Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Although these cuisines are diverse and vary greatly depending on the region, here are 5 ingredients that you will see used in many different recipe preparations.
- Corn – Corn in its many forms is the staple food of Central American cuisine. While fresh corn (elote) is enjoyed grilled on the cob, steamed in tamales de elote and as coblets simmered in steaming caldos, corn is most commonly turned into masa, a corn dough that is the foundation for tortillas, tamales, pupusas and sopes. Masa is also used in traditional beverages called atoles. Toasted cornmeal thickens the Nicaraguan cocoa-flavored beverage called pinolillo. And corn mash is fermented into a home brew called chicha.
- Beans – Central America is home to a bewildering variety of dried beans. While there are no hard and fast rules, each region tends to favor a particular type. In northern Mexico, pinto beans rule the roost. Cooks in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize prefer black beans. In Nicaragua and Honduras, the bean of choice is red. Farther south in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama, black beans again resume their popularity. Beans are often eaten at every meal and prepared different ways including – stewed, refried or stirred into rice. The pairing of beans and rice even takes on cultural significance given its importance in the diet, and local populations give the duo colorful names like gallo pinto (“painted rooster” — Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras) and casamiento (“wedding” — El Salvador).
- Yuca (Cassava) – Yuca is another starchy crop that thrives in the subtropical heat. Fried like French fries, yuca frita is a popular side dish. It is also cut into chunks and simmered in soups and stews and steamed in dishes like Nicaraguan baho. Yuca is also ground into a fine flour and used to thicken liquids or turned into sweet puddings.
- Chiles- Chile peppers originated in Mexico and Central America, and they give a burst of flavor to what might otherwise be bland food. Like beans, chiles come in an unending variety. Peppers are used both fresh and dried. Some of the more common fresh peppers are jalapeños, poblanos, serrano’s and habaneros. Popular dried chiles include ancho’s, guajillo’s, chipotles and mulattos.
- Plantains- Plantains, both green and ripe, are a major source of calories in the diet of many Central Americans. When unripe and green, this starchy relative of the banana is used like potatoes and is boiled, steamed or fried. Fried plantains especially are a common breakfast item. When they ripen and blacken, plantains become maduros and are used in all kinds of desserts, flans, fritters and puddings.