October 1, 2007
By Tom Wray, Associate Editor
Foods influenced by Hispanic cultures continue to add a spark to the dinner table.
Hispanic-influenced dishes have been regular visitors to the average American dinner table for a long time. Salsa replaced ketchup as the country’s most popular condiment more than a decade ago.
However, familiarity has not bred contempt. If anything, the popularity of Hispanic foods has risen.
According to Dave Zino, executive director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Culinary Center in Chicago, the definition of a Hispanic influence is very simple.
“That would be an ingredient that would be common to the cultures of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean,” he says. Those ingredients would include chilies, peppers and spices.
Bryce Ruiz, president and COO of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods, expands that definition a bit. He says that Hispanic-influenced ingredients are fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and spices from Europe that were “grafted” on the foods already eaten by the native cultures in Central and South America, especially the Aztec and Inca peoples.
“The Europeans were originally a rye-based culture,” Ruiz explains, “knowing nothing about wheat, corn, or many other ingredients (e.g. chocolate, coffee, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn etc.) until they traveled and met the Indians of America and Mexico.”
Dan Hernandez, director of innovation at Hormel Foods Corp., says that Hispanic-influenced foods are really fusion cuisine. The flavors are essentially the combination of European and Spanish flavors with ingredients that are native to North America.
When many Americans think of Hispanic flavors, their first thoughts are of Mexican dishes. Thanks to a long border with the United States and a couple of centuries of influence back and forth across the Rio Grande, Mexican food is the most recognizable of Hispanic foods in America. Some of Mexico’s own regional cuisines can be found in the border states.
“Prominence depends upon where you travel in the United States,” says Ruiz. “In Texas, for example, the Mexican food is cumin-based with plenty of chili powder, tomatoes, meat, beans, corn and flour tortillas.” Those are popular ingredients in the Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua.
The ingredients change as the cuisine moves west. In Arizona, he says, the food uses a lot of fresh green chilies, influenced by Sonora. California, thanks to its neighbor of Baja California, is known for pods, dry chilies and the use of fresh produce. Thanks to the number of produce crops grown in California, many different ingredients like bell peppers, squash, radishes, cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes find their way into the dishes.
Ruiz Foods has always had a focus on Mexican food. “Our inspiration was my Grandma Rosie’s recipes in 1964,” states Ruiz. “She was born in Mexico, as was my grandfather. My dad and his father began Ruiz Foods with her enchilada recipe. Next, her burritos and tamales recipes. It’s our heritage. It’s what we know and what we do best.”
While Mexican foods dominate, they aren’t the only foods available these days for diners who want Hispanic inspiration. Zino says that Brazilian steakhouses are becoming more prominent. Mexican states further away from the border also are getting noticed.
Hernandez adds that Cuban, Puerto Rican and Central American foods are making their presence known. Foods from El Salvador in particular are growing in popularity. Brazil, settled by people from Portugal and not Spain, is not strictly Hispanic, he says, but the country does have a growing influence on Latin American food as a whole.
The biggest trend has been the migration of Americanized versions of Hispanic foods to more authenticity. “As the pendulum slowly moves toward authenticity, regional flavors will have a significant impact,” says Hernandez. Foods that are authentic appeal to Americans who have traveled to Mexico and other Hispanic nations, younger people who have been raised in diverse environments and urban shoppers who are immersed in the cross-cultural currents in many of today’s cities.
Continuing immigration from Hispanic nations also has an effect on the popularity.
“In moving to the United States, the Mexican population has brought with them their love of their native foods,” says Ruiz. “Unable to find those items here, they make them at home, bring them to work, open taquerias, serve their favorites to other Mexicans and their newfound American friends.”
Ruiz adds that with technology making much of the world borderless and allowing for more communication, the influence has grown even more.
Hernandez says that the authenticity in Hispanic foods is growing at all levels of the dinner table. The Chipotle Grill chain has been growing steadily in popularity. Taco Bell has recently introduced and promoted its Carne Asada burritos and tacos.
“They could have easily called this dish ‘Grilled Steak,’ but they decided to use the authentic description of Carne Asada,” he says. “All these small touchpoints make a difference.”
Even as a fusion cuisine itself, Hispanic foods are combining more with other kinds of cooking. Zino points out that one restaurant in Chicago is called Sushi Sambaria, a combination of Asian and Mexican flavors.
“Hispanic food is tabletop cuisine,” he says. “With all the fresh fruits that are part of Hispanic cuisines, it’s very beautiful food.”
Making the food does not change when doing the dishes as prepared foods. Ruiz says that his company doesn’t use preservatives, process aids or artificial colors. It just ramps up the scale and prepares its products as it would a smaller amount in a home kitchen.
Interest in Hispanic-influenced foods won’t be going away anytime soon. In fact, with the growth of the Hispanic community and the more cosmopolitan tastes of the general population, it should only get more popular. Zino says that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has a Hispanic initiative to reach out to the community and develop recipes that appeal to that taste. Also, the NCBA’s recent Beef CookOff featured many dishes in categories such as Nuevo Latino.
Zino says it’s a part of the developing national palate. “I think as we as a culture [have] our tastes develop more, we keep wanting to go deeper,” he says.