From infancy, we Latinos are taught that we are the charming and diverse result of a myriad of indigenous peoples mixed with African, European, and Asian immigrants. Elements of all these cultures have been adopted so completely that we accept them as entirely our own, never questioning their roots. This is especially true when it comes to our kitchens.
But as February is Black History Month, it's fitting to parse our culinary landscape and celebrate the staples we consider so intrinsically ours, whether Peruvian, Cuban, or Mexican, all of which were originally native to Northern and Eastern Africa. Luckily, they've come together on our dinner table.
Protein for the Populous
Where did the okra in your stew come from? The answer is that it was an idea born out of necessity. Getting enough nutrients was difficult for slaves and servants in the Caribbean who lived on crumbs and worked all day... until they discovered okra. This plant was brought in cargo holds of Spanish ships and flourished almost overnight. Thanks to its abundance and high protein content, it became a culinary staple after just a couple generations.
The connection between Caribbean okra and its African counterparts is so close that its most common Spanish names, Quimbombo and gumbo, are nearly phonetically identical to their Bantu linguistic root, kingombo.
Scraps to Scrumptious
Both Latin American natives and captured African tribes lived on the scraps their masters refused to eat. With these metaphorical lemons, they made lemonade. Everything from old food to gamey animal parts was transformed into culinary staples. Case in point: Peruvian Anticuchos, a wildly popular street food made of seasoned, skewered grilled beef or chicken hearts. Similarly, hacienda peasants in Mexico reimagined beef stomach (one of the few accessible sources of protein) by cooking it in a hearty hominy stew called Menudo, now a classic Mexican dish.
Vatapa is a beloved Brazilian stew usually made with shrimp, fish fillets, and coconut milk. Though emblematic of the Bahia regions, similar vatapa recipes were first found in West Africa. American iterations evolved to include ingredients from Brazil, but the dish retained its original Yoruba name, which translates to "spicy seafood paste." It's hearty and comforting but still light enough for summer nights.
Wonderful, Wonderful Plantains
Latin America inherited Eastern Africa's focus on starchy fruits and veggies, especially the beloved plantain. Yep, plantains are not indigenous to Latin America (gasp!). Scientists speculate that plantains actually originated in Asia and were staples in coastal African tribes centuries before the Spanish even made their way to the new world. Without the African influence in the Caribbean, we would not have Mofongo, Alcapurrias, Maduros, or Hudut, and the world would be a sad, sad place.
It's hard to imagine churros without cinnamon or an arroz con dulce without ginger or raisins. But all of these ingredients, along with cloves, anise and even dried nuts and fruits, found their way in to Latin culture only when indigenous Americans and Northern Africans blended traditions. These ingredients are now so deeply entrenched in Central American cuisine that Mexico is the largest importer of cinnamon in the world.