Central America (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
CENTRAL AMERICA. Central America is an isthmus, or land bridge, that unites the two continents of North and South America. It consists of seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Except for Belize, all of these countries were first settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s and remained part of the Spanish colonial empire until they revolted for independence in 1821. The culinary history of the three-hundred-year colonial period has not been studied as thoroughly as it has in Mexico or in South America, in part because many documents relating to the area are housed in Spain rather than in local archives. Furthermore, while Central America attempted to unite politically following independence, that effort eventually failed. This political fragmentation has left a distinctive imprint on the culinary profile of the region. In spite of this, however, there are certain unifying features.
Geographically, the countries have a great abundance of volcanoes. This has had an important influence on the cuisine because the volcanoes have fertilized the soil with mineral nutrients that have made this one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world. The gold the Spanish conquistadors had hoped to find was made up for by an exquisite natural beauty and an abundance of unusual food plants, both cultivated and wild. Due to this rich soil, the region has become a center of coffee production.
Another unifying feature is the composition of the people themselves. The population of Central America consists mainly of four groups: mestizos, a mixture of Spanish and native peoples and the largest group; small pockets of indigenous populations; Africans; and people of unmixed European descent sometimes referred to as Creoles. Throughout much of the region, African populations are concentrated along the Atlantic coastline, while mestizos populate the Pacific side. The central area of the isthmus is home to a lush rainforest sparsely populated by small groups of indigenous tribes.
The African population descends mainly from runaway slaves who escaped from Jamaica and neighboring Caribbean islands. They have preserved a dialect of English infused with African vocabulary. This group has made Central America more diverse in language as well as in cookery, since its cooks have blended together African and indigenous food preferences. One of the typical ingredients is coconut: shredded coconut, coconut milk, or coconut oil. Except for smaller indigenous tribes like the Miskitos of central Nicaragua, coconut is not widely favored by the other ethnic groups.
In terms of cookery, the mestizos have mixed traditional indigenous dishes, mainly preparations of Mayan origin, with old Spanish prototypes, but in some instances the two cooking traditions have been kept separate. The smaller indigenous tribes still remaining in Central America rely mainly on hunting and gathering and have not influenced the cookery as much as larger groups, such as the Mayans.
One of the characteristics of all Central American cooking is the use of fresh ingredients, from fresh meats and vegetables, to tortillas and breads made to order, even dairy products prepared the same day. The markets abound with the sweet aromas of tropical fruits and vegetables displayed in an endless sea of colors. The market is especially important as a stage for lively social exchange, and since the cooking traditions of Central America are mostly oral rather than based on cookbooks, recipe discussions in the marketplace serve as a major conduit for ideas and the comparison of family cooking preferences.
Oral tradition is a key to understanding Central American cookery: most recipes are handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. In middle-or upper-class families, it is customary to have an in-house cook, but someone in the family is assigned the task of teaching the cook the way a dish should be prepared. Special instruction and attention are required for dishes that have been handed down within the family and are usually prepared only on special occasions. Although the choice of recipe ingredients may vary within each country and family, there are still quite a few standard national dishes that have been maintained over a long period of time and have not undergone much variation. Outside the region, little is known about the cookery of Central America because many of the key recipes are not written down, except perhaps in a small number of local cookbooks of very recent date.
Beef is an important meat in Central American cooking because of the large number of cattle ranches, which
It was customary for a middle-or upper-class family to have beef at least once a day, especially in Nicaragua. New dietary trends have changed a few old traditions so that now people mindful of their health are eating less red meat, yet beef is still a luxury for the poor. For those who prefer to eat less red meat, beans are a common substitute. Beans are said to be one of the staple foods of the poor, but they are very popular among all social classes. Once boiled, the beans may be sautéed with onions, sweet peppers, garlic, salt and pepper, and some of the cooking broth may be added. The result is a simple yet tasty dish. A common preparation consisting of beans, boiled plantains, and cheese forms a one-pot vegetarian meal that is nutritionally balanced as well as pleasing to the palate. Many of the most popular dishes of the region are studies in simplicity, since light food is a welcome reprieve in the hot climate.
Contrary to popular belief, Central American cookery is not spicy, except in Guatemala where the chili pepper plays an important role as a spice. Elsewhere, chili pepper is an optional ingredient, except in some dishes where it is considered critical, but one is always given the option to choose between something spicy or not. At most meals, a bowl of hot sauce or a salsa consisting of a mixture of tomatoes, garlic, onions, and sweet and hot peppers marinated in lime juice provides added spice and flavor for many dishes. There are many other variations of salsas containing chili peppers, such as encurtido, a mixture of chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar with hot peppers. In this case, the spicy vinegar brings out a variety of subtle flavors in the dishes eaten with it. Most meat preparations are marinated in a mixture of black pepper and sour orange or lime juice, giving them a cleaner and more complex taste. The sour juice is important in tenderizing, flavoring, and sterilizing the meat.
The annatto is another important ingredient in the cookery of this region. Annatto is the seed of an indigenous tree (Bixa orellana), better known in other parts of the world for coloring cheese; it is this ingredient that dyes the cheese orange or yellow. The cultural importance of annatto dates back to pre-Columbian times when it was used for special rituals. The Mayas and other indigenous populations employed it as body paint during religious ceremonies, and also for coloring pottery, for monetary purposes, and for flavoring certain foods. Known as achiote in Central America, the seeds are ground and mixed together into a paste of black pepper, salt, and vinegar that is then diluted in either sour orange juice or lime juice and used to marinate or preserve meat. Historically, achiote was used to preserve meats from spoiling in the tropical heat. Today, achiote creates a delicious marinade for grilled meats. It seems to have little taste as a raw paste, but when heated, it undergoes a chemical change that releases a complex array of flavors. While achiote lengthens cooking times, it also prevents meats from scorching or drying out while they are being grilled.
Rice is a key element in every Central American meal and is one of the important culinary contributions from Spanish cookery. After careful rinsing, rice is usually sautéed in oil with onions until toasted; water is then added, with a little salt to taste. Toasting causes the grains to remain fluffy, and the onions impart a subtle aroma and flavor that complements many entrees. In fact, Central Americans commonly judge the abilities of cooks based on the fluffiness of their rice, for it is said that if one masters the art of cooking rice, one has mastered the art of cooking.
There are numerous rice dishes in the region that are similar to Spanish paellas, such as arroz a la Valenciana in Nicaragua. This consists of a mixture of chicken, pork, shrimp, and sausage cooked together with rice and vegetables. Arroz con pollo is another popular dish served throughout the region from Guatemala to Panama. Although the recipe varies, the essential mixture and texture is common, consisting of chicken and vegetables cooked together in a stew; rice is then added. This recipe has much more broth than the Nicaraguan arroz a la Valenciana, and achiote is added as the substitute for saffron.
Throughout Central America, maize is doubtless the single most important culinary element in all of the regional cookeries. Maize was so important to the indigenous peoples before the arrival of Columbus that in Mayan mythology man and woman were created from two maize kernels. It was seen as a life-giving element and it has greatly influenced the cookery of Central America. The tortilla, made from maize flour and water, is usually present in at least one daily meal. It is traditionally eaten while still warm and accompanied by several types of salty cheese. There are people who specialize in making tortillas and can shape the dough between their hands in a matter of seconds, until it reaches a circumference of approximately 10 inches (25 centimeters). The tortillas are then placed on a hot griddle, lightly scorched, and rushed to the table while still steaming.
Maize is also the ingredient for many refreshing drinks and is fermented to create an alcoholic drink known as chicha, which can also be consumed before full fermentation takes place. This old indigenous beverage has changed very little over time, except that now sugar is used as a sweetener rather than honey. Chicha is a generic term used by the early conquistadors to describe any alcoholic beverage in the New World, but there are actually many variations of chicha throughout Latin America.
Atole is another drink made from maize that is mainly a feature of Guatemalan cuisine, but is present throughout Central America under many local variations. It is a filling, high-energy drink that can be either sweet or salty. Atole, typically served hot or warm, has a thick consistency and can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, the most common being milk, sugar, ground maize kernels, cinnamon, and cloves. In Nicaragua, atole vendors always seem to show up after a heavy afternoon rainstorm, making sure everyone warms up by drinking plenty of the beverage. It is especially popular in the cool mountainous areas of the region.
Tamales made from maize are popular throughout the isthmus and are prepared in a variety of ways, depending on the local cultures. Each country has a special variation of tamales, but aside from the different ingredients, they are always wrapped in either cornhusks or plantain leaves and steamed or boiled. Tamales can be eaten on any occasion, but in some countries, such as El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama, they are generally prepared for holidays. Traditionally, they are consumed during the Christmas season or at Easter. They can also range in size from dainty handheld appetizers to large main-course dishes. The most common forms consist of ground dried maize or the raw mashed kernels shaped into a thick, rectangular dough that is filled with different vegetables or meats, or simply sweetened with sugar. They are then wrapped in leaves and boiled or steamed.
Just as there are variations in ingredients, there are also variations in nomenclature. For example, in El Salvador, tamales rellenos are similar to the Honduran and Nicaraguan nacatamales. In both Honduras and Nicaragua, there are tamales (boiled in corn husks) and nacatamales (boiled in plantain leaves), which vary from one another in their fillings. Nacatamales are difficult to prepare not only because of the complexity of the ingredients, but also because of the length of time they take to cook. In Nicaragua, there are people who specialize in making them since they are always in demand for parties or for traditional Sunday brunch.
Another way of using ground maize is as a thickener for stews or for giving a distinctive flavoring to certain dishes. Ground maize can also be toasted and used to flour meats or fish for deep frying. Water and sugar can be added to toasted maize to make pinolillo, a chocolate-like drink that is filling yet refreshing. In Honduras, pinolillo is also prepared with a touch of ground chocolate, thus giving it a more complex taste.
Central America is a paradise for natural fruit drinks, since it has a seemingly endless variety of fruits that can be mixed together to produce deliciously healthy and refreshing beverages. One can find a natural fruit juice stand on almost every street corner on hot, sunny days. Many Central Americans take a break before lunch and sit for a few minutes under the shade of a tree to cool off and relax with a tall glass of refresco, literally "refreshing," with plenty of ice. The best drinks are made with ripe fruits, so that there is no need for sugar. These fruits can also be used for creating an enormous variety of sorbets, which are popular on hot, humid afternoons.
The plantain plays a much more important role in Central American cuisine than the potato. It is more or less a staple vegetable, and green or ripe plantains can be prepared in a number of ways. Although the plant is not native to the continent, it adapted very quickly to the climate and soil of this tropical region. Its leaves are used in wrapping foods, such as tamales and nacatamales, for grilling, and sometimes as eating utensils. The plantain leaves give the food a subtle yet rich flavor, and, when grilling fish, keep it from scorching and impart flavor to the meat. It is said that Nicaraguan vigorón is not authentic unless it is served on the plantain leaf, which functions as a plate. When the leaf is folded, some of the juice is released into the food, perhaps giving it its "authentic" flavor. The old colonial Nicaraguan city of Granada is well known for its vigorón, consisting of boiled yuca (cassava), a sour and spicy shredded cabbage salad, and crunchy pork rinds.
Another way of cooking the unripe plantain is to cut the fruit into paper-thin strips and fry them at a high temperature, thus making them crunchy yet not oily. This is a popular way of preparing plantains throughout Central America. They can also be grilled or boiled in water and accompanied by a salty cheese. The ripe plantains can also be boiled and baked with cinnamon, cloves, and cheese, resulting in a tasty dessert sweetened by the vegetable's own natural sugars.
As a general rule, the indigenous peoples of Central America were originally vegetarian, eating meat only on special occasions and cooking with little or no oils or fats. The European method of frying and cooking with animal fat quickly changed the native cuisine, but it also made room for a new and inventive style of cooking. Besides the better-known meats such as pork, beef, chicken, and fish, other animal meats are also part of Central American cookery. The gibnut or paca, a large rodent that feeds mainly on wild nuts, is consumed in Belize. The cusuco (Dasypus novemcinctus), a species of armadillo, is eaten in several countries, but it is most popular in El Salvador, where it is mainly a feature of rural cookery. This meat is marinated in lime juice, then grilled, following the same method used for cooking iguana.Iguana is eaten throughout the region, but, again, it is mainly consumed by country people. The iguana is
Guatemala was once part of the heartland of Mayan civilization. The Mayan imprint on modern Guatemala's culinary riches is present in its numerous traditional dishes, especially those with corn as the predominant ingredient. The country is well-known for the great variety of its atoles. One of these is atole de arroz, a sweet beverage with corn, rice, cinnamon, sugar, and chocolate as ingredients. In the cool and mountainous area of Totonicapán, there is an unusual (and probably very old) atole made with beans, salt, and ground chili pepper.
Recados, pastelike mixtures, are important in Guatemala and are used for marinating meats or as condiments to bring out complex flavors in cooked dishes. The most common of these is recado colorado, which uses ground annatto as a base mixed with garlic, black pepper, cumin, and other ingredients depending on the local recipe. Of all Central American countries, Guatemala is the only one that uses the chili pepper almost as an essential part of its cuisine. Peppers are used as a condiment, or as a main dish such as chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers). The chilies are first fire-roasted, next filled with a traditional mixture of pork and beef, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and herbs. They are then dipped in a batter, covered with breadcrumbs and fried, blending indigenous and European methods of food preparation.
Located to the east of Guatemala, Belize is a country with a large native-born population of African descent. Formerly a British colony, it attracted immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean due to an extensive lumbering industry. It is also the only Central American country where English is the official language. In the western part of the country, the food is similar to that of Guatemala because of the border they share. This cuisine is a blend of Spanish and Mayan influences, yet the coconut is an important ingredient because of the predominating African influence.
One of the local delicacies is conch soup in which the meat from the giant conch, a mollusk, is cooked with okra, green plantains, onions, lime juice, chili peppers, and coconut until it acquires a thick consistency. Belizeans are as proud of their conch soup as they are of their popular stewed beans with pork or beef. Stew beans are prepared by boiling meat with the beans, onions, coconut milk, herbs, and spices (depending on personal tastes); they are served with rice. Garnaches and salbutes are common dishes and can be served either as a main meal or as appetizers. These are thin, crispy deep-fried tortillas served with beans, cheese, and cabbage on top and may also be accompanied with chicken. In May, the cashew festival, which evolved out of the English May Day celebration, takes place. This festivity includes plenty of food and live music, as well as locally made cashew wine.
Honduras has a diverse cuisine that shares many similarities with that of Nicaragua, its neighbor to the south, including the influence of African-Caribbean culture. An outstanding Honduran dish is the popular sopa de caracol, or conch soup. In this recipe, fresh carrots, chayote, chickpeas, celery, onions, plantains, and baby corn are sauteéd in butter and added to a clear broth flavored with culantro, a native herb similar in flavor to cilantro, but stronger-tasting. Coconut is then added to the broth along with some milk, the conch meat, achiote, and parsley as the garnish. The result is a flavorful soup with an African-Caribbean touch.
Capirotadas, commonly eaten during Lent, are small dumplings made from maize flour and water, filled with cheese, and then lightly fried until brown. The dumplings are subsequently added to a vegetable broth and enjoyed as a main meal. Another variation is to add syrup cooked with cinnamon and cloves, which is then served on the dumplings, creating a tasty yet simple dessert. Pinole, a slightly coarse, ground maize, is used as a thickener in dishes such as gallina en pinol and iguana en pinol. In both recipeshe first made with chicken or (preferably) hen and the second with iguanaoasted maize gives the meat a light nutty taste that complements the mixture of meat, herbs, broth, and vegetables.
El Salvador is the smallest Central American country and the only one without an Atlantic coastline. The cuisine of El Salvador is popular throughout the isthmus because of its famous pupusas. Although there are similar variations of these tortillas in most Latin American countries, El Salvador has gained recognition for having what are generally considered the best recipes. Pupusas are basically tortilla dumplings filled with either cheese, small pieces of chicharrón (pork rinds), a mixture of both, or beans. The dumplings are then covered with curtidos, a combination of cabbage, shredded carrots, and chilies infused in vinegar.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, and until the 1970s it was also the wealthiest. Its cuisine varies greatly from region to region, from old Spanish dishes such as relleno, salpicón, or indio viejo, to more indigenous preparations like nacatamales. Relleno literally means "stuffing" and in its original Old World form was probably used for stuffed fowl or empanadas. Like many Spanish dishes of medieval origin, it uses ingredients now associated with desserts: dried fruit, milk, nutmeg, sugar, and shredded bread as a thickener. Along with these ingredients, pork, olives, finely diced carrots, onions, mustard, capers, and vinegar or wine are blended into the mix. The result is a sweet and sour dish in which the diverse ingredients seem to come together harmoniously. Due to long, slow cooking and hours of constant stirring, this dish is so time-consuming to make that it is only eaten once a year, during the Christmas holidays. The large outlay of expensive ingredients, many of which must be imported, once set this dish apart as a class symbol of the old ruling families of the country during the colonial period, but today relleno has assumed the character of a national icon, especially to expatriate Nicaraguans.
Another dish of Spanish origin is salpicón, which is thought to have come to Nicaragua during the 1500s. The basic concept involves making a complete meal out of the basics for soup. It begins with beef boiled with an assortment of vegetables, most importantly ripe plantains. The meat is then taken out of its broth and finely chopped
Indio viejo is similar to salpicón in that beef is boiled to create soup, but different in that the meat is then shredded and cooked again in its own broth with maize flour, spearmint, tomatoes, and, depending on family, recipes, achiote. The result is a complementary blend of Old World and indigenous flavors. Nacatamales also blend the Old World with the New, but the basic recipe has indigenous roots. Best described as fairly large dumplings made from maize flour, they are filled with capers, potatoes, onions, prunes, meat (pork, chicken, or turkey) marinated in achiote, tomatoes, and chilies. The dumplings are then wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled in water for several hours until all the ingredients are fully cooked. Nacatamales are usually enjoyed as Sunday brunch with strong black coffee.
Costa Rica is well-known worldwide for its natural beauty and perhaps also for its excellent coffee. Ecotourism has helped the country's economy, but it has also greatly changed the local food culture. Aside from the more popular Americanized fast-food restaurants that are now common, the true cuisine of the Costa Rican people is the one prepared at home. Without a doubt, most Costa Ricans crave the popular gallo pinto, a mixture of white rice and beans cooked with a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, creating a tasty meal of its own. This dish is eaten in most parts of the country at least once a day.
Olla de carne is another popular recipe that blends together a variety of vegetables and beef. This one-pot dish consists of squash, corn, yuca, ayote, and potatoes cooked together with beef in its broth, creating a very hearty stew. Round pieces of lightly mashed green plantains, known as patacones, are served during most meals and act as a substitute for the now ubiquitous french fries. During the Christmas holidays, Costa Ricans enjoy elaborate tamales, very similar to the Nicaraguan nacatamales in the variety of ingredients used as well as in the manner of preparation.
Panama is a country defined largely by the Panama Canal, which has created a trading link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. During pre-Columbian times, the country was a center of older civilizations that specialized in gold craftsmanship, using native animals as models for their works of art. Panama's culinary connection to this indigenous past was largely severed during the colonial period, when the region was part of what is now Colombia.
Created by the United States during the early 1900s, Panama and its canal attracted many immigrants seeking employment and new opportunities. This migration shaped modern Panamanian culture because of the large numbers of black laborers arriving from English-speaking islands in the Caribbean. The result was a blending of the local mestizo cuisine with that of the newly arrived immigrants. Panamanians keep their traditional cuisine alive at home, but they assimilated many African elements, especially the use of coconut as a main ingredient.
One example of the strong African influence is the popularity of fufu, particularly along the northern Atlantic coast of the country. Elsewhere in Latin America, fufu is a dumpling made of plantains or yams, but in Panama the term is applied to the entire stew. It is composed of a coconut milk base, boiled plantains, chilies, yuca, yams, and fried fish added at the end. Saos is yet another African-influenced dish adapted from the Jamaican kitchen. It consists of boiled calf 's or pig's feet marinated in plenty of lime juice, onions, chilies, salt, and pepper.
In spite of the prevalence of these African influences, most Panamanians identify their national cookery with indigenous and Spanish preparations, especially sancocho, which is treated as a national culinary symbol. This dish consists of chicken cooked with vegetables, including yuca, corn, plantains, chayote, and potatoes, served with rice on the side. Panamanians seek relief from the midmorning heat by enjoying the popular and refreshing beverage known as chicheme, which resembles atole because it is a maize-based beverage blended with sugar and cinnamon. Before lunch time, Panamanians like to enjoy a drink of chicheme with the tasty carimoñolas. These lightly fried dumplings consisting of boiled mashed yuca filled with ground beef, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and herbs can be eaten either as appetizers or as a main course.
See also Banana and Plantain; Caribbean; Iberian Peninsula; Inca Empire; Maize; Mexico; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian; South America.
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