Putting together typical dishes from across the country is a daunting process for anyone. Then imagine doing it for 22 countries and you’ll understand what went into making “The Latin American Cookbook.”
Just one dish – such as garlic shrimp or grilled street corn – can vary in assembly from neighborhood to neighborhood, region to region and country to country.
“How to capture it in a dish and say, like, ‘This is the recipe’ has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” says Virgilio Martínez, a Michelin star-winning chef whose restaurant in Central in Lima, Peru.
What Martinez and his colleagues have created is a beautiful and thoroughly researched book with 600 iconic recipes that provide a snapshot of the spirit of Latin American cuisine.
There is a dazzling range of dishes from Chile to salsa verde with sea urchins and a blackened turkey stew from Belize and Mexico, to Venezuelan pasta casserole and Ecuadorian potato pancakes. There are recipes for several mole sauces, the classic Pisco Sour, a Dulce de Leche Thousand Layer Cake and the wonderfully named Chili Disco Fries.
The book is not broken down by nation but by content including vegetables, corn, pork, lamb and goat, roots and tubers, and fish and seafood. It celebrates such regionally specific ingredients as Guinness, such as the edible flower Loroco, the bluish fungus Hitalacoche and raw bananas.
Martinez and volume co-author, food and travel writer Nicolas Gil consulted with home cooks, farmers, food journalists, village elders, bakers and restaurant owners across Latin America. Martinez took what he had learned mater initiative – an interdisciplinary gastronomic and cultural research organization dedicated to the conservation and sharing of Peru’s biodiversity – and applied it throughout Latin America.
“The process was absolutely daunting,” Gill says. “The landscape stretches from the Rio Grande to the tip of Patagonia. It’s a huge swath of Earth.”
But this often meant delicious field work, from sampling a hot bowl of beef soup in Bogotá to slathering a dish of fish and acai berries along the Amazon River. “Latin American Cookbooks,” From Phaidon Press, it is filled with tempting dishes that expand the food vocabulary beyond the continent’s more famous offerings such as empanadas, arepas, tamales and caipirinhas.
The authors celebrate the diversity of ingredients and what makes a dish different from a sister recipe, often highlighting its quirks and the stories behind it. While most Latin American countries adopt common ingredients like corn and beans, gigantism is hard to simplify.
“I’m from Peru, and I’m very different from Brazilians. I mean, we have things in common. I have more in common with Mexican than with German, right?” Martinez said. “The idea is not to try to pursue a Latin American identity because there are so many.”
Martinez says Latin Americans tend to improve kitchens, perhaps because many regions are going through tough economic times, with some ingredients unavailable and others too expensive. “Improving them, what you can do with what you have, is part of Latin American culture,” he says.
The authors know that home chefs can replace some of the more difficult-to-find ingredients with more generic ones, and they encourage it. What they wanted to do was to codify the most authentic version of the dish.
“We tried to specify the ingredients as much as possible. We didn’t try to silence them,” Gill says. “For example, if there was a particular tuber that really gave it a different flavor, we used that specific tuber. Tried to keep the name even though no one in any other part of the world is going to find it.”
In addition to his restaurants, Martínez is dedicated to documenting Peru’s bountiful produce and experimenting with the gifts of nature to discover culinary uses. In many ways, the new cookbook is also a way to preserve the past.
“We need to support our farmers and support the people who produce food. And we need to promote some of the ingredients that will probably be forgotten in a few years,” he says.
Gill hopes the book can also be a guide for people – after the pandemic, of course – to visit the continent and encourage them to try new cuisines. “We wanted to inspire travel, and to get people to visit these places and understand them,” he says.
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