Appreciating Hispanic and Latin Culture and Cuisine

As this year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we can’t forget the flavors from around the world that, together, influence Latin and Hispanic cuisine. Before I dive in, let’s clarify the difference between “Latin” and “Hispanic” because these two phrases actually have different definitions even though they’re often used interchangeably. “Hispanic” refers to something or someone from Spain or Spanish-speaking origin. For example, Hispanic would include people from Spain and not Brazil, where Portuguese is predominantly spoken. “Latino” or “Latinx” commonly refers to something or someone of Latin American descent. This term includes Brazilians and excludes people from Spain.

In Central Florida, we have hundreds of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican restaurants—but even these menus can range in authenticity. For example, hard-shell tacos aren’t actually a genuine Mexican dish. While you might not know the difference between an empanada and an enchilada, you can still appreciate the history of food and the cultures of the countries they came from. For this blog, let’s take a look at some dishes from Latin America (made up of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America).

Mexican food has heavily influenced some of the most popular American entrées and snacks like tortilla chips and quesadillas. However, Mexican cuisine itself is vastly diverse. For instance, in northern Mexico, beef, Spanish rice, refried beans, flour tortillas, and burritos are staples. Chicken, corn tortillas, chile peppers, tropical fruits, and a variety of vegetables are popular in the southern region. In the Yucatan Peninsula—the tip of the country that’s closest to Cuba—the cuisine is a unique blend of Mexico, European, and Caribbean flavors. The primary protein is pork, there’s cassava (a root vegetable also known as “yuca”), achiote (a sweet peppery red sauce), ceviche, and Huevos Motulenos (a popular egg breakfast dish).

If you travel to Central America, you’ll find dishes that consist of chicken, pork, or chorizo paired with red beans and white rice. Common sides include tortillas as well as mangoes, papayas, tamarind, and pineapples. Ripe plantains are also eaten during breakfast, and yuca and sweet potatoes are also popular choices.

Most of us don’t think of the Caribbean when it comes to Hispanic cuisine but seafood is king here. Garlic and fresh herbs like cilantro are used to enhance the flavor, and tropical foods are used to make sauces and beverages. Black beans are more common than red beans, and tostones (fried plantain slices) and mofongo (mashed plantain slices) are very popular.

Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru are Latin countries that make up Central America. Arepas (think of a cross between a tortilla and a pancake) reign in Venezuela and Colombia. Venezuela, in particular, has been influenced by African cuisine. Peru and Ecuador have a variety of potatoes and seafood options, especially in the coastal areas. Ceviche is probably the most well-known dish and is made of fresh ingredients like fish, citrus juices, and peppers that has spread throughout and beyond Hispanic and Latin countries. I encourage you to our recipe for Shrimp Ceviche with Mango! Chicken and beef are readily available, and white rice is a staple along with numerous spices, sweets, and tropical fruits. In Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, beef is king and considered a staple food.

Next time you consider eating Hispanic or Latin food, stop and appreciate the flow of flavors and the shared culture from region to region that came together to make what’s on your plate!