NEW YORK — Much as quinoa, chipotle and habanero have moved from obscure to prime time in the non-Latino market in recent years, other Latin favorites such as camu camu, acerola cherries and cupuacu are candidates for gaining broad market popularity in coming years, said Marie Elena Martinez, founding editor, The Latin Kitchen.
Ms. Martinez offered insights into the Latin kitchen as part of Sabor in America, a marketing event presented by Symrise March 27 at the Astor Center in New York.
Setting the stage for a discussion of emerging flavors and dishes, Ms. Martinez discussed how the profile of Hispanics is changing in the United States.
Zeroing in on a woman she described as “the acculturated Latina,” Ms. Martinez said food plays a primary role in her life.
A Latin kitchen has a range of tools such as a tortilla press or molcajetes (Mexican mortar and pestle) that may not be found in most other kitchens, Ms. Martinez said.
“In addition, you always have a pantry full of spices and ingredients,” she said. “Pantries of Hispanic kitchens are always filled with meats, peppers, chiles, garlic, onions, rice, corn, cilantro and beans.”
Home eating dynamics also are different when it comes to Hispanic families, Ms. Martinez said.
“Sitting down for meals is essential,” she said. “Latin families sit down almost five times a week. That’s a huge number for today. Non-Latino American families eat together one to two times per week. That means that gathering is so incredibly important, more than double the U.S. family. Multi-generations are doing this. Friends and neighbors are coming together.”
Amid this tradition, change is coming as generations become acculturated.
“There is a kind of juxtaposition of old and new that creates a huge struggle for the working mother,” Ms. Martinez said. “She is trying to prepare traditional flavors. She is trying to time save and trying to keep her children happy by not just focusing on what her mother made.”
Ms. Martinez described two ways in which food in the United States is changing due to Hispanic influence. She said new takes on traditionally American cuisine include “spicy mac and cheese,” which she said has been the most popular search on the web site of The Latin Kitchen. Versions of the recipe have featured ingredients such as jalapeño, habanero or porcini.
Conversely, “new takes on old Latin classics” have become popular, such as chicken ropa vieja (instead of beef, a traditional Cuban recipe), chocolate alfajores (corn starch cookies traditionally made with honey, almonds and spices) and blueberry flan, Ms. Martinez said.
Some of the recipe changes Ms. Martinez cited reflect the adaptation of healthier eating habits by many Latino families. She said Hispanic millennials are snacking away from home in healthier ways, too.
“They still want authentic flavors, but I’m seeing things like tofu jalapeño dip,” she said. “So instead of using sour cream as a base they are using tofu as a base. They are whipping it and adding jalapeño. Plantain chips have become ubiquitous. Avocado with different flavors — bacon, tuna, elevating the snack. How about Yuca (cassava)? This is kind of the next movement. Chonta is Peruvian (palm tree heart). Chonta chips are everywhere in Peru. You’re taking ingredients that are indigenous to these countries and involving them with a slight, slight Hispanic flavor.”
Also propelling the mainstreaming of Hispanic flavors has been the increased popularity of high end chefs with this focus, Ms. Martinez said. She cited Rick Bayless (restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago), Aaron Sanchez (Mestizo in Overland Park, Kas.) and Marcella Valladolid (author of “Fresh Mexico: 100 Simple Recipes for True Mexican Flavor”) as examples of popular television figures who showcase Latino food.
“These are people who are on the cover of Time magazine and are taking over the Food Network,” she said. “These are people out there talking about what is happening with Latin food. They are the brand ambassadors. They are talking about food, and it just happens to be Latin. At the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, the two largest tents were Spain and Mexico. In Colorado! So there is something going on there. That says something about what is happening globally, and that’s where you should be looking for your next inspiration. They’re talking about their food, their flavors. It’s important that you pay attention.”
While Mexico remains central to this movement, other countries have been playing an increasing role, Ms. Martinez said. Peru and Brazil, which sit on the Amazon, are the sources for products such as acai.
“Amazonian foods are huge,” she said. “They are so loaded with vitamins and minerals. These are the places that are the next era of Latin foods.”
Ms. Martinez mentioned Brazilian celebrity chef Alex Atala as a particular proponent of the “superfoods” coming from the Amazon. She described Lima, Peru, as the epicenter of the Latin food scene, noting that a restaurant there was recently named one of the world’s best, a category long dominated by France and Italy. She also cited a Peruvian restaurant in London that recently earned a Michelin star.
She urged the audience to follow the leading chefs of Latin America to stay attuned with food trends.
“You need to be listening to them,” she said. “Remember, 2013 was the ‘year of quinoa.’ Imagine that! Who knew a grain from Peru could have ‘a year!’ But it did.”
Ms. Martinez said certain U.S. companies have been particularly successful tapping into emerging flavors. For example, Azucar Ice Cream Co. in Miami has expanded beyond flavors such as mango and coconut and has moved into flavors such as flan drizzled in caramel syrup; plantano maduro, made with sweet plantains; guarapina, made with sugar cane and pineapple juice; and Abuela Maria, vanilla ice cream blended with cream cheese, guava and Maria biscuits.
She said the latter flavor is the store’s best selling ice cream.
“It shows that something is happening there, that people are more willing to try different concoctions,” she said.
Ms. Martinez went on to elaborate on several of the flavors she said appeared poised for gains ahead:
•Peruvian camu camu (red/purple cherry-like fruit found in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia) — “It has huge vitamin C potential.”
•Acerola cherries (a fruit grown widely in Latin America but produced as far north as Texas) — “They are so delicious and powerful. And they are right here, on the Caribbean.”
•Mole poblano (the most popular version of mole ‘a sauce,’ mole poblano is made with 20 ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate) — “There are opportunities for rich flavors in soups and stews.”
•Cupuacu (fruit from a tropical rainforest tree related to cocoa, found in Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. Its flavor is described as a mix between cocoa and pineapple)
•Pana (breadfruit, a fruit very rich in starch. Before being eaten, pana are roasted, baked, fried or boiled)
“These are flavors that are not known by the American palate but could be embraced by the American palate,” she said. “In cocktails, you see sweet and spicy combinations. They work in non-alcoholic drinks. And there are different ways to do spicy without necessarily banging you over the head with spicy.
“All of these wonderful flavors don’t necessarily need to be marketed as Latin. It’s about being American. It’s about being Latino. Not just one or the other. It’s about both.”