There's that one food -- you know the one -- that the sight, smell, taste, and even thought of takes you back in time. Maybe it's a bottled sauce, a decidely non-authentic ingredient masquerading as the true thing, or a packaged spice. Ever present in our childhood kitchens and on our dinner tables, perhaps you're even embarassed to admit, these are foods that you still crave.
No shame here. We get it!
From Puerto Rican favorite bottled "mayo-ketchup" to the poor man's saffron, these are the foods of our childhood. And though they may make you cringe now (Hello, boxed Old El Paso hard tacos!), they still hold a special, and maybe secret, place in your heart.
Here, in all their glory, is our collection of nostalgic Latin foods.
Old El Paso Taco Shells
I didn't grow up in a Latin family (I married into one), but growing up in South Carolina, I loved taco night, which always involved scooping ground beef, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and "Mexican" cheese (which had nothing to do with Mexico) into Old El Paso taco shells. It wasn't until years later, when I was living in Mexico City, that I learned that Mexicans don't actually eat hard taco shells. Though I prefer corn tortillas today, I still get nostalgic about Old El Paso taco shells. - Julie Schwietert Collazo
Like most canned meats, Spam falls under the category of “don’t-ask-just-eat-it” foods. But with a working mom and the occasional hurricane-induced power outage, I was introduced to the wonderful (and cheap) world of Spam, Vienna Sausages, and Corned beef very early on and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved it all. Think about it: they are cheap, hearty, fast to make and can feed a crowd!
Arroz con salchichas, Spam y macarrones con queso, and arroz con corned beef guisado, were often on the menu when I was growing up, but my favorite by far was sandwichitos de mezcla. Directly translated as "sandwiches of mixture," you can find a stack of these small sandwiches filled with an impossibly pink puree made of Spam at every party in Puerto Rico. Why? They are delicious! But once again... don’t ask what’s in them, just know that they taste like my childhood. - Laura Herrera Torres
It’s not classy or gourmet. Discovering this in my fridge is akin to someone reading my journal – it’s personal. It’s… bottled Mayo-Ketchup. It’s a condiment found in almost every Puerto Rican kitchen and I am a product of my culture. The sauce (well, "sauce") is a mixture of mayo and ketchup, seasoned with garlic powder, garlic salt, or garlic. It’s thick, it’s indulgent, and it's delicious. It can be used as a dip for crunchy tostones right out of the fryer, a sweet sauce for salty carne frita, even as a spread for sandwiches. Throughout my childhood we had to make our own, taxing as it was, but since Goya caught on and started bottling it up, you can now find it in the Latin section of your grocery store. Thank God. – Cristina Gonzalez
I've always thought of Bijol as a poor man's saffron. A mix of corn flour, annatto, and ground cumin, it's primary purpose seemed to be giving arroz con pollo its vibrant egg yolk yellow coloring. A coloring gourmands usually get from mixing a few strands of saffron into water. When I started cooking for myself as an adult, I often left it out of traditional recipes and ground out my own spice blends instead. It was nostalgia that prompted me to buy the tiny orange canister on a trip home to Miami and I soon saw the error of my ways. Muskier than the more expensive saffron, it adds a punch to traditional dishes that's difficult to describe though you'll know when it's missing. Plus, it's hard to beat that color. - Ana Sofia Pelaez
For many Chileans, every sandwich in recent memory has Mostaza JB on it. That could be a chacarero, a sandwich of sliced beef with cooked string beans on it, or it could be a barros jarpa, a melted ham and cheese sandwich. And that squiggle of yellow on top of the completo, Chile’s answer to hotdogs, with avocado and tomatoes? That’s JB, too. And if mustard seeds are only the fifth ingredient (after water, vinegar, sugar and wheat flour), well, then that’s part of the appeal. If you can’t get Mostaza JB at your local store (which means you’re not in Chile), you can buy it here, along with other nostalgic Chilean favorites, though this particular “mustard condiment,” as it is labeled, has a tendency to sell out. - Eileen Smith
I grew up drinking Jarritos. Who didn't? My grandma would buy them by the case for us to enjoy all summer long in Mexico. For less than 20 cents, it was the tastiest way to beat the summer heat. These days, you can find them everywhere from local grocery stores and to Tex-mex restaurants. Though these days, they may be a little too sweet to drink on their own, I've found a way to incorporate them into my life: to make cocktails, marinade fajitas, or to make paletas for the kiddos. – Vianney Rodriguez
Although you can find precooked cornmeal from lots of different brands, the one I grew up with was Harina Pan and it takes me back to my childhood in a heartbeat. The woman on the front with her red polka dot wrap and red hoops remind me of my Tia Maxi, it's the only cornmeal my mom ever used, and my abuelita swears by it. I see the logo and I'm flooded by memories of making arepas for a true Venezuelan breakfast. When I spot it (usually in the Ethnic or Latin American food aisle), I load up. - Carolyng Gomes
Panela is a lovely caramel colored block of unrefined cane sugar. The first time I tried it I was 6 and had visited my cousins sugar cane farm. I bit into a fresh sugar cane and was hooked! Whether I'm making lemonade, ginger cookies, or tea I always reach for a block of panela and freshly grate what I need. You can usually find blocks in the Latin American aisle or Ethnic Foods isle at your local grocery store. Though these days it's been replaced by shelves of fancy sugars and it takes a little bit of work (newbies will be surprised to find it rock hard) I love it. It brings me back to that sugar cane farm and the fun I had there. - Carolyng Gomes