The Latin Kitchen: An Introduction
From the northern border of Mexico to the tip of Argentina, Latin American territory stretches some 10,000km, so you won't be surprised that its diversity is not limited to geography – gastronomically, too, it's a varied region. Having said that, there are some key flavours and ingredients that shout Latin America to us, and we've roped in Chilean consultant Mary Anne Nelson and Peruvian Margot Chard to explain how to get the most out of them.
Ask either Mary Anne or Margot which ingredients they miss most from home and the answer is a resounding, 'chillis!' Of course there are many chilli varieties available here, but somehow they lack the richness of their Latin counterparts. Dried chillis are particularly popular for their smoky flavour, which luckily is not too hard to replicate: first, toast your chillis by frying in a dry pan without oil for a couple of minutes, then deseed and chop them and soak in warm water, before using as a cooking ingredient.
It is a myth that most Latin food is hot and spicy – chillis are widely used but they are often there for flavour, with perhaps a little kick. In general Latinos will always serve a very hot spicy sauce on the side so you can add as much or as little fire to your food as you like.
Avocados originate in Mexico and can be found as a delicious and healthy accompaniment to a great many dishes across Latin America. Prepare a simple dip by roughly mashing the flesh of a ripe avocado with a fork, adding liberal amounts of lime juice and salt.
Margot’s tip to help soften an unripe avocado is to put it in a paper bag along with a banana – it sounds weird, but it works. And don’t forget to sprinkle the cut surface of any leftover avocado with lime or lemon juice to keep it fresh for longer.
The ubiquitous zing of lime is one of Latin America's most characteristic flavours (while lemons can be hard to come by). A dash of it improves many a dish, but it's also a key ingredient in its own right in meals such as ceviche. Margot explains: "In ceviche, lime is both for flavouring and cooking. You leave the raw fish to marinate in lime juice, which gradually cooks it through and makes it taste absolutely delicious. We still call it ceviche even when using chicken (which does of course have to be cooked first) instead of fish because the lime flavour is the same." To get the most juice out of your lime, roll it firmly with your palm on a flat surface before use.
Lime is also a core part of many a Latin cocktail, from caipirinhas to mojitos (see recipes). Pisco Sours are another popular lime-based drink, though with Peru and Chile fiercely contesting its origin, both Margot and Mary Anne have different recipes for it! Mary Anne's Chilean Pisco Sour is made with 3 measures of Pisco to 1 measure of mixed lime juice, caster sugar to taste, and ice. She also adds a small dash of orange juice and another of cointreau to balance the harsher taste of British limes.
Corn, along with potatoes (waxy rather than floury types), is a staple of Andean cuisine. You can’t find an exact match for Andean corn, or choclo, here in the UK, but according to both our experts normal corn on the cob is a perfectly good substitute (just don’t use the tinned stuff).
A near obsession in Argentina and elsewhere, beef is famously well-loved in South America. The key to bringing that mouth-watering steak taste home with you is, of course, in the quality of the meat, but also lies in pre-preparing your steak with olive oil and a very generous rubbing with sea salt before searing it on a boiling-hot griddle pan. Mary Anne also advises using finely diced steak wherever you would normally use mince: "It takes forever but it's so worth it."
Mexicans and Central Americans eat around six times as many beans as the British, and they’re also served with most meals in South America. Mary Anne suggests using flageolet beans or haricots as the best match for the types available in her home country. Black beans are more popular in Brazil, Mexico and Caribbean countries. For a classic taste of Brazil, cook them with salted pork pieces in a meat stock to make feijoada. And if using dried beans, always soak them overnight before use.
Very popular everywhere but particularly in Brazil, Cuba and Colombia where it’s often served with beans, the rice eaten in Latin America is typically long-grain rather than basmati. Rice cooked in coconut milk is a delicious complement to Caribbean seafood dishes. A little-known but really effective tip shared by Margot is to crush a clove of garlic and fry it in the bottom of the pan before you add your cooking water and rice for a much richer flavour. Mary Anne also uses garlic, but she also likes to fry the rice in oil, saffron, salt and pepper for a minute or two before adding the water.
Latin America isn't known for its cheeses, and those that are used are typically quite mild and crumbly – we find feta a good substitute.
Similar to sweet potato or yam, cassava can be found in many British markets, particularly where there’s an African influence. It’s a root vegetable that makes a good side dish – Margot likes to boil it (after peeling and dicing) and then fry to finish, serving with an avocado dip.