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Chefs draw on Latin American influences for healthy food with bold flavor

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

(Image: Center for Foods of the Americas)

When it comes to food, today’s consumers want it all — healthy, fresh dishes that don’t sacrifice on flavor. Luckily, diners’ knowledge and palates are expanding along with their demands, making it easier than ever for chefs to fill this tall order.

The growing popularity and influence of global cuisines on the US dining scene has opened the minds of chefs and consumers to new ingredients, techniques and flavors that lend themselves to healthy eating. Latin American cuisine in particular is a natural fit with the healthy eating trend, due to its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, bold spices and “superfoods” like quinoa, which was a staple of the Latin American diet long before it was trendy in the US.

Think traditional, not Tex-Mex

Latin American cuisine is having a huge impact as US diners become more familiar with authentic Latin American dishes that are a world away from the heavy, cheese-and-sour-cream-laden fare of Tex-Mex eateries and other Americanized takes on Latin cooking.

“Latin American cuisine, Mexican cuisine in particular, is sometimes stereotyped in the US as unhealthy,” said Sanna Delmonico, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and instructor of nutrition and food safety at the Culinary Institute of America.

“Of course, the reality is that traditional Latin American cuisines are very healthful: high in vegetables, fruits, herbs and legumes, and moderate in animal foods like cheeses and meats. So the trend towards healthy and clean eating can naturally draw on traditional Latin American flavors, ingredients and dishes,” she said.

Blaire Newhard, a culinary dietitian at nutrition consultancy Healthy Dining, agreed. “More healthful fats found in such foods as nuts, seeds and avocados are commonly used for flavoring in addition to a variety of herbs and spices. The foods and flavors of traditional Latin American cuisine are a natural fit for the growing demand for ‘clean and healthy’ as well as consumers’ ever more adventurous taste buds,” she said.

In addition to the wide array of fruits and vegetables that make up the core Latin American pantry is the fact that the canon of Latin cuisine is built around combinations that use plants to provide complete nutrition.

“One of the main important facts is that combining corn, beans, tomatoes and chiles you have a complete diet, full of [vegetable] protein and amino acids, it is plant based, and delicious,” said chef Iliana de la Vega, whose Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo focuses on traditional Mexican cuisine.

The growing presence and popularity of authentic eateries like De la Vega’s is helping educate US diners about the wide range of Latin American cuisine. The foods of Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and many more countries are drawing in diners with exciting flavors, and delighting health-conscious consumers with their vast nutritional benefits.

“For example, Oaxacan cuisine with its vast variety of phytochemical-rich moles made from aromatic vegetables, dried chiles, herbs, and spices. Peruvian cuisine, with its tradition of ceviches rich in seafood and vegetables, is increasingly popular,” Delmonico said.

Latin American cooks knew superfoods before they were famous

Consumers’ widening worldview when it comes to food has opened the door for the explosive popularity of some international ingredients. Quinoa led the way, and the Andean seed that was once considered obscure in the US is now ubiquitous on menus. The United Nations dubbed 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa.”

Quinoa is considered “integrated” by Packaged Facts, which also identifies penetrating and emerging ingredients such as amaranth, purple potatoes and pichuberry in its 2014 Culinary Trend Tracking Series report on South American flavors.

“Riding in the comet tail of quinoa is the amaranth seed, symbolizing another ancient grain cultivation,” writes Research Director David Sprinkle, who links the popularity of quinoa and amaranth to the, “growth of consumers looking for gluten-free foods and food formulation, and the growth of vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets that require more nutritious and substantive ingredients. Andean seeds make South America a compelling source of nutritious foods that have untapped potential in food retailing and foodservice applications.”

One of the latest foods to benefit from the South American superfoods craze is pichuberry, a superfruit relative of the tomatillo. “Much like the goji berry, pichuberry with its wellness attributes should help find it favor with chefs and menu formulators,” writes Sprinkle, who notes that the growing popularity of juices and smoothies may help raise pichuberry’s profile.

Amaranth, chia seeds and quinoa were on the top of De la Vega’s list of superfoods introduced to the US by way of Latin American cuisine, “but lately many more ingredients are available in almost any supermarket, such as chayotes, jicamas, huitlacoche, prickly pears, xoxonostles, fruits like mamey, zapotel, lucuma, guavas, wild greens such as quelites, huauzontle, epazote, hoja santa and plenty more,” she said.

Flavorful cooking methods lend themselves to fusion

Popular ingredients such as quinoa and purple potatoes have a reached a level of familiarity with US diners that allows them to seem at home on a range of restaurant menus, even at concepts with no other discernible Latin American influence. Chefs at a variety of restaurant concepts are also turning to traditional Latin American spices, sauces and cooking methods to add flavor without fat.

“Chefs in all kinds of restaurants are using the general concept of salsas, diced or pureed aromatics, chiles, and/or fruits, to add healthy flavor to grilled or simply prepared meat, poultry, and seafood. Argentinian chimichurri is becoming as widespread as pesto on menus,” Delmonico said.

While salsas and chimichurri obviously point to Latin American influence, chefs are also drawing on traditional techniques that are more subtle. “Dry-roasting is another cooking method that creates many different layers of intense flavor for the different preparations,” De la Vega said.


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