Words by Barbora Ormerod
Famous for foods such as tortillas and barbecued beef, the region often referred to as ‘Latin America’ features a fascinating patchwork of traditions and a cultural history like no other. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that its culinary scene is every bit as vibrant and diverse as the tropical ingredients that grow there. To break down such a massive region (encompassing everywhere from Mexico to Chile) I have picked three dishes which offer a neat – and tasty – introduction to the history and cultural diversity of Latin American cuisine…
Most of Latin America is tropical, giving it access to some of the most delicious fruit, nuts and spices on the planet. It is also home to many ingredients such as the potato, chilli and avocado, which were not found outside the Americas before Europeans arrived in 1492. Maize, for instance, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago and became a foundation of early central American society.
Tamales are parcels of maize dough with a savoury or sweet filling, which are wrapped in corn husks and steamed to make a delicious snack. This tasty and portable food was so useful to the Aztecs that it acquired near-sacred status, reflecting the importance of maize to pre-Columbian Latin America. Tamales have remained popular and relatively unchanged across much of the region since then.
Latin America’s history of multiculturalism is also a defining feature of its cuisine. The arrival of European settlers in the early modern era caused a sudden and dramatic mingling of different ethnicities; plus, a crossover of plant and animal species known as the Columbian Exchange. This is what put the ‘Latin’ into ‘Latin America’ and gave rise to a style of cooking which would nowadays be termed ‘fusion’. Settlers who were anxious to preserve a taste of home, whilst borrowing indigenous ingredients and know-how, created dishes which were often recognisable but had a tropical twist.
The empanada is a great example. Originally a Spanish snack consisting of meat or vegetables wrapped in pastry, it was easily adapted to the flavours and produce which were readily available in the new world. For example, the Belizean ‘panada’ is often made with maize and stuffed with beans, fish and other foods locally grown in Belize. These days the empanada, in its various forms, is a Latin American staple more associated with that part of the world than with its origins in Europe.
Cultural interchange did not stop with the conquistadores from Spain. Migrants and missionaries from all over the world came to South America and added their own unique additions to the region’s culinary scene. For example, British tea-drinking took root in parts of Argentina courtesy of Welsh settlers. The influx of Chinese labourers to Peru led to the creation of ‘Chifa’, an entirely new cuisine in its own right based on a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian traditions.
Ceviche is another dish that perfectly illustrates the role of multiculturalism in Latin American food. Ceviche consists of raw fish, spiced and cured in citrus juice, and combines an ancient Peruvian method of curing fish with the Japanese tradition of sashimi. Early forms of the dish used fruit brought to Latin America by European settlers. Despite these blurred international origins, many Peruvians consider it their national dish. This seems only fitting – an appreciation for different cuisines and the groups of people who created them can only serve to enhance our enjoyment of the food.