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Culinary contributions from Latin America

Zubin Dsouza


I am always in a tizzy when it comes to using the appropriate reference term to the countries that lie further south from continental North America and Mexico. South America is a rather bland description for a group of countries that are full of excitement, culture and colour and the term Latin America although replete with an air of romanticism, has the dark bodings of a time when enslavement and the absolute eradication of an amazing culture took place.

To be fair, the terms may be interchangeable and as far as common parlance goes, one could easily replace the other. What is however irreplaceable is the amazing food traditions that the cultures located here have provided us with.

To be fair, almost each culture or at least each country deserves a culinary note for their own personal achievements.

There are so many fruits and vegetables that we take for granted in the world today. There are chefs who talk about doing the ‘farm to table’ concept and still others toss around heavier terms that involve local produce, glocal, native, etc.

What we forget to take into consideration is that the many products we use today have come to us courtesy of one of the greatest civilisations that ever lived on our blue planet.

Although corn would probably be the first ingredient that one would associate with the Americas, their greatest export has probably been potatoes!

It has been potatoes that travelled the world, provided sustenance to the poor and became an important staple. It was first cultivated by the Incas from Chile, Peru and Bolivia who converted it to flour called chuno.

Of course corn is not far behind. Along with sharing this wonderful crop with the world, they also sent instructions on how to grind or mill it along with a few recipes that we use to this day.

And while we are still on the subject of widely used farm produce, did you know that tomatoes came from Latin America too? The seeds were carried to Europe by Spanish priests. Initially, the Europeans were afraid to eat tomatoes because of the bright red colour and thought them to be poisonous. A couple of centuries later and you cannot really imagine Italian and Mediterranean food without tomatoes.

I think the greatest agricultural achievement has to be the spread of chocolate production. No wonder they were referred to as ‘theobroma’ or food of the gods.

The cacao plants were an important part of traditional ceremonies. They were highly prized and revered by the natives and used as currency for a while. The consumption of cocoa was generally reserved for royalty and nobility.

And by sharing vanilla beans with the world as well, Latin American farmers managed a culinary coup of sorts by cornering almost the entire dessert market. I mean, when you think of desserts and pastries, I am sure that you cannot get too far without coming across either one of these products.

Chillies have been an important part of Indian, Mexican, African and Chinese cuisines. They are available in various strains and each one comes with its own taste nuances. We would never have had this fruit and capsicum which is a close cousin if it wasn’t for the ingenuity of the American Indians. You could kiss your curries and Sichuan style spicy Chinese food goodbye if these exports hadn’t taken place at the right time.

The discovery of this amazingly diverse continent yielded a culinary bonanza for the world. The initial explorers found peanuts (that were originally grown to feed to the pigs) and pineapple; sunflowers that were harvested for their seeds and oil, wild rice, avocadoes, pumpkin and squash. The land was abundant in beans, manioc which was also called tapioca and cashew.

Imagine how empty your plate would have looked had it not been for the wealth of wonderful food that has poured in from here.

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