dishes and nopales.

East coast inhabitants of Central America enjoy Caribbean-influenced cooking, with coconut, rice and beans, bananas, cassava and curries. Typical inland dishes include tortillas, stews, parillas (grilled meats), asados (roasted meats), bistecs, refritos, seviches, plaintains, chuletas (pork) and condiments.

Latin Caribbean cooking, also known as Criollo cooking, has been influenced by indigenous Indians, Spanish and Africans. Certain regions of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic flavor their foods with milder seasonings — oregano, tomato, garlic, black pepper and mild chiles. Rice is a staple here with abundant seafood, fruits and root vegetables, such as cassava, sweet potatoes and taro. Picadillos (ground meat), rice and beans, mofongos (mashed plantain with pork crackling), tamales, escabeches, seviches, frijoles, and paella are commonly eaten, flavored with adobos, achiotes, mojos, coconut milk, cilantro, culantro and parsley.

Colombian and Venezuelan foods are mild, with arepas, black beans and creamy sauces. Argentinian and Uruguayan dishes offer roasts and grilled steaks (churrascos, matambres) and chimichurris; while Paraguay serves soups, cheese and varied beef dishes. Bolivia is known for its fiery rocotos, saltenas and egg dishes. Chileans enjoy spicy fish stews, pebre (spicy salsa) and empanadas. Peruvians favor a variety of picante potato and corn dishes with cheese, eggs, chiles and olives. Ecuador is known for its hot, sour and slightly bitter seviches and potato soups. Brazil, with the most varied cultural influences (indigenous Indian, African, Portuguese and other European, Arab, Chinese and Japanese), has feijoda completa (black beans and meat), codfish specialties, vatapa (peanut stew) and farofa (toasted manioc flour).

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Goya Foods Inc., Secaucus, NJ, the largest U.S. Latino-owned company, provides products and basic flavorings that appeal to the mass Latino cultures. Conrad Colon, vice president, marketing and sales, says, "Even though each Latino group has certain ingredient preferences and cooking styles, there are many ingredients that cross over. For example, corn, rice, beans, chiles, root vegetables and fruits, like guanabana, pineapple and mango are enjoyed by all, but chipotles, quinoa, black beans, guarana, cactus and hearts of palms appeal to specific groups."

A daily Mexican meal might include an early light breakfast, a late hearty breakfast (almuerza), a heavy lunch (comida) and a light evening meal, followed with a late supper. Fiery or mild appetizers — known as botanas, bacaditos, boquillas or picadas, depending on their origin — are generally served with meals. These include seafood fritters, seviches, corn tamales, salbutes, empanadas, saltenas, egg or avocado salads, sandwiches, acaraje (black-eyed pea fritters), plantain or yuca chips, pies, anticuchos (skewed beef hearts) and skewered meats.

Soups and stews, called caldillos, calderos, chupes, sopas, cocidas or guisados, come as appetizers or as meals, served with tortillas, fruits, vegetables, salads, breads or seafoods, and spicy condiments or salsas. The infinite variations include hearty stews, such as moquecas from Bahia, pozoles or pucheros from Mexico, sancocho or asapao from Puerto Rico and locros or ajiaco from South America. Stews, soups and broths generally contain seafood, garlic, beef, mutton, chicken, tortillas, chiles, yautia, potatoes, corn, black beans, cheese, avocados and plantains.

Flat breads made from corn and yuca are the mainstay in Latin diets — including tortillas, arepas, tacos, chalupas or casabes. Baked, fried or toasted tortillas of corn or wheat contain varied fillings and toppings served as meals or snacks. They are made into burritos, enchiladas, sopapillas, chilaquiles or tlayudas for meals. A variety of shapes and sizes (sopes, totopos, tostados, chalupas, gorditas, tlacoyos) with different fillings (shredded chicken, pork, picadillo, chorizo, sardines, cheese) and toppings (salsas, cheese, garnishes or refried beans) are used to make snacks (antojitos). Stuffed, fried tortillas, such as salbutes or panuchos from Yucatán, are great as lunches or snacks. Other popular items include bread rolls (bolillos), pancakes and sweet breads (pan dulce), introduced by the Europeans.

Snacking is common in Latin regions. Throughout the day, street vendors and restaurants sell antojitos, or botanos, called "little cravings." These snacks, and their numerous regional variations in Mexico, are made from masa (corn dough). They include tortas, tacos with barbecued meat or bean fillings, sopes, fresh-roasted corn with lime and chile powder, gorditas (tortilla deep fried in lard with black beans, guacamole and salsa), bocoles (fried masa with cheese and chorizo), chalupas (cone-shaped tortilla with toppings), fresh-cut fruits and tostones. Chicharron (fried pork rind) with chile powder and fresh lime, chapulines (fiery, chile-based dried grasshoppers) and charales (small dried fish) are also commonly eaten as munchies. Snacks, such as empanadas, pastels, pastelillos or saltenas, seviches, rice and beans or tortillas are commonly eaten in all of Latin America. However, they vary regionally in flavor based on the ingredients, type of pastry and fillings, how they are served or the preparation techniques involved.

Typical desserts include fresh-cut fruits and sweet tamales stuffed with strawberries or chocolate. Sugar, introduced by Europeans, has led to the popularity of cookies, pastries, gelatos, custards/flans, pies, ice creams and cakes, flavored with coconut, fruits, nuts, raisins, cajetas (burnt milk), cinnamon or anise all over Latin America. Many fruits and tubers, such as guava, green papaya and sweet potato, are made into confections and served with white cheese in Colombia, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Most Latin desserts, especially from Brazil and Mexico, are extremely sweet and milky with abundant sugar, coconut milk and cajetas. Mexicans eat capirotada, a bread pudding with apples, almonds, piloncillo (brown sugar), cinnamon, raisins and cloves, during Lent. Some other popular desserts include cocoada (coconut custard pudding from Brazil), dulce de leche (milk pudding), quimbolitos (steamed puddings from Ecuador), tembleque (coconut custard) flan (egg custard) from Puerto Rico and dulce de queso (cheese dessert) from Colombia.

Salsa secrets

Salsa, the reigning condiment in the United States, is an essential flavoring of Latin regions. While salsa comes in many forms and flavors, and is known by varying names (recados, moles, mojos, recaitos, chimmichurris or sofritos), all provide heat or perk up foods. Latinos use salsas made of roasted tomatoes, tomatillas or rehydrated dried chiles as bases or a multipurpose seasoning to zest up a meal. They are poured over eggs, fajitas, seafood stews, boiled potatoes, grilled beef and roast chicken, as dips for tortillas, tacos and breads, or as toppings for quesadillas, enchiladas or antojitos (snacks).

The hot, spicy, sweet or tangy salsa ingredients vary with regional preferences and include corn, habaneros, ajis, jalapeños, chipotle, annatto, salt cod, manioc, cumin or fruit. Salsas can be served cooked or fresh (uncooked) and are called salsa cruda, salsa fresca or salsa verde. Fresh salsas are made with tomatillos, avocados, fresh green chiles, spices and lime juice, while cooked salsas use roasted tomatoes, spices and dried red chiles. They can be smooth or coarsely textured, thick or thin and mild or hot. Salsa verde, or green salsa, is generally tart and hot, while salsa rojo, red salsa, is sweet, smoky and spicy.

Mexican salsas are generally pureed with roasted chile peppers, but the local favorite is salsa verde, which appears on tables like salt and pepper. Guacamole, made with avocados, tomatoes, chiles, onions and cilantro, is also extremely popular. Other popular types of salsa include chimmichurri (hot vinegar-parsley) from Argentina, salsa di mani (peanuts, cheese, ajis) from Ecuador, molho malagueta from Brazil, salsa de Arequipa (ajis, nuts, shrimp, eggs) from Peru, guasacaca (avocado, habanero) from Venezuela, pebre (olive oil, habanero, spices) from Chile or salsa Criollo from Puerto Rico.

Mole, from the Nahuatl word molli meaning sauce, comes in several colors and flavors depending on regional origins and family recipes. Called the royal sauces of Mexico, they are smooth, thick, rich, nutty and pungent. The "soul" of a mole is roasted rehydrated dried chiles, which are blended with almonds, peanuts, spices, garlic, tomatillas, chocolate and/or sesame seeds. Moles are poured over chicken, turkey, seafood, beef or enchiladas and served with tortillas or rice. Two popular Mexican moles are mole negro from Oaxaca and mole poblano from Pueblo.

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Simple staples

Grains, such as rice, corn, beans and root vegetables, are staples in Latino cuisines. While corn is the staple grain throughout Latin America, frequently consumed items in different regions include rice, quinoa (mother grain of Peru), millet, amaranth and barley. Corn, called maiz in Spanish and milho in Portuguese, was domesticated by the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas, and forms the heart and soul of Latino cuisine. Corn that is dried and ground into flour makes tortillas, tacos, tamales, flautas, salbutes (fried puffed tortillas) or arepas. Corn is eaten fresh off the cob, ground and baked, boiled, stewed, or wrapped with banana leaves and steamed as tamales. Corn is added to soups, salads and sauces or made into corn fritters or casseroles. Fresh, whole corn on the cob is roasted, rubbed with lime juice and eaten as a snack, and as choclo (corn kernels as garnishes for stews and soups). Peruvians toast corn and use it as a topping for seviches.

Quinoa, eaten by the Incas for more than 5,000 years, is still an important part of the diet of the Andes regions. This nutritious grain is added to salads, toppings, cereals, stews or snacks, or used as a thickener.

Rice was introduced to Latin America by the Spanish and is commonly grown along coastal regions. It is the staple of the Caribbean, Brazil and Costa Rica. Latinos prefer it cooked tender, dry and grainy, not mushy. Rice often serves as a main dish with beans, as sopa seca (dry soup) for the midday meal in Mexico, or as a stew with chicken or seafood (Puerto Rican asapao). Brazilians eat rice with beans or rice molded into puddings, which are generally cooked with sautéed onions, garlic, coconut milk, achiote oil and seasonings.

Beans, essential ingredients in Latino kitchens, date back to Peru in 3800 B.C. Known by different names — frijoles, habichuelas or feijaos — they provide protein to most Latinos. Traditionally, Latinos use beans as snacks, dips, sauces and tortilla spreads. They are cooked with rice, added to stews, refried (mashed and recooked in lard) or pickled.

Beans come in a variety of forms, flavors and colors. Different Latino cultures prefer different beans. For example, black beans are typically eaten by Cubans, Southern Mexicans, Central Americans and Venezuelans. Pinto and red beans are popular with Northern Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Navy and fava beans are enjoyed throughout South America, while cranberry and lima beans are specific to Chileans and Peruvians. Caribbean countries consider black-eyed peas and kidney beans staples. Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, introduced by the Spanish, are popular in Venezuelan and Brazilian cooking. Lentejas, or lentils, are not as popular as beans and are generally eaten where there is Arab influence.

Root vegetables, or tubers, are boiled with fiery salsas, mashed for desserts or baked with butter, cream, cheese and seasonings. Potatoes were the sustenance food of the Incas. Called papas or batatas, they are a staple diet in many South- American regions. The high-altitude Andes grow more than 200 varieties, with odd shapes, sizes and colors ranging from bright yellow or purple to red. The Incas were the first to freeze-dry potatoes, and today, these dried forms are added to soups, stews and sauces.

Boniata, or sweet potatoes, are popular tubers in all Latin regions, especially in the Caribbean. Arracacha, or apio, commonly eaten in Colombia and Venezuela, is pale yellow with a slightly sweet and celery-like taste and a potato-like texture. Arrowroot thickens soups, stews and sauces. Jerusalem artichoke, a starchy tuber with a crispy texture, is used in soups, salads and stews, while taro root (yautia) and its leaves are commonly consumed in the Caribbean.

Two starchy vegetables, sweet cassava, also called yuca, or its bitter-type version, manioc, are boiled and added to stews, fried as snacks, ground into flour for breads and cake, or made into vinegar. Farofa, which looks like coarse Parmesan cheese, is a must on the Brazilian meal table, where it is served with roasted meat and poultry dishes, or used as toppings for stews and soups.

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From the garden

Fruits, eaten fresh after meals, can also find their way into pastes, preserves and candies. They are added to marinades, seviches, stews, desserts and juice, or alcoholic beverages. Popular Latin-American fruits include: papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, quince, star apple, strawberry, custard apple, soursop (or guanabana), feijoda (pineapple-guava taste), olive, jackfruit or jaca (for Caribbean stews, soups and desserts), guarana (caffeinated berry) and cupuacu (for juices). Marinades and seviches use citrus fruits, including lime, lemon and Seville orange. Mango, a popular delicacy introduced from India, is eaten fresh, and made into juice and desserts in most Latin regions.

Tomatillo, also called tomate verde or tomate de cascara (husk tomato), has an acidic, lemony taste. Its loose, papery outer-brown skin is removed before it is eaten raw or cooked in Mexican or Guatemalan salsas, seviches and stews. The edible paddles and fruits (called tuna) of nopales or nopalitos (cactus plants) are popular in Central Mexico, and Central and South America. The paddles are grilled, boiled and added to salads, stews and scrambled eggs, while the tuna is added to stews, fermented for drinks or made into candies.

Vegetables, or verduras, such as avocado, zucchini, okra, hearts of palm, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, squash or kale, serve as separate courses or as meal accompaniments. Freeze-dried vegetables, called chuno, are part of an ancient technique practiced by the Incas of South America. The flowers of vegetables are also used stuffed, or in salads and soups. Squash blossoms appear in Mexican soups and salads.

Avocado, an ancient vegetable that originated in Mexico, comes in many varieties. Called aquacate in Spanish and abacate in Portuguese, its name is derived from the Aztec (Nahuatl) word "ahuacatl." Its leaves are toasted and used as a spice or as a wrapping for foods and spice pastes. The crispy-textured, bland-tasting chayote, called chayotl, comes from the squash family. It is a native of Mexico and is commonly added to salads, stews and soups, scrambled with eggs, or mashed and used as a stuffing. Calabaza, or green pumpkin, is pureed as a thickener for stews and soups, or boiled with sugar for candies.

A native of Africa, okra, or quimbombo, has immigrated to Brazil and the Caribbean. Fresh or canned palm hearts, or palmitos, are eaten as appetizers and added to Brazil’s soups and salads. A native of Mexico, jicama, which has a crunchy texture, is eaten raw, sliced or cooked, added to salads or rubbed with lime juice and chile powder, and eaten as a snack. Coconut, or cocos, is grated or juiced and added to Latin-American desserts and beverages and many savory dishes, especially in Brazil and the Caribbean.

Starchy plantains, or platanos, are added to soups and stews, or deep fried and eaten as nibbles. Unripe or green plantains (platano verde) are used for mofongos, tostones and pastels; and ripe plantains (platano maduro) are used as desserts or fried, baked and boiled as accompaniments. Huitlacoche, or corn fungus, is a Mexican delicacy found in dips, spreads, sauces and pates.

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Oils, nuts and seeds

Many Latin-American regions favor lard as their cooking fat of choice. Other oils, such as corn, dende (palm oil), peanut, coconut, olive and aceite de annatto (annatto oil), are also commonly used. Oils and fats flavor cooked rices, soups and stews.

Nuts and seeds generally act as cooking oils, and as purees thicken sauces (moles, pipian verde and recados of Mexico) or stews, and can be added to chocolate, or used as crunchy garnishes. Dende oil, or palm oil, an orange-gold colored oil with a nutty taste, is essential in Bahian cooking of Brazil.

Brazil nuts, which have a high-oil content, are added to confections and cakes as flavorings and texturizers. Pumpkin seeds (pepitas), pine-nuts (pinones), peanuts, sesame seeds (ajonjoli), cashews, walnuts and almonds (almendras) are prevalent in Mexico, Brazil and other regions of South America. Peanuts are made into sauces that are popular in South America and the Caribbean. Yucatecán and Central-American rice dishes, soups, and chicken and meat dishes contain annatto, which is ground into a paste with other spices.

Milk products

Latin-American regions rely on canned, evaporated and condensed milk in their desserts and beverages. Cajeta, a sweet, syrupy, thick and golden-brown milk also called leche quemada, or burnt milk (usually goat’s milk), is simmered with sugar and sometimes vanilla, and flavors many desserts, confections and beverages.

Mexican and South American cuisines use local cheeses, called queso in Spanish, or queijo in Portuguese. Queso blanco, or asadero (lightly salted cheese similar in taste and texture to mozzarella) is used in quesadillas. Throughout Latin America, queso fresco, a mild, crumbly cheese similar to feta or ricotto, tops tacos and enchiladas. Munster cheese is a South American favorite, while Mexicans frequently use queso anejo (an aged, salty sharp cheese similar to Parmesan or Romano) and queso Chihuahua (a medium sharp, white Cheddar-like cheese).

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Popular Latin American Soups and Stews


carbonado Criollo (vegetable-fruit-beef based stew), locro de choclo (green corn soup)


sopa de Mani (peanut dumpling soup)


vatapas (fish stew), feijoada (smoked meats, black beans and malaguetas), quibebe (winter squash soup)


sopa de crema de coco (coconut soup), ajiaco Bogotano (creamed potato-chicken)


sancocho (tangy spicy beef-vegetable stew), locro de papas (potato-fish-cheese stew) ajiaco (potato-cheese soup)


carne guisado (spicy pork stew)


pozole, sopa de aguacate (avocado soup), menudo (tripe soup), squash blossom soup, tortilla soup, sopa de chayote


chupe de camarónes (shrimp chowder), sopa de Lima (lime and rocoto soup), sopa de choclo

Puerto Rico

mondongo (tripe stew), asapao de gandules, sancocho, caldo gallego (Galician soup), sopa de camarónes

Yo quiero meat

Seafood is commonly eaten along the coastal regions and in the Caribbean. Latino cuisine offers many types of fish, shellfish, conch, crayfish, lobster, oysters, octopus and shrimp. They are eaten as snacks, meals or appetizers and marinated, dried, stewed, fried, baked, grilled, steamed as tamales, or cooked and pickled. Red snapper is commonly eaten in the Veracruz and Bahia regions. In Bahia, it is cooked with malaguetas, coconut milk, peanuts. Dried and salted fish, such as pompano or salt cod (bacalao/bacalhau) and dried ground shrimp perk up many Brazilian, Mexican and Caribbean sauces, snacks, eggs and stews.

Seviches, raw seafood "cooked" in a marinade of lime, lemon or sour orange juice, are a specialty of Latin cuisine. They are made with a variety of seafood, including sea bass, mackerel, red snapper, crab, shrimp, clams, oysters, scallops or mussels. Combining these with different chile peppers, cilantro, mint, onions, fruits or vegetables provides variety.

Meat (carne) is expensive, so in many regions of Latin America, meat entrées are eaten only on special occasions. Meat is added to stews; ground for meatballs (albondigas); used as picadillo (seasoned, chopped beef); and mixed with potatoes, vegetables and spices for stews, snacks or tortilla-based products. Meats, sausages and organ meat can be grilled (parilla), roasted (asado), baked, minced and served with varied sauces — chimmichurri, salsa Criolla, moles or pebre. Marinated flank steaks (biftecs) are braised, broiled, baked, stewed, breaded or shredded, and served hot or cold.

Barbecues, called barbacoa in Mexico, include borrego (lamb roasted on a spit) and cabrito (roasted kid goat), while grilled or spicy meat barbecues (churrascos) are common in Brazil and Argentina and in Chile, Peru and Uruguay (matambres). They include beef cuts, chorizos, linguica (spicy pork sausages), blood sausage and organ meat, which are marinated, skewered and grilled or barbecued, and sometimes wrapped in papaya leaves.

Pork is frequently consumed in Latin America, with pork loin a favorite. It is flavored with citrus juice, chile peppers, potatoes, coconut milk, and peanuts and eaten grilled, baked, stewed, in rice and beans, as roasted (cochinita pibil in the Yucatán) and as fillings. Fried pork rinds (chicharrones), salt-cured pork (fatback) and smoked ham (jamon Serrano or jamon de cocinar) flavor sauces, stews, rice and soups. Dried meats (llama, pork, beef), called carne seca, are similar to beef jerky in the United States. They are eaten "as is" or are combined with spices and added to stews, sauces, and soups, or used as fillings for empanadas.

Latin cooks prepare poultry (chicken, turkey, duck and ostrich) in a variety of ways in most Latin regions, and add vegetables, nuts, spices and chile peppers. Poultry can be found in stews, soups, marinated, roasted, smoked, pickled and grilled. Other popular meats, such as rabbit, cuy (a type of Guinea pig), goat, lamb, deer, wild boar and llama, are barbecued or roasted. Tripe (cow’s stomach) is prepared as mondongo (popular in the Caribbean and North Mexico) or added to stews of Brazil and Chile.

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Washing it Down

The most popular Latino beverages are fruit juices or fruit-based drinks, made from banana, pineapple, citrus, coconut, watermelon, tamarind, strawberries and papayas. In Mexico, the most traditional drink is chocolate, which in pre-Hispanic times, was thickened with corn masa and flavored with chiles. The Mexican chocolate drink has a different flavor profile than the regular chocolate consumed in the United States. Today, it is made with milk and sugar and flavored with canela and almonds. Thickened with corn masa, it becomes champurrado or chocolate atole. Corn atole, a spicy Mayan favorite, is made with masa harina and green chiles. Atoles are also flavored with fruits. Horchata, a cold beverage made from rice, melon seeds and almonds, is popular in the Yucatán. Aqua de Jamaica, a tart, sweet drink made from dried sepals of the Jamaican roselle, is a refreshing cold drink from Mexico.

In South American they drink chichi (fermented dried corn), an Incan favorite and yerba mate, a high-caffeine tea-like stimulant that is taken to relieve fatigue and hunger. Blended beverages called batidas, with fruit juices (pineapple, guava, coconut or guarana), milk and coconut milk (with or without alcohol) are common. Caipirinha (lime with cachacha or Brazilian rum), pisco sour (Peru’s brandy drink), egg nogs, margaritas (from tequila), sangria and beer are popular. Strong coffee alone, or combined with milk (cafe con leche), or with piloncillo and cinnamon (cafe de olla), is both common for breakfast and also consumed throughout the day. Though not as popular as coffee, many enjoy herbal teas in the afternoon.



Hot, hot, hot

Most Latino kitchens use sweet, pungent or hot chile peppers in many different forms: dried (chile seca), fresh (chile fresca), smoked or roasted. Discovered in South America, the many varieties include habaneros, jalapeños, serranos, piquin, chipotles, anchos, guajillos and tabascos, which hail from the Mayan regions of Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. Ajis and rocotos are from the Andean regions and malaguetas are from Brazil.

Chile peppers, dried, smoked or roasted, give wonderful flavors and colors. Some popular dried types are chipotle, ancho, guajillo, mulatto, pasilla, pequin and mirasol. Sweet chiles, such as poblanos, are stuffed with picadillo, refried beans, cheese, corn kernels and then deep-fried and topped with walnut sauce or salsas. They include chile relleno and chile en Nogada from Mexico and picadillo para rellenos from Puerto Rico.

Steve Manuel, vice president, sales and marketing, Madera Canyon Chile and Spice Company, Tempe, AZ, says that most Americans have yet to taste the "real" flavor of chiles. "Most of us don’t know how to apply chiles to foods, or prepare them the way Mexicans do. The puya is a favorite and has a wonderful deep-red, paprika-like taste with a bite, while the best-selling chiles are the chipotles and anchos. Chile de arbol and pasilla will emerge as table condiments while roasted jalapeño, which has a slightly smoky and deep flavor with medium heat, will also become popular. These chiles are added to many products, including mayonnaise, salsas, chiles, spreads, meats and soups, to create an authentic or fusion flair."

Cilantro, or coriander leaf, is a favorite spice in Latino kitchens and adds to salsa verde, avocado- and bean-based sauces, soups or as a garnish for almost all dishes. Its root is used to flavor stews, soups and sauces of Puerto Rico. Epazote, another leafy spice, is added to bean and tortilla dishes of Mexico and Central America. The Puerto Rican and Yucatán regions use culantro, a pungent variety of coriander. Parsley and mint are commonly added as garnishes or in seasonings of South America. Annatto, called achiote in Nahuatl language and bija or bijol in Spanish, is used to color and flavor rice, soups, stews and meat and poultry dishes of the Caribbean, Yucatán and Central America. Canela (Ceylon-type cinnamon) is an essential flavoring in moles, desserts, confectionery, beverages and stews of Mexico and other Latin regions. Garlic, ginger, allspice (popular in Caribbean), anise, Mexican oregano, cloves, vanilla and chocolate are also popular seasoning agents.

Tamarind, or tamarindo, is a sweet-sour flavoring added to cooked foods, beverages, jams and jellies or made into confections. Other flavorings, such as corn husk, and a variety of leaves, such as banana, papaya, avocado, agave and plantain, are used to wrap seasoning pastes, meat, poultry and seafood dishes before steaming, barbecuing or baking. Unrefined sugar, piloncillo, panela or panocha, is a favorite sweetener in Mexico. Sold as flat, compressed cakes or as cones, they range from a light-brown to black color with strong flavors.

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Special seasonings

Seasonings, such as adobos, achiotes, sazon, cassareep, recados, alcaparrado, acupi and sofritos, add traditional flavor and color to many Latino foods. While these basic flavorings are enjoyed by all, they have regional variations in heat, spiciness, pungency, sourness, sweetness, color and consistencies.

Savory, garlicky adobo, an all-purpose seasoning, is indispensable to Caribbean Latinos and contains garlic, vinegar, oregano, black pepper and turmeric. Regional options include onions, olive oil, cumin, chipotle, annatto or sour orange juice. Adobos are used as base seasonings to zip up stews, sauces or rices and to marinate beef, pork, chicken or fish.

Alcaparrado, a mixture of pimientos, olives and capers, is used in Puerto Rican bean stews, braised meat dishes and pickled fish.

Cassareep, which contains cassava juice, cinnamon, clove and brown sugar, flavors stews, sauces and rice and beans of Brazil and the Caribbean.

Sofrito is an aromatic mild to slightly hot mixture of garlic and onions slowly sautéed in olive oil. It is then blended with tomatoes, bell peppers, spices and chiles and added to beans, rice, fish, soups and stews. It varies in flavor depending upon which region it comes from. The basic sofrito is sweet with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, garlic and almonds and may also contain culantro, annatto, tocino (salt pork), habaneros, cumin, parsley and cured ham, depending upon its region of origin.

Recados are wet or dry ground blends that are essential to Yucatecán, Central-American and Puerto-Rican cooking. The numerous variations in flavor and color depend on regions and applications. Recado rojo comes with ground annatto seeds, garlic, oregano and peppercorn. Recado negro is made with roasted chiles and spices, while recado de adobo has saffron, clove, cumin and canela.

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Preparation and presentation

One of the most significant prerequisites to developing successful Latino products is a proper understanding of food preparation techniques. For example, the preparation of corn flour varies depending on the finished product specifications. In Mexico, it is put through a lime bath to prepare masa or masa harina, which provides rare flavors and textures to tortillas. In Venezuela, it is precooked through a special process to make harina pan to give different texture and mouthfeel properties to arepas. Barbecues use special techniques and wrappers, such as mixiotes, cornhusks or banana leaves, to provide unique flavors and consistencies. Roasting, toasting and smoking of tomatoes, chiles, onions, garlic or other vegetables are fundamental techniques that give unique flavor profiles.

Presentation styles achieve visual appeal and authenticity. Generally, entrées — rice and beans, chile en Nogada, grilled steaks, pork chops, casseroles or stews — are accompanied by refried beans, salads, warm tortillas, vegetables or salsas. Mashed potatoes, roast chicken, steamed fish or dips can be wrapped in corn husk, tortilla or cactus fiber to create a Latin mood or atmosphere. Colorful salsa containers, or molcajetes, accompany meals to provide a Latino flair.

North America’s thirst for new Latino flavors is opening up doors to Brazilian, Peruvian and Oaxacan foods. Unique regional Nuevo Latino foods can be created by combining seviches, yuca, fruits and moles from different Latino regions, or by fusing Latino ingredients and preparation techniques with traditional American foods.

In order to develop and market Latino or Latino-influenced products to mainstream, niche or global markets, we need to look at the differences between the Latino regions and within the regions. Only when we begin to create marketing strategies and product development efforts that reflect the varying tastes of diverse Latino communities, can we compete successfully in the local or global marketplace.

Susheela Uhl, author of "Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavorings," Technomics Publishing, is president of Horizons Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food consulting firm. She creates culinary concepts, develops ethnic and fusion products, provides information on spices and other flavorings, and gives presentations exploring culinary trends and the factors contributing to their emergence. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or by visiting www.SusheelaConsulting.com.

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