Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Creole Cuisine Emerges

I thought it fitting that my first real blog post should be about the Latin American people and Creole cuisine, because Latin America is a region of great cultural diversity. However, the essence is anchored in the cultures and histories of three races: Indian (early inhabitants of the Americas), Hispanic (settlers from both Spain and Portugal), and African (most of whom arrived as slaves brought by the Portuguese).

Our history begins with the landing of Christopher Columbus on the Hispaniola in 1492. He came looking for spices but he found instead a variety of foods never seen before. The Spaniards on their return trips to Europe took with them corn (maize), potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, avocadoes, squash, sweet potatoes, peanuts, beans, cassava, chocolate, chocolate, pineapples, papayas, vanilla, and turkey.

When Columbus came back to the New World on his second trip he brought back vegetable seeds, wheat, chickpeas, sugar cane, onions, garlic, as well as cattle and rice, all of which were to become staple foods of the Americas. The mixing of the two cultures began because the Spaniards came without their women and were not adept at kitchen activities; they had to depend on the Indian women to prepare their food and to father their children. Scholars are not in agreement as to which came first, the Creole race or the Creole cuisine.

In the beginning the cuisine was rather rudimentary. The diet of the Indian population was mainly vegetarian with only occasional fish or wild game. The Indians seemed to have had a folk wisdom about dietary needs that we now recognize, thanks to scientific research. In order to supplement the lack of protein and other nutrients in maize, the Incas planted kidney beans in the same fields with maize, while the Aztecs grew tomatoes instead. This seemed to help regenerate the soil, in addition to providing needed nutrients. Along with corn the Indians ate peppers, beans, tomatoes and squash to achieve a balanced diet. Unfortunately, while the Spanish adopted many of the local foods they rejected some foods that were essential to the Indian diet and destroyed fields of quinoa of the Incas and amaranth of the Aztecs, mainly to replace them with the less nourishing wheat.

When the Spaniard women arrived in the 17th century the Creole cuisine really flourished. By this time some of the American ingredients in Europe had already began the process of “creolization.” The Spanish women brought sofrito, the perfect Creole sauce made with the Spanish onions and garlic, sautéed in olive oil, and the Indian tomatoes and peppers. This condiment seasons just about every savory dish in the Latin cuisine. The Spanish women also brought back the cacao beans, which the Spanish had learned how to turn into one of the most delicious drinks, hot chocolate, which became a favorite of colonial hostesses and eventually of the masses.

In the next post I will talk about the Portuguese experience.

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