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Handheld foods could help bring Latin cuisine into the mainstream

Empanadas and other held Latin foods make inroads on US menus (Image: Pixabay)

On-the-go eating is a big business in the US, with many busy consumers opting to grab packaged foods and snacks when there isn’t time for a sit-down meal. Often, the choices for on-the-go eating leave much to be desired in the health department. Potato chips, pizza and burgers are plentiful, and options like conveniently prepped vegetables and lean proteins are growing but still far from ubiquitous.

Latin American cuisine offers a wealth of inspiration for chefs and food companies looking to create simple, healthy options that can be eaten while on the move.

“The US is playing catch-up a little bit with healthy snacks, said Marie Elena Martinez, co-founder of New Worlder and moderator of the panel “The Best of the Handheld Latin Kitchen: New Ideas for Food on the Go”  at the Culinary Institute of America’s 18th annual Worlds of Flavor conference. Martinez mentioned healthy snacks that make up the bulk of on-the-go eating in Latin America, such as “jicama sprinkled with a little bit of pepper.”

Chef Claud Beltran kicked off the session’s cooking demonstration with empanadas, which he described as a perfect handheld food.  “It’s a perfect little snack -- it’s self-contained and 90% of the time they are perfect at room temperature,” he said.

For his demo, Beltran presented fried empanadas made with guinea hen, but said the filling could easily be adapted to use chicken and the flour, salt and oil dough could be baked instead of fried for a lighter take.

The Pasadena, Calif.,-based chef pointed out that many Mexican cheeses, such as cotija and queso fresco, will not melt, making them perfect for handheld applications where gooey, melted cheese could become messy.

Chef Mateo Granados of Healdsburg, Calif., agreed that structure is paramount for foods eaten out of hand. Granados prepared a sandwich of spiced and seared tuna on a roll that he special ordered from a local bakery to be soft enough to not create crumbs but hardy enough to not tear or become mushy. Granados, who is from Yucatan, said the style of tortillas from the Mexican state are perfect for handheld foods, since they have a layered structure that keeps them from becoming soggy.

Beltran pointed to the burrito as the “original meal in one,” that helped build an association between Latin flavors and handheld foods among US consumers. The popular item is now a mainstay on American fast food menus and in freezer cases, and Betran and Granados agreed that other Latin dishes are ripe for adoption by restaurants looking to cater to consumers looking for handheld foods with fresh flavors and healthy, unprocessed ingredients.

Beltran mentioned sopes, a traditional Mexican dish of fried corn masa piled with various toppings, as a likely successor to burritos and tacos. Granados serves tacones at his restaurant, and said the snacks served in cone-shaped tortillas are a common Mexican street food that could easily become a common sight in the US.

The chefs agreed that the rising popularity of Latin American cuisine is helping introduce US consumers to more authentic Latin flavors and foodways, especially the healthier side of Latin cuisine. “There’s this healthy side of Mexican. Mexican food for a really long time got a bad rap, [people thought] all of it is greasy, it’s just tacos,” Beltran said. “It’s really a changing thing, you obviously have a lot of fresh ingredients, wholesome ingredients.”

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