While you may not find all the spices you used at home, being in a new country can spice up your life in a whole new way. Cooking Latin-America-style.
As an international chef who has traveled around the world, I have been able to learn from peers from different cultures. I have developed an understanding of diverse spices and flavors from various parts of the world. I have been exposed to flavors that not many people have had the pleasure of enjoying. I enjoy the culture in each country as I always discover new flavors and have a novel experience at every meal.
While in the United States, I can go to several supermarkets and find different spices such as cayenne pepper, cajun spices, turmeric, cardamon, different varieties of cinnamon, and countless more. Using these spices, I have created dishes that explode with flavor.
Different Usage of Spices
However, in my native country Ecuador, the use of spices is different. Many expats have experienced this, and they tell me that the food is plain for them. But why is that?
If we look at the bigger picture, Central and South America prepare most dishes with minimal spices. If we go to Mexico their food is cooked in a base of cumin, salt, and chilis, either fresh or in powder form.
Compare this to Peru where the use of fresh chili is most common and they use local spices such as cilantro, huacatay (Peruvian black mint), and paico, among others. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and many other countries have their own specific flavors and spices. One of the spices mostly used in Central and South America that have spread around the world is cumin.
Spices Popular in Ecuador
Here in Ecuador, the spices used in most of its traditional dishes are sea salt, cumin, pepper, clove, anise, bay leaf, garlic, and cinnamon.
Another product used in the cuisine is achiote seeds; the achiote seeds are crushed into a thick powder and then mixed with vegetable oil or, in some cases, with lard. The extract is used in food preparation; locals believe that by infusing flavor, a delicate color will come of it.
So why do some find the food too plain?
Relying on Natural Flavors
Compared to other countries or cultures in Central and South America, the local cuisine is mostly based on the natural flavor of the product. The region has unique products like plantains, bananas, papayas, beans fresh and dry, chili, meat, seafood, tomatoes, garlic, and many more, depending on the country that you are in.
The locals prefer natural flavor in their dishes compared to having lots of spice n their dishes. If we go to Colombia, they have a unique spice that they use in their foods that is called huasca. This is a wild herb that gives a special taste to food but mostly enhances the flavor of the product. It is the secret ingredient for Ajiaco dishes.
In Ecuador, in the southern part of the Andes, they have a soup called locro de papas made from a base of potatoes with pork skin and topped with avocado. This dish's secret is the variety of potatoes that are used to make the soup. They just add salt and achiote oil, as the flavor of the potatoes is key to the dish.
Enjoying the Local Culture
From my point of view, as I have traveled around the world and visited many cultures, I prefer not to say that the flavors are dull, rather I simply enjoy the local cuisine to discover a new world of flavors and explore their way of cooking.
Chef Almir da Fonseca whom I learned so much from told me, “We need to open our minds first and then our stomach.” That means, let's see and understand what is out there, let's be adventurers and try new things, and we never know what new flavor or products we can discover.
If you plan to move to any of these countries, keep in mind that some spices will be hard to find. Visit a local supermarket to see what spices and products are available to you. This way you can have a better idea of what you will need to bring the love of cooking to your kitchen. Never let the fear of trying something new get in your way, as you never know what new flavors and experiences you will discover.
Have you discovered different spices in your new home? Share with us how you have used them.
by: Sebastian Vallejo