It took Virgilio Martínez and an army of researchers six years to write The Latin American cookbook, a 400-page hardcover released in November containing 600 recipes from 22 countries. It is the latest, and perhaps the most anticipated culinary Bible from Phaedo, editor of such emblematic publications as Japan: The Cookbook, India, and The silver spoon.
When we heard last year that Martínez was traveling all over the western hemisphere collecting recipes and local lore for an epic Latin American cookbook, we were thrilled – and admittedly skeptical: How can one book explain the culinary possibilities of an area around the Rio Grande satisfy? to Cape Horn?
It sounded like an impossible mission even to a daredevil like Martínez. If Martínez’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you met him on Netflix Chef’s Table. The soft spoken phenomenon from Peru starred in a 2017 episode that traced his path from the restless teenager to the toqued stagiaire to today’s culinary eminence and lay anthropologist. On the show, Martínez gives viewers an intimate glimpse into Peruvian cuisine – the shimmering seafood from the Pacific, the sticky tree saps of the Amazon, the gnarled tubers of the Andes, and everything in between.
Now he brings the rigor and curiosity that convinced us Chef’s Table to The Latin American cookbook, this is our December / January selection for SAVEUR Cookbook club. As Martínez states in the introduction, the aim of the compendium was never an exhaustive encyclopedia of Latin American cuisine, but rather a “culinary snapshot” with dishes that can be freely adapted to personal preferences and available ingredients.
The recipes range from international hits like black bean soup and Colombian arepas to lesser-known gems like Chilean disco fries and Bolivian schnitzel with rocotó tomato salsa. “Christ’s knee”, we learn, are hot, yeasty rolls from the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca, bursting with queso frescoes and infused with blood-red achiote oil. There’s even a section on how to cook ants, grasshoppers, and red palm weevil larvae – great evidence that Martínez is determined to give it to us right away. Fortunately, as he explained to us via video chat, this is not another Latin American “light” cookbook for the mainstream American market. Here is our interview with Martinez.
You grew up in Lima, the capital of Peru. What foods did you love as a child?
Some of my earliest food memories are of ceviche. It was street food, not trendy or elaborate as it can be today. We also ate many stews like carapulcra, which is made with pork and potatoes, and Ají de Gallina, which is made with chicken and yellow chillies. To me, Peruvian home cooking smells like onions and chicken broth and melted cheese. This Platos de Olla (Pot dishes) were always incredibly aromatic, which I learned later because they contained ingredients and techniques from different cultures: African, Portuguese, Spanish, Creole …
Indeed, some dishes that would be called Peruvian are the product of many cultures.
Yes, and that goes for Latin American cuisine as a whole. Latin America is a huge pantry filled with different types of corn and potatoes, cocoa and coffee. We also have the oceans to play with in all their abundance. The influence of different cultures over the past 500 years has created a fusion kitchen, and for me Lima is the epicenter of that melting pot. In Lima, food fills up and explodes with taste. Nothing is watered down. There are no children’s menus, no simple pasta or potatoes. Fast food arrived late in Peru. For us, fast food was the street vendor who served ceviche or soup.
The Latin American Cookbook—that is an ambitious title! Have you been overwhelmed with the task of putting together such a long book?
I took the responsibility of writing such a book seriously, but I didn’t think too much about it and got down to work straight away. Through the Mater Iniciativa, our branch of research, I have already had contact with cooks, servants, grandmothers, food writers – people who all together could contribute to making something really great. I knew what I was not I wanted to write another book about Latin American home-style cooking with a few pretty photos, and with it to call it a day. We have made it our mission to go deeper. We asked people all over the region what they ate as a child, which plants they grew and what was important to them in the individual dishes. And I have to admit that I couldn’t have done it on my own. It helped that I had a whole team behind me on the way.
How would you describe the recipes in the book?
We started with over 1,000 recipes and cut the list by about half. It is a book for home cooks. There are simple recipes that you can make in 20 minutes. We have included many emblematic and traditional dishes, and some newer ones too, as the dishes that the current generation loves are likely to become classics in the near future.
What are the most common things people do wrong with Latin American cuisine?
That everything is just meat and potatoes. The potato part really gets me bogged down – you have no idea how many varieties of potatoes there are and how nutritious they can be. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t just make you fat. They are filled with vitamins and, depending on their origin, taste like one or the other corner of the Andes.
What changes are underway in Latin American cuisine? What does the future hold in store?
In upscale restaurants in Japan, for example, a piece of perfectly ripe mango is served amid an elaborate tasting menu. And that’s the course. I think we can learn in Latin America to show the same awe and respect for our native ingredients. Imagine the same treatment, only instead of a mango it is a pitaya cactus.
Did you notice something like a common thread when you sewed these different food cultures into the patchwork quilt of this book?
The ingredients may vary from region to region, but the sense of community is felt across Latin America. When families gather for a funeral in Guatemala, they make a point of cooking and conjuring together. One chops the carrots while the other plucks the chicken for the soup … The idea of a family reuniting around food and paying tribute to their lost brother or sister is priceless and beautiful. I would even call it innovative: How many families do you know who cook together? What would society be like if we were more collaborative that way?
What surprised you most in your research?
The helpfulness of the people. Every time we asked someone for a recipe, information or whatever we needed, the answer was always a resounding “¡claro que sí!”. That says a lot about the pride of Latinos in their food.
Where do you think this pride comes from?
When something is yours – that is, you grew up with it and know it inside and 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 a different dimension because food is so present. And maybe something speaks for the lack of recognition for the manufacture and export of some of the world’s most popular foods and recipes. We’d like to say, look where your chocolate and tacos and your coffee are coming from.
There will be a sequel The Latin American cookbook?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s how little we know about our own history in Latin America – how certain ingredients got here and how others were sent abroad. It’s nice to know that there is still a lot to discover. You know that you have done justice to a project when at the end you can take a step back and say: “¡Caramba! I am ready for more! “