Food and Cookery

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Food and Cookery

To speak of food in Latin America requires mention of its biodiversity and the multiplicity of geographies and histories that define its member nations and the regions within them. Inhabitants of Latin America were first the "corn people" of the pre-Columbian times, with dynamic interregional trade. Then came their transformation over five centuries as a result of intermixing with European immigrants, and then with African and Asian peoples. Latin America in the early twenty-first century is experiencing an intense process of transmigration and globalization. All of these eras have shaped a number of regional cuisines in a complex blend of traditions and histories.

The first notable cuisine comes from Mexico. There, from pre-Hispanic times, the great indigenous cultures, predominantly the Aztec confederation, had developed important culinary traditions. The chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote about court life: "their cooks had thirty ways of preparing stews … and they would cook over three hundred dishes of whatever the great Moctezuma would eat…. And after [he] had eaten, then all his guards would eat, and a great many more of his house servants, and it seemed to me that over one thousand dishes of these foods were brought out." According to the conqueror Hernán Cortés, the Aztecs "had a great variety of substances for their cooking, chickens, cocks with jowls [turkeys], sugarcane birds [chichicuilotes or plovers], fine-tasting birds with beautiful plumage such as quails, doves, and pheasants, fish and shellfish, both sweetwater and saltwater, that were transported via relays from the coast to the emperor's kitchen, where they were seasoned with truly masterful techniques."

Despite repeated attempts by the colonizers and later by the Europeanized republican elites to subordinate it, the native culinary influence persisted. A notable example was the famous cultural struggle between wheat and corn, and between bread and tortillas, that paralleled attempts to preserve native traditions in the face of a modernizing tendency that favored the European way of living and, of course, eating. As a result of the Mexican revolution of the early twentieth century, the subsequent consolidation of a nationalist and proindigenous model, and the drive to preserve a rich culinary tradition, Mexico's cuisine is truly national, and indeed arguably exemplary in all of Latin America.

A second significant example can be found in the Andean realm of South America, particularly Peru. This important center of pre-Columbian cultures adapted to diverse climate layers, thereby taking advantage of the variety of available products to enrich the culinary traditions that continue to the present day.

On the Peruvian coast alone can be found more than two thousand kinds of soup. Cooking with fruits, potatoes, corn, peanuts, chili, fish, and shellfish goes back to the days of the Incas, and there is still also widespread use of quinua, or "Inca flour," a grain that is three thousand years old. Following colonization, African, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants helped create new combinations of foods, particularly ceviche, a combination of fish and shellfish marinated in lime juice. No survey would be complete without reference to the liquor known as pisco (a type of brandy made from grapes), which both Peru and Chile claim as their national beverage.

Another noteworthy culinary region is that of the Caribbean islands. There, as in the rest of the Americas, the arrival of formerly unknown animals, particularly cattle and pigs, radically transformed the countryside and added to the array of meats and fish available to the island peoples. As immigrants gradually mixed with the depleted indigenous population, a cuisine took shape that, as dependence on the tourist industry grew, would later bring about unique and sophisticated combinations of foods, which blended further with a variety of European, African, and Asian influences. The run down (stew), rotis (flatbread), the many varieties and mixtures of fruits such as coconut, curries of Asian origin, and particularly seafood, though also beef and pork, are all consumed together with rum, the classic Caribbean beverage.

A third cuisine, which one might call Euroamerican, chiefly reflects the European influence. This is the example of Argentine cooking, which is greatly influenced by the cuisines of Spain and Italy, and somewhat less so by Japan. Once again, following the success of cattle-raising as a driver of the national economy, a strong parrilla, or "grilling" culture developed, using all possible varieties of beef, complemented with pasta and polenta, favorite dishes of the immigrant European workers particularly from the nineteenth century on.

An exceptional case is that of Brazil, where the immigrant population, primarily of European and African origin, with some Japanese influence, mixed with the native population to produce a vibrant racial blend that generated some highly regionalized cuisines. Particularly noteworthy is the feijoada carioca (a stew from Rio de Janeiro), which many consider the classic Brazilian dish. It is made of black beans in a thick stew, cooked with a variety of meats to which chopped cabbage, farofa (cassava flour fried in butter), and fresh orange slices are added. All this is preceded by a drink of the famous caipirinha, the national beverage, made of cachaça (cane liquor), lime, and sugar.

Two tendencies in Latin American cuisine have emerged as a result of unstoppable globalization. One of these is the penetration of U.S. fast-food ideas (the "McDonaldization" of food), which threatens the uniqueness of regional cuisines. The other is the adaptation of "fusion" cuisines (sometimes called mestizas, or mixed), involving free experimentation with culinary traditions from many parts of the world in combination with the flavors and preparation techniques characteristic of local cultures and natural Latin American products. Brazil and Colombia, as two of the world's most bio-diverse nations, have much to contribute to the wave of fusion cooking. At the same time, the region is home to millions of native peoples who have resisted the pressures colonialism for more than five hundred years, and whose cuisines preserve their own originality and uniqueness amid the mixture of cultures and foods of the world.

In the Americas another interesting case is the United States, which, in the words of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, is a nation "without a cuisine," but one that instead has assimilated all the cuisines of the world. Those of Latin America—particularly Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America, and Mexico—are highly influential, given that these groups make up the largest minority population in the country. Their presence has been one of the driving forces in U.S. culture, including its inhabitants' culinary tastes and habits.

See alsoAztecs; Incas, The; Nutrition.


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                                    Alberto G. FlÓrez-MalagÓn