Hunger for Latin cuisine brings more Latin ingredients to the US market

As chefs bring increasing attention to the diverse landscape of Latin American cuisine in both casual and upscale settings, demand for high-quality Latin ingredients is on the rise. Chefs and home cooks have more options than ever when it comes to sourcing the building blocks of Latin dishes, whether that means heirloom corn imported from Mexico or a Peruvian herb grown near the US capital.

Mexican food is one of the most widely represented Latin cuisines in the US, where chefs are helping give diners a better understanding of what the country’s eclectic and authentic dishes look like. One of the biggest changes occuring in US Mexican food offerings is the increasing use of fresh masa to create tortillas and other corn-based dishes. Packaged tortillas or self-stable masa flour simply can’t match the flavor and texture of masa made from freshly ground corn, specifically heritage corn from Mexico.

Chef and entrepreneur Jorge Gaviria founded Masienda to bring high-quality, sustainably sourced Mexican heirloom corn to the US. The company works with Mexican farmers to supply several varieties of corn to restaurants all over the world, and recently launched a line of tortillas and chips available at retail.

Options for home cooks and consumers looking for Latin American products and produce are growing, particularly at mainstream retailers that may not have offered much in the way of global ingredients in the past. “There is an increase in mainstream retailers working to compete with the traditionally Hispanic retailers by having the traditional produce items available at aggressive prices,” said Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager at Frieda’s Specialty Produce. The company has been a supplier of specialty produce since 1962, when it first introduced the kiwifruit to the US.

The California-based company was the first produce supplier to market produce by category, said Berkley. “We educated retailers on merchandising product with like items, including by the demographic they appeal to, to create a destination that will draw shoppers in,” she said.

Today, Frieda’s offers more than 50 ingredients that are typical in Latin cooking, from fresh fruits and vegetables to cactus pads and dried chile peppers. Berkley said the company’s top sellers in the Latin category are jicama, tomatillos and dried chiles, and the majority of its Latin products are grown in Mexico.

While many suppliers are bringing an array of new Latin ingredients to the US market, there are still some items that prove harder to find. For these elusive items, chefs have to think outside the box, either importing products themselves or finding a way to grow them locally.

Chef Carlos Delgado couldn’t find anything that could replicate the flavor of majambo, an Amazon bean that is a close relative of chocolate, so he decided to import it himself. “I’m the only one in the US who has it,” the head chef at China Chilcano by Jose Andres said during a discussion last year about Peruvian cuisine. When Delgado failed to find a supplier that offered the Peruvian herb huacatay, he approached a farm near the Washington, D.C., eatery that agreed to begin growing it.

Other US operations that have recently begun offering niche Latin ingredients include Farm.one, and underground vertical farm in New York City that grows the Mexican herb epazote, and The Chef’s Garden which grows an Andean tuber called oca. Common in the cuisines of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, oca is very versatile and demand for the crop is on the rise among US chefs. “The size of our oca crop is limited, but we’ve been able to grow more of it each year because of how successful the crop has been,” farmer Lee Jones said in an interview with Nicholas Gill of New Worlder. “Chefs can’t get enough of it.”

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