Back in August, I wrote about how I’m not going to be touting the Mediterranean diet as much as I used to. One reason is that the outsize focus on this one way of eating — as delicious and nutritious as it is — is dismissive of other traditional ways of eating that are also delicious and nutritious, but haven’t had the benefit of the research spotlight shining on them. Take Latin American cuisine as an example.
Much like “the Mediterranean,” “Latin America” is not a monolith. It’s quite diverse, consisting of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean islands and South America — the countries that were touched by Spanish or Portuguese colonization starting centuries ago While there are common threads the cuisines in this part of the world can be strongly regional, reflecting the blending of influences from Native peoples, their colonizers and enslaved Africans. In her phenomenal cookbook, “The South American Table,” food writer, cooking instructor and culinary historian Maria Baez Kijac calls South American cuisine, “a unique cuisine that I believe is unsurpassed in the world.”
Unfortunately, I’ve observed a common misconception from non-Latino people that Latin American cuisine is less-than-healthy — too high in carbs and fat, and too low in vegetables. Ironic, because I’ve also watched diet/wellness culture co-opt and cherry pick certain Latin American traditional foods as “superfoods” — avocados, chia seeds, quinoa, coconut milk, cashews, oat milk — while demonizing other traditional foods, namely corn, white rice and potatoes. Never mind that corn is a whole grain, potatoes have a lot of nutrients, and a cup of brown rice has only one more gram of fiber than white rice.
It’s easy to form an idea of a culture’s cuisine from what we see on restaurant menus (including fast food menus), even though this usually doesn’t reflect what people from that culture eat and cook in their homes on an average day. For example, soups (sopas) and stews (caldos) are significant in Latin American cuisine, but most Latin American restaurants don’t feature them.
In the U.S., we’re often used to meals containing separate protein and vegetable sources, such as grilled chicken with a side of broccoli. With Latin American food, mixed dishes are more common, and vegetables are used as both a flavor base and as garnishes, so it may not be obvious how many vegetables you’re eating. Beans, soups and stews might be cooked with sofrito — most versions start with onion and/or garlic, then add other ingredients such as tomatoes and bell peppers — then topped with fresh salsas or with raw vegetable garnishes such as shredded cabbage, radish, carrots or onion. Sauces, another important element in Latin American cooking, are often also made from aromatic vegetables. There may also be a serving of pickled, fermented or grilled vegetables on the side.
When I first visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, almost 14 years ago, I had a mini-freakout when few restaurant menus had salads like what I ordered at home. But grilled vegetables were plentiful. (As I learned from Maricel E. Presilla’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina,” Latin American salads exist — they’re just not the leafy green concoctions I was used to.) When I visited Ecuador a decade later, I was much more chill about the food.
We can learn a lot from Latin American food, including how to use vegetables as flavor and how to incorporate more beans — a great source of protein, fiber and other nutrients. Like every food culture, Latin American food culture has nourishing, delicious food, and deserves to be celebrated.