Latin American Cuisine: Unity Beyond the Nation

Every so often a cookbook comes along that offers a fresh vision of the world’s culinary geography, a vision that transcends national boundaries.

In Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, Maricel Presilla says to all those like me who are very vague about what is eaten in most of Latin America, who wonder what could possibly unite the steaks of Argentina, the feijoada of Brazil, the potato dishes of Peru, the tortillas of Mexico, and the moros and cristianos of her native Cuba: yes, there really is a Latin American cuisine.

That’s not, needless to say, to deny national and regional differences but to say that in thinking about the world’s culinary geography, it makes sense to think of Latin America as a unit.

And why is that so?  Not, she thinks, because of the climate, or the native plants.   Rather it’s because what is now called Latin America came under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century.  As Presilla puts it:

Gradually I began to see that what had made Latin America the world’s first and greatest laboratory of intercontinental culinary “fusion” was the arrival of Iberian cooks carrying a complex legacy. . . I became absorbed in understanding how Arabs, Jews, and Christians each contributed to the development of the Spanish character, culture, and cuisine. . . And everywhere the Spaniards went, they applied the models of economic and political organization they had learned during the reconquista, their centuries-long struggle to make one Christian Spain out of the medieval Muslim-Christian patchwork.

Because Maricel Presilla is a cook and restaurant owner as well as an accomplished historian of medieval Spain, because this is a cookbook as well as an exploration of the legacy of medieval Spain in the Americas, she wisely does not turn this into an academic discourse.

Instead she eases readers and cooks into seeing the unity that she has detected.  Look particularly at the chapters on rice, on drinks, on empanadas, on soups and hearty potages, on bread, and on dulce latino (sweets).

The chapter on dulce latino, for example, has rice puddings, dulce de leche, and meringues, syrup preserved fruits and vegetables, flans, fritters, and soaked cakes from across the region, flavored with almond and rosewater, great flavorings of the medieval Spanish sweet kitchen.

But Presilla’s perspective is wide enough to embrace the corn and starchy roots, the beans and squashes, the tamales that derive from indigenous roots albeit often transformed by the cross-cultural encounter.

She points to African connections as well, and more modern connections with the industrial kitchen in, say, the form of condensed milk.

And woven through it all are Presilla’s reflections on migration.  Her experience moving from Cuba to the United States, as well as that of millions of other Latin Americans, has made it possible to see that although the nations created in the 1830s and 40s following independence from Spain have put their imprint on cuisines, Latin American cuisine has a unity. The unity is very different from the unity of US cuisine, predominantly shaped by the Anglo tradition.  And shared experiences in the States are reinforcing the unity of the Gran Cocina Latina.

So, if you are interested in food history, go get this book.  And you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy many of the recipes too.

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A few further thoughts.  It’s worth looking at Sandra Gutierrez’s New Southern-Latino Table in connection with Gran Cocina Latina and reflecting on the American south as an outpost of the Caribbean and Central America.

And for more trans-national cookbooks, I remember how thrilled I was to read Claudia’s Roden‘s Book of Middle Eastern Food when it first came out in 1968. It  made the cooking of that region snap into focus for me.  Another eyeopener was Alan Davidson’s North Atlantic Seafood (1980), with its recipes from Canada, the United States, Britain, and France. Colman Andrews explored the relations between Catalonia and Genoa in Catalan Cuisine (1988) and Flavors of the Riviera (1996). And Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid took the Mekong as the guiding theme for Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet (2000).

Any other suggestions for this list most gratefully received.

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8 thoughts on “Latin American Cuisine: Unity Beyond the Nation

  1. Mae

    Two books describing an entirely different sphere where cuisines have interacted:
    David Burton: The Raj at Table
    Lizzie Collingham: Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors

    Reply
  2. Mae

    I’m still reading about the very interesting topics you brought up — have written another post at maefood.blogspot.com which links to your article.

    Reply
  3. Kitchen Butterfly

    Thanks for sharing. I’m fascinated between the similarities and connections between cuisines. How they originate, grow, morph into today’s expression.

    I am currently fascinated to thought (not yet action) about creating food maps showing connections and evolution of certain dishes.

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