¡Riquísimo! 9 things you wanted to know about Latin American cuisine but were afraid to ask

CINCINNATI - Paella. Tamales.  Buñuelos. These foods proudly mark the  gustatory cornerstones of Latin American cuisine. They evoke cultural identity, familial traditions and sometimes even national pride.

This food embraces the Old World of Spain and celebrates the interchange with New World ingredients, found in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. It is incredibly diverse, ranging from Spanish classics like gazpacho and jamon iberico, to Latin American staples like arepas, tamales and platanos maduros.

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in the Tri-State (Sept. 15 to  Oct. 15), here are 9 questions and answers to help you really dig into Latin American food.

¡Buen provecho!

1. What is a chipotle anyway?
Thanks to the successful fast casual restaurant, Chipotle, the word has become a common household word.  However, contrary to what some may believe, a chipotle is not a burrito nor is it a trendy restaurant outfitted in cool industrial Incan art.

A chipotle (chih-poht-lay) is a fully-ripened jalapeño pepper that is smoked and dried. Bright, turgid red peppers gradually transform into reddish-brown, wrinkled-up peppers through the process of smoking and dehydration. 

While they may not score points on looks, the resulting flavor is irreplaceable and unmistakable: intense and smoky, with enough spice to wake you and your food up. 

Chipotle comes in three forms: 

  1. whole smoked peppers
  2. powder
  3. packed in adobo sauce

A mainstay in Mexican cooking, chipotle is often used to flavor sauces, marinades and in spice blends.

2. Is Latin American food always spicy?
No. Spanish food is rooted in Mediterranean traditions and is generally not spicy. The chili pepper, which is indigenous to Central and South America, is incorporated into the food of Latin America. 

For example, chilies are necessary cohorts in the construction of the bright and energizing flavors of Mexican food. However, the flavor and heat level can be fine-tuned by the proper use of the right kind of chili pepper, such as jalapeño, poblano and guajillo. 

The heat levels are different for the various chili peppers, as are their flavors. The idea is to weave in flavor and balance, without blowing everybody's socks off.

3. What is a Peruvian potato?
If you think a potato is just a potato, this one will make you look twice. The Peruvian potato is strikingly purple, thanks to something called anthocyanin, a type of antioxidant. It is the substance responsible for the red, purple and blue colors in fruits and vegetables, including red cabbage, strawberries and blueberries. 

Antioxidants are prized for their health benefits and their consumption is regarded as a protection against age-related diseases. 

4. Molè? You're kidding right?
Molè (pronounced mo-lay) is not a burrowing mammal or a unit of measurement in chemistry. It is a deeply satisfying, complex, savory sauce constructed from the artful blending of chilies, onion, garlic, spices and nuts. 

Not unlike Asian curries or American chili, there are many versions, with distinct regional differences. The most recognized molè in this country is flavored with cocoa, making for a distinctively deep flavor and color. 

While the sauce is good enough to drink, it is customarily served with a meat or chicken dish.

5. It's a wrap... No it's an omelet. What is a tortilla, really?
It depends. For the most part, in the Americas, a tortilla is a thin flatbread traditionally made from ground treated corn. Tortillas made from wheat flour, which gives it a softer texture, are equally available nowadays. They are commonly used as a wrap for foods like tacos and burritos, or cut up and deep fried to make tortilla chips. 

In Cuba--and Spain--a tortilla is an thick omelet of diced potato, perfectly fragranced with onion and cooked in olive oil. It is a versatile dish, eaten anytime of the day.

6. What's in a chimichanga?
What do you get when you take a burrito and drop it in a vat of hot cooking oil? The chimichanga, of course.  While it is a wildly popular item in Mexican restaurants across the United States, it is purely an American creation. Its exact origin continues to be contested, but it is generally believed to originate in Arizona.

You would be hard-pressed to find chimichangas in Latin America. It would be like trying to find egg rolls, another American invention, in China.

Next page: Talking tapas

7. What are tapas?
A Spanish tradition, tapas are small plates of food, typically eaten while having a drink or two. They range from the simple--such as salted fried almonds and marinated olives--to more involved dishes like grilled octopus and braised chorizo.

The origin of tapas is a subject of debate, with some believing the first tapas to be a modest slice of bread sitting on top of the wine glass.

Tapas have quickly evolved in many restaurants to simply mean small plates of food, shared around the table. 

8. Why is quinoa everywhere these days?
What is old is new again. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), an ancient grain grown high in the Andes, is getting newfound attention as a nutritional powerhouse.

Quinoa has an impressive list of health benefits. It is a type of whole grain and is gluten-free. What really sets it apart, however, is its essential amino acids, making it a source of high-quality  protein, a rare find for a plant-based food.  

Quinoa has become so popular around the world that the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. The objective is to raise awareness of a food that has been grown for thousands of years in the Andean region of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

9. Is the seafood in ceviche raw?
Yes and no. Ceviche (pronounced se-vee-chay) is a cold dish usually prepared by marrying raw pieces of fish or other seafood with a citrus juice like lime, punctuated by cilantro and onion.

The raw seafood is not cooked in the conventional sense, but the acidic juice alters the seafood protein turning it opaque, as if it had been cooked with heat. Food safety should be a priority when consuming raw seafood, so it is a good idea to only patronize trusted food handlers.

What's your favorite Latin American dish? Look for another Hispanic Heritage Month food column from Grace Yek next week.

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