By Carrie Dennett
Back in August, I wrote about how I wouldn’t promote the Mediterranean diet like I used to. One reason is that the heavy emphasis on this way of eating – although delicious and nutritious – rejects other traditional ways of eating. also It’s delicious and nutritious, but it hasn’t benefited from being highlighted by research. Take Latin American cuisine, for example.
Like the “Mediterranean”, “Latin America” is not a monolith. It is quite diverse, consisting of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America – countries influenced by Spanish or Portuguese colonization that began centuries ago.
While there are common threads, the cuisines in this part of the world can be strongly regional, reflecting the blending of influences from the peoples Natives, their colonizers, and enslaved Africans. In her stunning book, “The South American Table,” food writer, cookbook, and culinary historian Maria Baez-Kejak describes South American cuisine as “a unique cuisine that I believe has no equal in the world.”
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a common non-Hispanic misconception that Latin American cuisine is less than healthy — too high in carbs and fat, and too low in vegetables. Ironically, because I’ve also seen diet/wellness culture and cherry pick some traditional Latin American foods like “superfoods” – avocado, chia seeds, quinoa, coconut milk, cashews, and oat milk – while demonizing other traditional foods, like corn White rice and potatoes. No matter that corn is a whole grain, potatoes contain a lot of nutrients, and a cup of brown rice contains only one gram more fiber than white rice.
It is easy to get an idea of a culture’s cuisine from what we see on restaurant menus (including fast food menus), although this usually does not reflect what people from that culture eat and cook at home on an average day. For example, soups (sopas) and stews (caldos) are important in Latin American cuisine, but most Latin American restaurants do not feature them.
In the United States, we are often used to meals that contain separate sources of protein and vegetables, such as grilled chicken with broccoli. With Latin American foods, mixed dishes are more common, and vegetables are used as a basis for flavor and as a garnish, so it may not be clear how many vegetables you’re eating.
Beans, soups, and stews can be cooked with sofrito – most versions start with onions and/or garlic, then other ingredients like tomatoes and bell peppers are added – then topped with fresh sauce or raw vegetable garnishes such as shredded cabbage, radish, carrots, or onions. Sauces, another important ingredient in Latin American cooking, are often also made from aromatic vegetables. There may also be a serving of pickled, fermented, or grilled vegetables on the side.
When I visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, nearly 14 years ago, I had a little whim when quite a few restaurant menus had salads like what I ordered at home. But the grilled vegetables were plentiful. (As I learned from Maricel E. Presilla’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina,” there are Latin American salads — they’re not just the leafy green combinations you’re used to.)
When I visited Ecuador a decade later, I was much cooler about the food.
We can learn a lot from Latin American food, including how to use vegetables as flavor and how to incorporate more beans – a great source of protein, fiber and other nutrients. Like every food culture, Latin American food culture is nutritious and delicious, and it’s worth celebrating.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian with Nutrition By Carrie, and author of “Healthy For Your Life: A Holistic Approach to Optimal Wellness.” Visit her at Nutritionbycarrie.com.