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Riches of Mesoamerica

There is much more than Mexican to south of the border cuisine. Chicharrones, anyone?

One of the cradles of civilization in the world can be found just south of the United States, in what archeologists call Mesomerica and what we refer to as Central America.

Defined as the isthmus that stretches from central Mexico through the countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, this region was home to several societies, including the Aztec, Maya and Olmec, for millennia before the Spanish discovered the region.

We in the U.S. owe these early civilizations a number of foods, such as corn, tomatoes, peppers, various squashes and sweet potatoes. But the region’s cuisine often gets short shrift. All too often, when we think of this area’s food, what we envision is Mexican. Certainly there is a shared history among the various cultures of the region, and many foods such as black beans, rice and corn are common to all of these countries.

But let’s give credit where it is due: Several staple foods are handled differently by each culture, and each country has its own unique ingredients to give seemingly similar foods their own individual stamp.

Take, for example, the use of corn or maize. The usual treatment is to grind the grain into a flour and then mix it with water to form a dough, known as masa, which is pressed into a tortilla shape. In Mexico, tortillas are thin and flat. But in El Salvador, the tortilla takes a thicker, puffier shape known as a pupusa.

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—Native ingredients: As is true in most areas of the world, cuisine is influenced most by what grows in the region. In addition to the aforementioned crops, several fruits and vegetables have remained unique to Central America. Among them are chayotes and soursop.

A chayote is a green, pear-shaped member of the gourd family. It has a crunchy texture similar to a cucumber and can be eaten raw with a creamy dip, as well as baked, fried, steamed or boiled and mashed. So it fits well with a variety of foods, such as salads, soups and stir-fry dishes.

Costa Rica is among the chief exporters of chayote, which is also known variously as choko, cho-cho, guisquil and pataste, depending on the Central American country you’re visiting.

Soursop—also known as guanabana—is a large, yellowish-green fruit that, as the name suggests, is sour to the taste. The skin tears easily, revealing a white, juicy pulp that is full of black, inedible seeds.

Although the pulp can be eaten on its own, most often it is blended with milk—to reduce the sourness—as a drink, or made into ice cream.

Soursop is believed to have medicinal uses. The fruit and juice is used to treat a variety of stomach ailments, while a tea made from the leaves is said to be a sleep aid.

—Belize: As a country bordering the western Caribbean Sea, the cuisine of this country is rich in seafood. In addition to a variety of fish, Belize is known for conch, served fried or in soup; squid, often served in its own ink; and lobster, which is often fried. If you wanted to be an adventurous foodservice director and truly feature the native cuisine of this tiny country, you’d have to consider adding iguana, armadillo and gibnut—a rodent similar to rabbit—to your menu. Not such a risk taker? A typical dinner in Belize often features fried chicken, black beans, rice and fried plantains.

Belize is also known for fry jack, a breakfast food akin to beignets or sopapillas.

—Nicaragua: There is some debate as to the national food of Nicaragua. Some people say it is chicarrones, or fried pork skin that is flavored with lime or chiles and sold from street carts as a snack. But the basic dish of the country is gallo pinto—red beans and rice, fried together with onion and sweet peppers, and often served with scrambled eggs as a breakfast dish.

Other popular dishes here include nacatamales, vigoron and indio viejo. Nacatamales consist of a corn dough filled with rice and slices of pork or chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and sweet peppers. The filled dough is wrapped in plantain leaves, which are then tied and steamed for up to five hours.

Vigoron is a salad made from cabbage and tomatoes, placed on a plantain leaf and topped with chicharrones and yucca. Indio viejo is made by cooking pork or other meat with onions, garlic, sweet pepper and tomato. The meat is then shredded and fried with vegetables, tortilla dough and orange juice.

—Guatemala: In this mountainous country, where a large segment of the population can trace their roots back to the ancient Mayans, hilachas and jocon are popular foods. Hilachas is made by simmering cooked, shredded beef in a tomatillo and tomato sauce and serving it with rice and tortillas. Jocon is chicken pieces cooked in a sauce made with tomatillos and ciliantro and thickened with ground sesame and pumpkin seeds.

Other interesting dishes are found throughout the region. Curtido, for example, is a cabbage slaw served as a side dish in many restaurants in El Salvador. In Costa Rican restaurants, bottles of chilera grace tables much as ketchup does in the U.S. Chilera is a spicy mix of hot chiles, onions, carrots, green beans and cauliflower mixed with vinegar. Drops of the liquid can be added to food like Tabasco sauce.

Finally, in many Central American countries a favorite dessert is Pastel de Tres Leches, the cake of three milks. A simple butter cake is soaked with evaporated milk, condensed milk and whole milk or cream, then topped with meringue, vanilla frosting or a caramel sauce. Some people substitute coconut milk for the condensed milk and sprinkle toasted coconut on the top.

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