For decades, Latin culture has influenced American eating and drinking habits.

When Maricel Presilla was a child in Santiago de Cuba, his mother fed him pan and avocado, a dish eaten in Latin American countries for centuries. But in 2015, avocado toast, as it’s known, gained popularity in the United States, gracing many brunch and appetizer menus.

Avocado toast is an example of how Latin American cuisine and culture has influenced American favorites like tacos, arroz con pollo, plantains, empanadas and skirt steak.

“These are very easy things to reproduce and things that are not esoteric. They’re not considered weird,” said Presilla, a food historian and former owner of Cucharamama in Hoboken.

“What’s in a chimichurri sauce? ” she asked. “You have parsley, peppers, oregano and garlic. There are onions. These ingredients are familiar.

Fried duck empanadas from Sol Y Luna in Mountain Brook, Alabama, are served with chimichurri sauce and queso fresco.(Bob Carlton/[email protected])

Chief Bren Herrera said the beauty of Latin America is that it is not monolithic.

“There are 21 countries that make up Latin America,” said Herrera, an author and activist who hosts Culture Kitchen, a national television show. “There are countries and islands that are of African ancestry and others that don’t derive from or really rely on that ancestry. You get a very diverse palate.

Presilla, author of Gran Cocina Latina: the food of Latin America, said the variety available in Latin cuisine is part of what makes it so appealing “We have spicy dishes. We have a version of Italian food because we have so many Italian immigrants in places like Peru and Brazil. We also have Japanese in São Paulo Brazil, Peruvian ceviche.

There was a time when Americans only talked about Croque monsieur, a hot sandwich made with ham and cheese and originally served in French cafes, she said. Now they ask for the Cuban sandwich.

old world deli

Old World Deli’s Cuban Sandwich – Photo courtesy of Old World Deli, via Yelp

And the Latin influence on American culture doesn’t stop at food.

Another example of Latin traditions are the daiquiris, mojitos and margaritas that are creating cocktail culture in the United States, Presilla said.

She and Herrera said they are happy the food is gaining popularity because it means more people are interested in the culture.

“I live by this mantra that the way to know a people, a culture and their history is through their food,” said Herrera, who is of Cuban and Jamaican descent. “The food tells a great story of what this culture is all about.”

Presilla, of Weehawken, serves on the advisory board for the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival. She helps educate others about the history of Latin American cuisine.

“Latin Americans are so proud of their food culture,” she said.

Presilla said Latin cuisine is a mix of cultures rooted in the legacy of slavery. She said Africa represents the backbone of American food, noting that 12.5 million people made the transatlantic journey from Africa as slaves. About 400,000 came to the United States, 4 million went to the Caribbean, another 4 million went to Brazil, and the rest went to Latin America. “That’s the reality,” she said.

“It’s important to understand,” Presilla said. “It’s a basis that we have to recognize as Latin Americans, that a lot of our cuisine and a lot of the way we eat has to do with West Africa.”

“It’s beyond the ingredients alone,” she said.

Jonathan Rigg, a Bellmawr mental health counselor, reflects on the years he spent eating his Cuban godmother’s arroz con pollo.

He remembers her making rice similar to Jamaican rice and peas, but it had a coconut flavor.

“The rice was always so good, the way she cooked the chicken with the different types of sazón and then, with patacones or fried plantains,” said Rigg, an Afro-Hispanic whose family is originally from Costa Rica and Jamaica with ancestors in Panama. .

Cocina d'Elbita

– Josette and Walwyn Jackson run Elbita’s Cocina, a food truck serving Puerto Rican comfort food like fried plantains, arroz con pollo and baked beans. Alaina Potrikus | [email protected]Alaina Potrikus | [email protected]

“The flavors make it unique,” he said of the cuisine that keeps him connected to his heritage.

Presilla recently came across a highly publicized article about chicha morada, a punch made from Peruvian purple corn.

“I’ve been serving this for decades now, and every Peruvian joint has all of this. This is not news,” she said. “He’s been there. But now, because of the article, it may become more fashionable. So that’s how it goes. »

Herrera accepted. “Latin cuisine in general, regardless of the country, is very strongly rooted in customs and traditions,” she said. “There’s always a deep level of history where it came from, how it got there, why it was eaten.”

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Shaylah Brown can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @shaylah_brown

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