Latin American Flavors: Variations on a Theme

latin_american_flavorsIn 2014, Latinos became the largest ethnic group in the states of California and New Mexico, overtaking non-Hispanic whites. Approximately two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics were born in this country but still heartily and proudly retain the traditions, foods and holidays of their forefathers.

Latin American food is flavorful, robust, fun, and inventive. Its richness pulls from a colorful history, drawing from the Aztecs, Mayans, Amerindians, and more. Here are a few dishes you may be familiar with, and a little bit of information on the ways different countries prepare them. Maybe you want to remember how these were prepared by relatives, or maybe you’d like some ideas on how to vary a familiar recipe.

Sofrito and Recaito

A secret to cooking flavorful and authentic Caribbean dishes is the classic Sofrito, an aromatic rich and thick cooking base sautéed in olive oil and blended until smooth. It combines roasted garlic, onions, tomatoes and green peppers and becomes a base for stews, soups, beans and rice dishes.

Recaito is a green version of Sofrito, adds cilantro and culantro, and is traditionally cooked with tomato sauce, olive oil, bacon, cured ham and salted pork.

The word “recaíto”, which translates to English as “little culantro”, originally referred to a message or an order. People without refrigeration had to buy an onion, cilantro leaves, and peppers to mash in a pilon. A housewife would leave an order for it for someone to pick up later.

Vatapa (Brazilian Stew)

This dish contains shrimp (or chicken or tuna or salt cod), bread as a thickening agent, coconut milk, palm oil, and finely ground peanuts or cashews—all mashed into a creamy and luxurious paste. Additions can also include tomatoes, onions, okra, chiles, and ginger.

This hearty dish is popular in Brazil, especially in the northeastern state of Bahia where it is usually eaten with acarajé, although it is often eaten with white rice in other regions.

Dulce de Leche

Popular in many countries, this creamy sauce with a caramel flavor is prepared in a variety of ways across the American continents. Here are a few variations by country:

  • In El Salvador, dulce de leche has a soft crumbly texture
  • In Mexico versions may be vanilla flavored or made from goat’s milk
  • In the Dominican Republic it is made with equal parts of milk and sugar and cinnamon and is like fudge
  • In Cuba it is made of curdled soured milk that is then sweetened
  • In Puerto Rico it is sometimes made with unsweetened coconut milk


A churro is a crispy fried strip of dough pastry that can either be thin and sometimes knotted or long and thick. Eaten for breakfast, the favorite way is dipping it into hot chocolate. If you bake them using Pillsbury’s Crescent Rolls, you only have to add 2 tablespoons of melted butter or margarine, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Be sure to check out our own Dalia Ceja’s family Churro recipe.

Recipes are much more than instructions on how to cook a dish: they are memory repositories, carrying us back to our abuela’s kitchens, reminding us where we came from. Digging into old family recipes or to cookbooks focused on your home country’s cuisine can bring the past into the present, allowing you to share those experiences with your children, creating a strong link between your own childhood memories and those of the next generation.


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