Putting together an entire nation's distinctive dishes is a daunting process for anyone. Then imagine doing it for 22 countries and you get a sense of what went into creating “The Latin American Cookbook.” Just a single dish — say garlic shrimp or grilled street corn — can vary in assembly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, region to region and nation to nation.
"How to capture this in one dish and say, like, ‘This is the recipe’ has been one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life,” says Virgilio Martinez, a Michelin star-winning chef whose restaurants include Central in Lima, Peru. What Martinez and his collaborators have created is a beautiful and thoroughly researched book with 600 iconic recipes that offer a snapshot of the spirit of Latin American cuisine.
There is a dazzling array of dishes, from sea urchins in salsa verde from Chile and a black turkey stew from Belize and Mexico to a Venezuelan pasta casserole and Ecuadorian potato pancakes. There are recipes for several mole sauces, the classic Pisco Sour, a Dulche de Leche Thousand Layer Cake and the wonderfully named Chilean Disco Fries.
The book is broken down not by nation but by ingredients, including vegetables, corn, pork, lamb and goat, roots and tubers, and fish and seafood. It celebrates such regionally distinctive ingredients as the edible flower loroco, the bluish fungus huitlacoche and unripe bananas known as guineos.
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Martinez and the volume’s co-writer, food and travel writer Nicholas Gill, consulted home chefs, farmers, food journalists, village elders, bakers and restaurant owners across Latin America. Martinez took what he’d learned at his Mater Iniciativa — an interdisciplinary gastronomic and cultural research organization dedicated to conserving and sharing Peru’s biodiversity — and applied it throughout Latin America.
“The process was absolutely daunting," says Gill. “The landscape stretches from the Rio Grande to the tip of Patagonia. That’s a massive swath of the Earth.”
But it meant often delicious fieldwork, from sampling hot bowls of beef soup in Bogota to downing a dish of fish and acai berry beside the Amazon River. “The Latin American Cookbook,” from Phaidon Press, is stuffed with fascinating dishes that expand the food vocabulary beyond the continent's more famous offerings like empanadas, arepas, tamales and caipirinhas.
The authors celebrate the diversity of ingredients and what makes one dish different from a sister recipe, often spotlighting its quirks and the stories behind it. While most Latin American countries do embrace common ingredients like corn and beans, the vastness is hard to simplify.
“I’m from Peru, and I’m very different to a Brazilian. I mean, we have things in common. I have more in common with a Mexican than a German, right?” said Martinez. “The idea is not to try to push one Latin American identity because there are too many.”
Martinez says Latin Americans tend to improvise in the kitchen, perhaps a reflection of many regions going through tough economic times, with some ingredients unavailable and others too expensive. “Improvising them, making what you can with what you have, is part of Latin American culture,” he says.
The authors know that home chefs may substitute some of the more hard-to-find ingredients with more common ones and they encourage it. What they wanted to do was codify the most authentic version of the dish.
“We tried to specify the ingredients as much as possible. We tried not to dumb them down,” says Gill. “For instance, if there was a special tuber that really gives it a different flavour, we tried to name that specific tuber, even though someone in another part of the world probably isn’t going to find it.”
In addition to his restaurants, Martinez is dedicated to documenting Peru’s bountiful produce and experimenting with nature’s gifts 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 people that are producing the food. And we need to promote some ingredients that probably will be forgotten in a few years time,” he says.
Gill hopes the book can also be a guide for people — post-pandemic, of course — to visit the continent and embolden them to try new dishes. “We wanted to inspire travel, and for people to go to these places and understand them,” he says.