SEA-NIC VIEWS. With thousands of miles of coastal waters, South America boasts a bountiful fishing industry.
From the mild flavors of the Spanish Caribbean, to the protein-rich diets of Argentina and Uruguay, to the vast array of Chilean seafoods, Latin America is known for unique culinary traditions that are fast becoming an unstoppable force in the US.
These south-of-theborder favorites highlight diverse ingredients, seasonings, ethnic influences, and preparation methods. While there is a common thread that runs throughout, each country's food history is as different as Southwestern cooking is from California cuisine.
The roots of Latin American cusine began with ancient Aztec, Mayan and Inca tribes who feasted on home-grown vegetables, fruits, high protein grains, seafoods and meats. The Incas noshed on fish, llama and alpaca, while the Aztecs grazed on corn, beans, shrimp and insects. The Mayans—who were primarily hunter/gatherers—cultivated chocolate, vanilla, honey, salt and chilies.
When Europeans arrived centuries later, they introduced beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy products, citrus fruits, bananas, mangoes, wheat, rice, sugarcane and several new spices to the region.
The fusion of these two culinary traditions created the basis of what we recognize as a myriad of Latin cuisines. Today it continues to evolve as new influences have entered the picture. But here are the basics.
The Grand Tour
Throughout Central and South America center-of-the-plate entrees were traditionally either slow-cooked or roasted over an open fire. The Europeans introduced additional preparation methods like sauteing and frying as well as sauces such as sofritos. Also, in most Latin countries, squashes, gourds, corn and beans make up the mainstays of the diet. Tour the region and you'll find that, food-wise, regional diversity is a common thread.
For example, in Brazil, you'll find food with a Mediterranean flair. Recipes add Portuguese wines and rices to traditional basics such as beans, potatoes and corn. Brazil is typically divided into five culinary regions: North (Indian, one-pot meals); Northeast (Afro-Bahian, local ingredients, dried foods and tropical fruits); Central-West (Mediterranean, fish); Southeast (European and North African, comfort foods); and South (German and Middle European, sun or salt dried meats and churrasco).
Moving down the coast you'll find Argentineans are famous for their high protein diets, particularly beef. Cheese—both cow and sheep—is especially popular thanks to the European settlers (they also brought flans, puddings and custards). The region's rich soil lends itself to a variety of fruits and fruit jams are often used as a flavor enhancer.
Chile, with it 2,600 miles of coastline, and rich soil is known for seafoods, stews and vegetables.
Head north/northwest, and along the coast, where the main influences are Spanish with hints of African, and you'll find the fruits and vegetables that South America is famous for, among them bananas, coconuts, yuca, potatoes and plantains. Coffee also grows in the north. All are prominent ingredient in these cuisines.
As Latin was introduced to the other countries it continues to evolved, adopting additional ingredients and flavors. So-called Nuevo Latino (New Latin) can be chilihot or mild and mannerly. It can produce dishes as complex as moles and as simple as rice and beans, as starch-heavy as garlicmashed plantains and as spare and light as ceviche.
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