Why Virgilio Martínez wants you to rethink Latin American cuisine

It took six years for Virgilio Martínez and an army of scholars to write The Latin American cookbook, a 400-page hardcover published in November with 600 recipes from 22 countries. It is the most recent, and perhaps the most anticipated, culinary bible from Phaidon, the publisher behind iconic releases such as Japan: The Cookbook, India, and The silver spoon.

Last year, when we heard that Martínez was traveling the Western Hemisphere to put together local recipes and traditions for an epic Latin American cookbook, we were thrilled – and admittedly skeptical – how could a single book do justice to the eating habits of a region stretching from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn?

It sounded like an impossible mission, even for a go-getter like Martínez. If the name Martínez sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you met him on Netflix Chef’s table. The soft-spoken phenomenon from Peru starred in a 2017 episode who traced his trajectory from a troubled teenager to an intern in a tuque to, today, a culinary eminence and secular anthropologist. On the show, Martínez gives viewers an intimate glimpse into Peruvian cuisine – the scintillating seafood of the Pacific, the sticky sap of Amazon trees, gnarled Andean tubers and everything in between.

From now on, he brings the rigor and the curiosity that seduced us on Chef’s table at The Latin American cookbook, which is our December / January pick for FLAVOR Cookbook Club. The aim of the collection, as Martínez indicates in the introduction, has never been to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of Latin cuisine but rather a “culinary snapshot” with dishes that can be freely adapted according to personal preferences. and available ingredients.

Recipes range from international hits like black bean soup and Colombian arepas to lesser-known gems like Chilean disco fries and Bolivian cutlets topped with rocotó-tomato salsa. “Christ’s knees,” we learn, are hot, sourdough buns from the Ecuadorian town of Cuenca, bursting with queso fresco and streaked with blood-red annatto oil. There’s even a section on cooking ants, grasshoppers, and palm weevil larvae, enough proof that Martínez is determined to give it to us directly. As he explained to us via video chat, this is thankfully not another “light” Latin cookbook for the mainstream American market. Here is our interview with Martínez.

This beef stew is slowly cooked in a clay pot, then served with cassava porridge, white rice, and sliced ​​bananas. Photography by Jimena Agois

You grew up in Lima, the capital of Peru. What foods did you like as a child?

Some of my earliest culinary memories are ceviche. It was street food, not trendy or fancy as it can be today. We also ate a lot of stews like carapulcra, made with pork and potatoes, and ají de gallina, made with chicken and yellow peppers. Peruvian comfort food to me smells of onion, chicken broth, and melted cheese. These platos de olla (the dishes from the pot) were always incredibly tasty, what I would learn later was because they incorporated ingredients and techniques from different cultures: African, Portuguese, Spanish, Creole …

So some dishes that people would call Peruvian are actually the product of many cultures.

Yes, and that’s true for Latin American cuisine as a whole. Latin America is a gigantic pantry, filled with different types of corn and potatoes, cocoa and coffee. We also have the oceans to play with, with all their generosity. The influence of various cultures over the past 500 years has created fusion cuisine, and for me the epicenter of this melting pot is Lima. In Lima, the food fills up and explodes with flavor. Nothing is diluted. There are no children’s menus, no plain pasta or potatoes. Fast food arrived late in Peru. For us, fast food was the street vendor handing out ceviche or soup.

Peanut Pig Virgilio Martinez Latin American Cuisine

Patita con maní, pig’s trotters with peanut sauce, originally from Peru. Photography by Jimena Agois

The Latin American Cookbook—it’s an ambitious title! Have you been overwhelmed by the task of compiling a book of such a vast scope?

I took the responsibility of writing such a book seriously, but didn’t give it much thought and got to work. Thanks to Mater Iniciativa, our research arm, I was already in contact with cooks, farm workers, grandmothers, food writers, people who, in short, could contribute to doing something really great. i knew what i does not have I wanted to do was write another Latin American comfort food book with some pretty pictures and call it a day. We made it our duty to go further. We asked people across the region what they ate when they were little, what crops they grew and what was important to them in each particular dish. And I have to admit, I couldn’t have done it alone. It helped me to have a whole team behind me along the way.

How would you describe the recipes in the book?

We started with over 1,000 recipes and cut the list down to about half. It’s a book for home cooks. There are some simple recipes you can make in 20 minutes. We have included many iconic and traditional dishes as well as newer ones, as the dishes the current generation adores will likely become classics in the near future.

What do people go wrong most often about Latin American cuisine?

That it’s just meat and potatoes. The potato part really touches me – you have no idea how many varieties of potatoes there are and their nutritional value. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t just get fat. They are packed with vitamins and can taste like one corner of the Andes or another depending on where they come from.

What are the changes taking place in Latin American cuisine? What does the future hold?

In fine dining restaurants in Japan, in the midst of an elaborate tasting menu, they will offer you, for example, a slice of perfectly ripe mango. And this is the course. In Latin America, I think we can learn to give our native ingredients the same reverence and respect. Imagine the same treatment, except instead of a mango it’s a pitaya cactus.

Chucula Ecuadorian Plantain Pudding by Viriglio Martinez
Chucula, a sweet plantain pudding, is a common sweet treat in northeast Ecuador. Get the recipe> Photography by Jimena Agois

Sewing these various food cultures into the quilting quilt that is this book, did anything strike you as a common thread?

The ingredients can vary from region to region, but the sense of community is palpable wherever you go in Latin America. In Guatemala, when families get together for a funeral, they make it a point to cook and get drunk together. One cuts the carrots while the other picks the chicken for the soup… This idea of ​​a family united around food, paying homage to his missing brother or sister, is priceless and beautiful. I would even say it’s innovative: how many families do you know who cook together? What would society be like if we were more collaborative in this way?

What surprised you the most about your research?

The willingness of people to help. Whenever we contacted someone for a recipe, information, or whatever else we needed, the response was always a “¡claro que sí!” It says a lot about how proud Latinos are in their food.

Where do you think this pride comes from?

When something is yours – that is, you’ve grown up with it and know it inside out – you want to share it with the world. I think it’s a natural human impulse. People everywhere are passionate about their food, but in Latin America it takes on another dimension because food is so present. And maybe there is something to be said about the lack of recognition for the production and export of some of the world’s favorite foods and recipes. We mean, look where your chocolate, tacos, and coffee come from.

Will there be a sequel to The Latin American cookbook?

If there’s one thing I learned on this trip, it’s how little we know of our own history in Latin America, how some ingredients got here and how others got sent there. ‘foreigner. It’s good to realize that there is still a lot to discover. You know you’ve done a project justice when you can step back at the end and say, “¡Caramba! I am ready for more!

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