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The 'Other' West Coast

The diverse culinary traditions of four South American countries—Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Peru—reflect a melting pot of cultural influences.

Perhaps nothing speaks more forcefully to the growing influence of a cuisine than the flurry of press releases in a foodservice editor’s mailbox. Recently, that flurry has had its fair share of news about Latin American cuisine.

From New York City, where Rayuela on the Lower East Side introduced a new Estilo Libre Latino menu this year to Portland, Ore., where Hernan Castañeda from Lima, Peru, recently became consulting chef de cuisine for Adina Restaurant, the foods of North America’s southern neighbors are looming larger on the culinary radar.

Many of the staples are familiar—sweet potato, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, corn, lima beans, peppers and papayas. Others, such as yucca/cassava/tapioca, quinoa, gooseberries and guinea pig, are gaining familiarity.

The Spanish conquistadors brought many European agricultural products to the continent, as well as such spices as cumin, cinnamon and anise. Subsequent immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia introduced new culinary techniques such as sautéing and deep-frying. Ironically, for many years, the cultural clash between conquerors and natives led to a shift away from a diet rich in local, native vegetables, whole grains and fruits that sustained the Indians for centuries.

Today, many traditional native grains and legumes are gaining new respect, moving from native communities in the Andes into the mainstream.

Cuisines vary widely among the countries and within them. For example, in Bolivia, the high cold climate creates demand for peppers and spicy hot foods in the ‘altiplano,’ while the lowlands prefer freshwater fish, fruits and vegetables.

Noncommercial foodservice operators are becoming more acquainted with many of these foods as they expand menus with new ethnic offerings. While Latino food traditionally has meant salsas, guacamole, refried beans and corn, the following are among many South American ingredients and dishes gaining favor.

—Quinoa: This grain, cultivated for more than 500 years as a major source of protein, grows at high elevations, has a nutty flavor and may be used to thicken stews, soups or chilis. Gluten-free, the grain has been called “a perfect food” with a variety of menu uses from breakfast cereal to dessert.

—Oca: This plant produces wrinkled tubers and remains a staple in Peru and Bolivia, second only to potatoes in the amount consumed.

—Seviche: Raw seafood marinated in citrus juice, peppers and onions. Peruvians prefer seviche with lemon or lime juice and serve it with cold potatoes, while elsewhere, the marinade may be a sour orange juice.

—Empañadas: Turnovers with diced or ground meat, onions, olives, raisins and hardboiled eggs. In Bolivia, empañadas with cheese are popular, while seafood and vegetables fillings are favored in Chile.

—Tamales: Ground corn with meat or cheese wrapped and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves.

—Licuados: Fruit shakes.

—Chuño: Freeze-dried potatoes, dating to early Inca cuisine and still widely made. Some 200 varieties of potatoes, in colors from blue to purple, yellow and brown, were grown in Peru where Incas are said to have cultivated as many plant species as were farmed in Europe and Asia together.

—Cherimoya: An Incan fruit with a custard-like texture and flavor suggestive of papaya, pineapple and banana.

—Chairo: Lamb soup with potatoes, vegetables, and aji (cow tongue).

—Sofrito: A vegetable sauté with onions, bell pepper, garlic and sometimes tomatoes, cilantro or bacon. Sofritos are eaten in tortillas as snacks, for breakfast mixed with eggs, and in soups, casseroles, quesadillas and burritos.

—Cazuela: A rich soup with meat, chicken, potatoes, corn and squash, named for the terra cotta dish in which it is served, in use for thousands of years in Spain.

—Beverages: Coffee plays a major role in South America—particularly in Colombia, home to 500,000 small coffee farmers. Coffee is served in various forms such as tinto (small strong black cups), perico or pintado (small coffee with milk) and café con leche (coffee with extra milk). Also popular are herb teas such as yerba mate, citrus teas and agua de panela, made from hot water, unrefined sugar and lemon. Milk drinks with fruit are also favorites.

—Snacks and Desserts: Yucca or plaintain chips, roasted almonds and pistachios, pumpkin seeds and corn chips with salsa are consumed as snacks along with fried green peas. Desserts might include fresh fruit with cheese, milk cake (tres leches), flans, rice puddings and custards.

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