Latin Cuisine Spices It Up
Some diners think of Hispanic cookery only in terms of chain-restaurant fajitas, or worse,
fast-food tacos. But Latin America’s many vibrant cultures have produced dishes that are subtle
and fiery, refined and down home—and can be healthier than many people realize.
Updated December 2010
It is a balmy summer night in Spanish Harlem. A fiesta of color emanates from lights strung between apartment buildings, and the air is spicy and thick. As the pulsating rhythms of salsa and merengue float through outdoor speakers, dancers crowd the hot New York City streets, warm skin glistening. Tequila and mojitos are poured into tall glasses amid the clatter of animated Spanish voices.
Angel Gonzalez eats from a plate piled with steaming taquitos, arepas, fried plantains, fajitas and homemade tamales. He has worked up a fierce appetite from hours of dancing. Having lived on this block his whole life, Angel knows all too well the dangers associated with the high-fat, high-sodium Hispanic-American diet; in fact, as is the case with many Hispanic Americans, both heart disease and type 2 diabetes run in Angel’s family. Though he expresses concern about prevention, Angel admits it’s difficult to eat healthy at gatherings such as tonight’s block party. “For Hispanics,” he says, “food is a celebration of life.”
With roots in a territory spanning 18 nations, Latin cuisine reflects a diverse array of influences from all over the globe, especially Native American, African and European. Much of Latin cuisine is characterized by rice- and maize-based favorites including tortillas, tamales and papusas along with guacamole, salsa and pico de gallo.
Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban foods are the best-known Latin cuisines in the US; though sharing commonalities, each region’s fare possesses its own unique flavor. The arrival of Spanish explorers in 1493 introduced beef, pork, rice, wheat and olive oil to the initial Puerto Rican diet of corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, tropical fruit and seafood. Rice and beans is a popular Puerto Rican dish, as well as plantains, meat pies, and soups. Pudding is often served for dessert alongside tarts and native tropical fruits.
Perhaps the most-beloved Latin cuisine in the US, Mexican food is known for its intense and varied flavors, colorful decoration and variety of spices. Most of today’s Mexican food combines ancient traditions from the Aztecs and Mayans with culinary trends from the Spanish colonists. Patricia Quintana, a noted cookbook author and Mexican chef, has a passion for the foods and flavors of her native Mexico. “Since pre-Hispanic times, food has been a ritual,” she says. “Through food you create a way to celebrate.”
Incorporating an incredible array of fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, avocado, coconut, pineapple, papaya and prickly pear cactus, Mexican food is as rich as it is diverse. Made with wheat or corn flour, tortillas often replace bread and are used to make such favorites as enchiladas and quesadillas, fajitas and tacos. Chili peppers are used to increase the flavor and the spice of many dishes.
Criollo, traditional Cuban cuisine, utilizes rice, beans, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, chicken, beef and pork. “Cuban cooking combines the tastes of Spain with the tropical flavors of the Caribbean,” says Glenn Lindgren, co-author of Three Guys from Miami Celebrate Cuban (Gibbs Smith). “Throw in some New World spices and ingredients, and a strong African influence, and you have the essence of Cuban cookery.” Sofrito, a sauté of onions, green peppers and garlic in olive oil, is sometimes referred to as the “heart and soul” of Cuban cuisine, and is often used as a marinade. Roasted pork is Cuba’s most popular meat dish, and, on the island that gave birth to sugarcane, desserts are extra sweet. Root vegetables yucca and malango are boiled or baked alongside common seasonings like onion and ajo, and rum is Cuba’s national drink, spawning such favorites as the mojito and the daiquiri.
Adopting Western Ways
Hispanics suffer from some of the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease in the world. In fact, experts predict that diabetes cases worldwide will rise to 64 million by 2025—62% of which will hail from Latin America.
“Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and Mexican Americans are the largest sub-group of Hispanics,” says Kelly J. Hunt, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. “It is important not to underestimate the burden of disease in this population.”
Researchers who believed the ‘Hispanic paradox’ for years—the phenomenon that Hispanics, who have high rates of obesity and diabetes, are less likely than Caucasians to die of heart disease—are now recognizing the falsity of this idea. In a study led by Hunt, researchers found that Mexican Americans were at the greatest risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, followed by Hispanics born in Mexico (American Heart Association Meeting 4/02).
Obesity, one of the leading causes of heart disease, has been a health danger encountered by many Hispanics after moving to the US. Like other Westerners, they tend to consume more saturated fat, cholesterol and processed food in addition to adopting a more sedentary lifestyle that contradicts the active lives they led in their native lands. Practicing as an obstetrician/gynecologist for 30 years, Manny Alvarez, MD, the health reporter for Fox News, noticed the escalating weight gain in Hispanic women. Examining his own Cuban roots, Alvarez recalled a culture almost exclusively defined by its food, yet boasting high life expectancy and low levels of obesity. “In Latino countries,” he said, “everyone’s outside, everyone moves around a lot. Everyone eats home cooking. No one’s skipping meals. You go to the movies here [in the US], and a small popcorn is the size of a Chevrolet.”
Alvarez’s book, The Hot Latin Diet (Penguin), combines a common-sense approach to weight loss with aspects of the largely successful Mediterranean Diet—complete with healthy recipes from an array of health-conscious Latina chefs. Alvarez warns dieters looking for a quick fix, however, to look elsewhere.
“This is a lifestyle change,” he explained. “We get fat because we forget about commonsense things—the quality of the food we’re eating, smaller portions, more exercise. Everything’s connected—the heart, the brain, the stomach—and you need to work on all of these together to achieve any ideal weight. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Back to Basics
Proper diet and exercise can dramatically lower the risks posed by diabetes and heart disease. Alvarez’s top piece of advice for anyone looking to improve their diet is to “go back to your roots.” For Latinos, this often means restricting sweets and focusing on eating the kinds of foods natives ate. Before prosperity brought more fats, cheeses and meats, the traditional Latin diet relied on staples such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fish.
“Natives were so physically fit,” says Alvarez. “There were a lot of vegetables, a lot of herbs, a lot of fish in their diet—where is that now?” The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least two times a week, especially fatty fish that are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
The Hot Latin Diet focuses on what Alvarez calls the “seven Latin powerfoods” that are flavorful and full of the nutrients your body needs. He says tomatillos, garbanzo beans, avocado, garlic, cinnamon, chilies and cilantro are the magic foods that will not only provide much-needed fiber, good fat, enhanced immunity and antioxidant power, but that they will also detoxify the body, lower blood sugar and rev up the metabolism.
“It is possible to enjoy Latin food that is both delicious and good for you,” says Chef Laura Diaz-Brown, also known as Chef Lala, national spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association’s Latino initiative, Por tu Familia (For Your Family). “By making simple changes to ingredients and cooking methods, people can keep the big flavors of Latin cuisine without missing any of the traditional tastes families have shared for years.”
Ronny Abenhaim, chef-owner of Lena Latin Grill in New York City, agrees that Latin food can be both healthful and full of good taste. Instead of adding oil or butter, Abenhaim’s grilled meats rely on their own fat. Flavor is supplemented by herb-filled sauces, such as its chimichurri with nutrient-rich cilantro, parsley, garlic, chili flakes and extra virgin olive oil, or pico de gallo, simply tomato, onions, cilantro and jalapeno.
Black beans, peppers, mushrooms, avocado, hearts of palm and toasted almonds are Lena staples, Abenhaim says, and the restaurant is taking healthful eating a step further with seasonal menus that feature ingredients such as butternut squash and asparagus in the fall. “Being seasonal helps you get the vegetables at their prime for better flavor and a better price,” Abenhaim explains.
Whenever possible, smart Latin diners make substitutions. At a Mexican restaurant, choose corn tortillas, which contain almost no fat, over flour tortillas, which contain lard. Order grilled shrimp instead of nachos for an appetizer, and opt for chicken fajitas instead of quesadillas (fajitas are marinated and grilled with vegetables, not fried and filled with meat and cheese like quesadillas).
Avoid foods that are fried or refried, and ask for sauces on the side. Opt for seafood over red meat, and take advantage of the abundant fruits and vegetables that Latin cuisine offers.
The American Diabetes Association also recommends being adventurous and picking up a new fruit or vegetable the next time you go to the store. Incorporate more fiber into your meal plan by choosing fresh produce and whole grain products, such as brown rice or whole wheat tortillas; use herbs, garlic and spicy chili peppers to add flavor and zip. Try smoked turkey instead of salt pork, and broil, bake and grill instead of frying. Other initiatives include removing skin and fat from meats before cooking and using skim instead of whole milk.
In enjoying Latin food, as in anything, the key idea to keep in mind is balance. “Disappointment, deprivation and unhappiness,” Alvarez writes, “especially with oneself, do not enter into this realm of thinking whatsoever.” So open yourself up to the color and flavor of traditional, healthy Latin cuisine and experience the sensuality and rhythm of the culture that gave rise to some of the most diverse and celebrated foods in the world. As Alvarez says, “The fundamental Latin philosophy is: Life must be enjoyed!” He adds, “Feeling good always leads to looking good.”