For decades, Latin culture has influenced American food ways and drink.
When Maricel Presilla was a child in Santiago de Cuba, her mom fed her pan and avocado, a dish that had been eaten in Latin American countries for centuries. But in 2015, avocado toast, as it has come to be known, gained popularity in the United States, gracing many brunch and appetizer menus.
Avocado toast is an example of how Latin American food and culture have influenced American favorites like tacos, arroz con pollo, plantains, empanadas and skirt steak.
“These are things that are very easy to duplicate and things that are not esoteric. They are not considered weird,” said Presilla, a culinary historian and former owner of Cucharamama in Hoboken.
“What is in a chimichurri sauce?” she asked. “You have parsley, peppers, oregano and garlic. There are onions. Those ingredients are familiar.”
Chef Bren Herrera said the beautiful thing about 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 TV show. “There are countries and islands that are African descent and others that don’t really pull or 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 within Latin cuisine is part of what makes it so appealing “We have spicy. We have a version of Italian food because we have so many immigrants from Italy in places like Peru and Brazil. We also have the Japanese in São Paulo in Brazil, Peruvian ceviche.”
There’s a moment when Americans would only talk about Croque monsieur, a hot sandwich made with ham and cheese and originally served in French cafes, she said. Now, they request the Cuban sandwich.
And the Latin influence on American culture doesn’t stop with food.
The daiquiris, mojitos, and margaritas that create the cocktail culture in the United States are another example of the Latin traditions, Presilla said.
She and Herrera said they are glad 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 and culture and their history is through their food,” said Herrera, who is of Cuban and Jamaican descent. “The food tells a beautiful story of what that culture is.”
Presilla, of Weehawken, sits on The Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival advisory committee. She helps educate others about the history of Latin American Cuisine.
“Latin Americans are so proud of their culinary culture,” she said.
Presilla said Latin cuisine is a mix of cultures steeped in the legacy of slavery. She said that Africa represents the backbone of American foods, noting that 12.5 million people made the transatlantic voyage from Africa as enslaved people. 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 is the reality of it,” she said.
“This is important to understand,” Presilla said. “That’s a foundation we need to acknowledge as Latin Americans, that so much of our cuisine and so much of the way we eat has to do with West Africa.”
“It is beyond the ingredients alone,” she said.
Jonathan Rigg, a mental health counselor from Bellmawr, thinks about the years growing up 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 just always so good, the way she would make the chicken with the different types of sazón then, with patacones or fried plantains,” said Rigg, an Afro-Hispanic whose family is from Costa Rica and Jamaica with ancestry in Panama .
“The flavors make it unique,” he said of the cuisine that keeps him connected to his heritage.
Presilla recently came across a high-profile article about chicha morada, a punch made with purple corn from Peru.
“I had been serving that for decades now, and any Peruvian joint they all have that. It’s not news,” she said. “It has been there. But now, because of the article, maybe it will become trendier. So, that is how it happens.”
Herrera agreed. “Latin cuisine in general, regardless of a country, is very heavily rooted in customs and traditions,” she said. “There is always a deep level of history of where it came from, how it got there, why it was eaten.”
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Shaylah Brown may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @shaylah_brown