The cuisines of Latin America reflect the complexity and diversity of the history and culture of the region. Centuries of adaptations to the land have produced cuisines that are unique modifications of the food habits of Indians, Europeans, and Africans. Many of the staples upon which these cuisines are based have their origins in the early history of agriculture in Latin America. Maize, cassava, or manioc, and potatoes, the three most important of these staples, remain essential in Latin American cooking today. They have also become central to the cuisines of many other regions of the world.
Maize was the most widely cultivated of the New World staples. Considered a miraculous food because of its yield and a sacred food because of its ceremonial significance, it became the main component of a dietary complex that included varieties of beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, and fruits. Traditionally, maize was prepared by shucking the kernels, either by hand or by using the cob as a tool. In much of Mexico, so dependent on maize, it was then soaked or boiled in water and lime, which prepared the kernels for milling, often done with stone metates. More water was then added to the mixture, known as nixtamel, to give it the texture and consistency necessary for cooking. The result was masa, commonly used to make tortillas, a versatile food that has long been the basis of Mexican cuisine. Tortillas came in all shapes and sizes, determined by history and custom, and were common accompaniments to meals. Served as a bread, tortillas help to accent the classic dishes of Mexican cuisine, such as fish, meat, and poultry carefully prepared with mole or adobo sauce. When wrapped around meat, poultry, beans, or cheese, tortillas became the tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and burri-tos so commonly associated with Mexican cuisine today. Tamales, made from maize flour with salt and fat added, were more labor intensive and generally reserved for special occasions.
Mexican maize was almost as versatile when served as a liquid. Atole was a thin drink prepared from maize water. Pozole was a heartier beverage, at times served with chunks of meat or vegetables. Pinole was made from lightly toasted maize that was ground into a flour and then mixed with water. Maize also achieved a culinary complexity in other areas of Latin America. In the Andes, people ate macha, roasted maize flour; cancu, special loaves of maize bread; humitas, similar to Mexican tamales; and mote, a maize gruel. In Colombia and Venezuela, arepas, a type of roasted maize bread served plain or stuffed, were favored over tortillas. In Brazil, maize was also prepared in many different ways, from angu, a cornmeal gruel, to biscoitos de milho, maize biscuits with sugar, eggs, fat, and a pinch of salt. Variations of these dishes were common through most of Latin America.
Maize, an Indian food associated with Indian agricultural and cultural practices, was often maligned by the Europeans for its bland taste and indigestibility, yet it was widely used. In the late sixteenth century, the popular writer Garcilaso De La Vega noted that "with maize flour the Spaniards make little biscuits, fritters, and other dainties for invalids and the healthy. As a remedy in all sorts of treatment, experienced doctors have rejected wheat flour in favor of maize flour."
Cassava, called yuca in much of the Caribbean and mandioca (manioc) in Brazil, was a staple for many lowland peoples. It was similar to maize in that it required processing before eating. The most popular cassava contained hydrocyanic acid, removed by peeling and grating the root, then pressing out the poisonous juices. Gratings were then toasted and used for gruels and bread. Pan de casabe was described by some Europeans as "very white and savourie," but most Spaniards thought it tasteless and difficult to digest. In Brazil, mandioca achieved a special importance in the sixteenth-century diet as planters and explorers relied on it to provide cheap sustenance to Portuguese colonists, African slaves, and Indians. Bureaucrats encouraged its production, recognizing its centrality to Portuguese control over Brazil. However, manioc was a staple food in Africa and many slaves brought their cultivation of this root with them. In its most common form, it was a dried and toasted flour, known as farinha or farofa, eaten by rich and poor, though occasionally it emerged as beijús, tasty fritters for special occasions. Different types of farinha, used as thickeners, eaten as side dishes, or elaborately prepared with many different ingredients, are widely consumed in Brazil today.
Potatoes were the most localized of the three great staples. Found in the highlands of the central Andes, potatoes were a basic food source for the growing population of the Andean region. Variant soils, climatic conditions, and human experimentation had created a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors of potatoes. Usually eaten boiled or in soups, potatoes were also frozen and dried to make chuños. Reverence for the potato is still seen in papas a la huacaina, a sturdy dish of potatoes (preferably those with yellow flesh), cheese, cream, peppers, and eggs.
Dozens of foods complemented the basic staples, some of them so widely consumed that during different times and places they almost achieved the status of staples. Grains, tubers, fruits, and vegetables such as quinoa, Amaranth, chia, oca, ulluco, jicama, sweet potatoes, beans (kidney, tep-ary, lima, black, navy, wax, and others) pumpkins, chayotes, squash, peppers, tomatoes, avocados, pineapples, papayas, sapotes, soursops, guavas, and much more came in such abundance that early writers frequently talked about the profusion of food.
Beans deserve special mention, since they, along with grains and tubers, figured prominently in the cuisine, offering a solid basis for many dishes. Their importance in the diet continues today, and several of the traditional dishes of Latin America are based on beans. Frijoles, served in innumerable ways in Mexico but commonly mashed and mixed with fat, salt, and chilies, accompany many dishes. The Brazilian feijão can be cooked with coconut milk and vegetables, or served as the classic feijoada completa, a combination of beans and meats.
Meat was not absent from the diet of pre-Columbian peoples. The llama served the multiple purposes of transportation, wool, leather, fuel, and food. Llama meat was often eaten as charqui, a type of jerky. In this sense, the llama was as important to highland Andean peoples as the camel was to nomads of the Arabian desert. The alpaca, better known for its fine wool, was also a source of meat. The cui, or small cavy, also known as muca-muca and chucha, was kept as a source of meat by households. Mesoamerican peoples did not have domesticated animals similar to the llama and cui, but they did keep ducks, turkeys, and dogs for the table. They were also hunters, and the iguana, peccary, tapir, coati, armadillo, rabbit, and deer, along with birds, fowl, and fish supplemented the diet. As Europeans were quick to point out, Indians also ate snakes, rats, lizards, insects, larvae, and lake scum—in other words, they effectively used their environment to enrich their diets and add diversity to their cuisines.
Foods introduced after 1492 altered the cuisines of the New World. The key European staples of wheat and rice challenged, and in some cases replaced, staples indigenous to the region. Introduced very early, wheat was the preferred food of Spaniards and Portuguese, who planted the crop wherever possible and relied on imported flour and hardtack when wheat could not be grown. Soon, the bakeries of cities produced several types of bread, some carefully refined and white, others dark and coarse with much of the bran remaining.
Rice also became important in local diets, often as a result of temporary shortages of more traditional foodstuffs. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as larger populations sought new staples and as techniques for rice growing improved, Latin Americans ate more of it. Immigration affected the importance and method of consumption of rice. The arrival of large numbers of East Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants led to increased consumption. While rice was prepared in many ways, a method common to many regions was to sauté the grains, often with a little onion, then cover with water and simmer. Examples of specialized techniques include morisqueta in Mexico, where rice is ground into a powder before cooking. Rice flour is also the basis for specialty drinks with sugar, honey, cinnamon, and other ingredients added.
The cultural and regional interplay of food staples in Latin America has not yet been sufficiently studied. There is a disagreement among scholars about the ease with which European settlers adapted to a manioc-based cuisine in Brazil, thus reducing their reliance on imported foods. There are differing estimations of the importance of barley and wheat in the diet in regions with large Indian populations. In Cuba, at least according to Alexander von Humboldt, Old World grains had "become articles of absolute necessity" for some by about 1800, displacing the traditional staples of maize, cassava, and bananas. Whereas some traditional foods fell out of favor, others increased in importance. Bananas (and plantains), introduced only in the sixteenth century, spread quickly through tropical and subtropical Latin America; eaten raw, boiled, fried, or dried, they were versatile, nutritious, and economical additions to the cuisine.
Meat was so abundant in the sixteenth century that it became a staple for many. Meat was usually prepared in one of the four ways common in fifteenth-century Spain: asado (roasted), cozida (stewed), frita (fried), and empanada (baked, at times breaded). Today, the classic meat dishes in the cuisine are roasted, often over an open fire. Examples range from the almost dainty Peruvian anticuchos, succulent beef hearts marinated and then grilled, to the spectacular Argentine asado and Brazilian churrasco, different cuts of meat cooked slowly over open fires. This type of cooking is far more popular than the old methods of barbacoa in Mexico or pachamanca in Peru, where food is placed over heated rock, then sealed with earth for slow baking, similar to the New England clambake. A fifth method of preparation was dehydrating and salting, already in use before 1492. With the abundance of meat and the development of longdistance trade in meat, preservation techniques became more elaborate. The cattle regions of plains and pampas produced charqui, cecina, tasajo, carne seca, carne-do-sol and other types of dried, salted, and smoked meat.
In the cattle regions, beef was the mainstay of the cuisine, eaten three times a day. When meat was not available, animal fats generally were. Foods previously only boiled or roasted could now be fried, and indulgence in fried, fatty foods became commonplace by the eighteenth century. The abundance of animal fat quickly reduced the dependence on olive oil, reducing it to a secondary role in cooking by the end of the sixteenth century.
The emerging cuisines of Latin America depended on a combination of flavors, some pronounced, others subtle. Chilies assumed prominence in the colonial cuisines of Mexico, Peru, and Brazil, much more so than vanilla or any other indigenous flavoring. In addition, black pepper, citrus, ginger, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and more regionally specialized flavorings such as azeite de dende, characteristic of Bahian cooking, and cilantro (Chinese parsley), so widely used in Mexican food, became characteristic of Latin American cuisine. In this way, American, African, European, and later Asian foods and cooking techniques mixed to form the Creole cuisines of Latin America.
Sugar, though lacking in nutritional value, was essential as a sweetener for chocolate, coffee, and tea, and as the principal ingredient of many diverse and creative foods. Sugar combined with all types of fruits and nuts yielded spectacular results. Cookbooks list innumerable recipes for dulces in Spanish America and doces in Brazil. Milk and eggs, other new ingredients in the cuisine, also became popular for desserts, especially flan, the caramelized custard common to Latin America. Chocolate, Latin America's gift to the desserts of much of the world, was consumed primarily as a beverage during its early history. In the nineteenth century its popularity increased as it took the form of modern milk chocolate. While still important as a beverage and dessert in Latin America, chocolate consumption there pales in comparison with that of many other regions of the world.
The encounter between different cultures established the basis for the cuisines of Latin America. Foods and methods of preparation that would endure into the twentieth century had already taken root by the end of the sixteenth century. Later external influences, especially those of France in the nineteenth century, affected cuisines but did not alter the basic foods and cooking techniques. The post-World War II global trends of commercialization, mass production, and food substitutes may ultimately change the cuisines of Latin America more profoundly than any other influences since the encounter.
Eugenio Pereira Salas, Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena (1977).
Amando Farga, Historia de la comida en México (1980).
Luís De Câmara Cascudo, História da alimentaçao no Brasil, 2 vols. (1983), offers good introductions to the history of food in individual countries. For specific foods, see Nelson Foster and Linda S. Cordell, Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World (1992). Two good examples of the historical interpretation of individual foods are Gilberto Freyre, Açúcar: Em tôrno da etnografia, da história, e da sociologia do doce no Nordeste canaviero do Brasil (1969), and Alfredo Castillero Calvo, El café en Panamá: Una historia social y económica (1985). Early cookbooks, such as Simón Blanquel, Novísimo arte de cocina (1831), and Mariano Rivera Galván, El cocinero mejicano, 3 vols. (1831), are particularly valuable sources. For cookbooks in English, see Jonathan Norton Leonard, Latin American Cooking (1968), Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking (1967), and Mary Urru-tia Randelman and Joan Schwartz, Memories of a Cuban Kitchen (1992), which offer interesting cultural and historical insights.
Belasco, Warren James and Philip Scranton. Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Cascudo, Luís da Câmara. A cozinha africana no Brasil. Luanda: Publicações do Museu de Angola, 1964.
Houston, Lynn Marie. Food Culture in the Caribbean. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Lima, Claudia. Tachos e panelas: Historiografia da alimentação brasileira. 2nd edition. Recife: Editora Comunicarte, 1999.
Lody, Raul Giovanni da Motta. Santo também come. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 1998.
Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Morales, Edmundo. The Guinea Pig: Healing, Food, and Ritual in the Andes. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
Pilcher, Jeffrey. ¡Que Vivan Los Tamales! Mexican Cuisine and National Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Querino, Manuel. A arte culinaria na Bahia. Salvador: Progresso, 1951.
Weismantel, Mary. J. Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
Wilk, Richard R. Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists. New York: Berg, 2006.
John C. Super