Interview: Sandra A. Gutierrez on Latin American Street Food
From tamales to tacos, food on a stick to ceviches, and empanadas to desserts, Sandra A. Gutierrez’s Latin American Street Food: The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches, and Roadside Stands from Mexico to Argentina takes cooks on a tasting tour of the most popular and delicious culinary finds of twenty Latin American countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil, translating them into 150 easy recipes for the home kitchen. These exciting, delectable, and accessible foods are sure to satisfy everyone. Watch the book trailer! See upcoming events—from cooking classes to book signings—listed on her author page.
In the following interview, Gutierrez discusses how you can bring the fun and flavor Latin American street food into your own kitchen.
Q: Just what is street food?
A: I define street food as any edible offering sold on the streets of the world—from a bowl of noodles in Thailand, to a pretzel loaded with mustard in Manhattan, to a taco stuffed with juicy goat in Mexico. When it comes to Latin America, street food is a way of life and it could be as simple as an orange sprinkled with chile and ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds), to a hefty pork sandwich garnished with pickled onions, or a bowl of steamy beef stew redolent of spices, or a tiny hand-held pie filled with fruit jam. Latin American street food encompasses a huge selection of satisfying, vibrant, tempting, and tasty foods. You’ll find amazing food offerings on roadside stands, or alongside beautiful beaches, on small carts on any street corner, or at market stalls, sold at the entrance of sports stadiums, schools, and universities, and those sold during festivals and fairs.
Q: You grew up in Guatemala, and there are several dishes from your home country represented here. What are some of your favorites?
A: One of the best things about growing up in Guatemala was the accessibility of wonderful, fresh, fun, and authentic street food. I had a great time picking my favorites and putting them all in this book. For example, I included a beet salad that’s called an “enchilada,” so colorful and originally Guatemalan, that it will undoubtedly surprise many cooks because it doesn’t resemble the Mexican rolled tortillas by the same name. My mouth waters just thinking about it! I love that recipe because it translates perfectly into my everyday menu. Of course, I had to include the whimsical Tostadas de Feria, which are thin and crispy tortilla bases topped with beans, avocado sauce, or tomato sauce and then sprinkled with cheese (they’re a mix between a tostada and a nacho and make the perfect midday snack). And every Guatemalan recognizes the two famous hot dogs I included in this book. I also included my husband’s favorite cookie, that’s studded with sesame seeds, and my favorite sweet empanada (hand-held pie), filled with milk custard.
Q: How many Latin American countries are represented in the book, and how did you gather the recipes?
A: I put together recipes from twenty Latin American countries. The journey for gathering the recipes for my books has been a very interesting one. First, of course, I traveled extensively throughout the years I lived in Latin America. There’s no better research than the one you can taste. I’ve also taken every opportunity to eat wherever authentic Latin American street food is sold in the places I visit here in the United States. Also, I am an exhaustive researcher and as a food historian, I do a lot of digging around for recipes. I have many friends (both here in the United States and throughout Latin America) who were eager to help me in my investigation and who had no problem going out onto the streets and corroborating my findings or sharing with me the new trends in the streets of the towns and cities where they now live or grew up. People love to talk about food and during my tour for my first book, The New Southern-Latino Table, I was lucky to meet many Latin Americans eager to answer my questions about food in their countries—most of whom had quite a few memories of dishes eaten in the streets. And you wouldn’t believe how many new friends I’ve made through Facebook who sent me photos and who shared information about the food on the streets where they live.
Q: In your opinion, how authentic is the Latin American street food that is available in the United States?
A: Very authentic, as long as you’re eating straightforward Latin American cuisine that hasn’t gone through a new transformation—ever heard of Korean tacos? However, if you go to Miami and eat a Cuban ham croquette, or papas rellenas (stuffed potato balls), you’ll be eating authentic Latin food. And if you go to Austin, you’ll find the most authentic tacos and Mexican offerings. I have eaten Venezuelan arepas in Raleigh, Mexican Tacos de Lengua in Charlotte, Argentinean chorizo-stuffed buns in Manhattan, Puerto Rican Mofongo in Miami, Peruvian ceviche in Portland, Paletas in Los Angeles, and so many other foods that are as authentic when eaten here in the United States as they are in their countries of origin. To me, there’s nothing better than to eat for a purpose and I always tell myself that research calories don’t count.
Q: You’ve been known to say that “Mexico is the front door to Latin American cuisine.” Why?
A: There are twenty-one very diverse cuisines represented in the Latin territory, and no two are alike. Therefore, I picture Latin American cuisine as a large house. Given that people recognize and are comfortable with the flavors of Mexico, it becomes the front door through which all of the other different cuisines can be introduced. Once you enter, you can’t help but notice the other twenty beautiful and very different rooms in the house. Each one of them is worth visiting, eating in, and discovering. Whenever I teach a class on Latin American cookery, I always include one or two familiar Mexican offerings as a way to ease students into trying the other delicious food that Latin America has to offer. Folks invariably become enamored of the new dishes and want to taste even more. When I say “Latin American cuisine” I mean the entirety of flavors, recipes, cultural intonations, and delicacies that come together with contributions from many peoples. It’s a cornucopia of tasty food and it’s magnificent. Believe me: if you love Mexican cuisine, you’ll surely be both surprised and pleased with what the rest of the Latin countries have to offer. My books are my way of saying: “Come on in, mi casa es su casa.” (My home is your home).
Q: Do you find that people have misconceptions about Latin American street food? If so, what is the biggest myth that you hope to dispel?
A: Yes, of course. There are many stereotypes and I tackle a lot of them in my book. The first one is that all Latin Americans eat tacos! We don’t—although I do make a point in my book as to why we all should, but you’ll need to read it to find out why I say that. The second one is that it’s all unhealthy and that’s not true. You know that saying that says that “man does not live by bread alone?” Well, the same goes for street food: woman does not live by fried dough alone, either. You’ll find plenty of healthy and refreshing dishes on the streets of Latin America. The third is that people assume that all of our street foods are spicy-hot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of our cuisines don’t even feature chiles—ever. One thing is true of Latin Americans though: we have a keen sense of humor and we find many of these stereotypes very funny.
Q: What are some of the advantages to making street food at home?
A: First of all, it’s fun to make. I mean, what’s not fun about dressing a sandwich with all sorts of condiments, until it becomes a tower of goodness? You have to figure out how to eat it without wearing it, but that’s another story. One of my favorite things about street food is that so much of it can be prepared in advance—which not only makes it easy for entertaining but also makes it a cinch to put dinner on the table every day. I just love to cook like that! Think of it—if you can make the different components ahead of time, all you have to do is set everything out on the counter and assemble your meals. In fact, street food allows for everyone to embellish their final dish as they want so that if a cook hates tomatoes in her sandwich, she can skip them, but if another loves cheese, he can mound it onto his taco to his heart’s content.
Q: Some of your readers will be surprised to learn that hot dogs are as popular in the streets of Latin America as they are in the United Sates. Tell us about some of the myriad ways that they might be served and garnished south of the border.
A: Hot dogs in Latin America go through very interesting and succulent transformations. In Guatemala and in Venezuela, they’re smothered with avocado, mayonnaise, and toppings such as sauerkraut and hot sauce. In Panama, you’ll find them served with thin, crispy, fried potatoes and cheese. In Chile, you’ll find many variations, some covered with avocado, and others drenched in a sweet and sour sauce—sort of a remoulade—and with all sorts of interesting toppings. In Mexico, you’ll find them wrapped in bacon and topped with jalapeños. In Argentina, they’re made with all sorts of sausages and topped with chimichurri. The buns also vary. Some countries use the typical hot dog bun, but there are other places where hot dogs are wrapped in tortillas, or crusty rolls.
Q: What are some of the lighter and healthier street food options that are still big on authentic Latin American flavor?
A: I think this is going to surprise my readers the most, because the plethora of healthy food in the streets of Latin America is endless. From fruit smoothies, to fat-free ceviches such as a Peruvian Flounder Ceviche with Corn Nuts or the Kick-in-the-Pants-Spicy Shrimp in Chile-Lime Dressing, you’ll find many delicious, satisfying, and figure-friendly dishes. I included many salads, of course, such as the Orange Salad with Red Onions and Pepitas or the Fruit Macedonia—a delicious tropical fruit salad. However, you’ll also find healthy tacos such as the Carne Asada Tacos and the Beef and Radish Soft Tacos, soups like the Beef and Vegetable Stew called “cocido,” and many other healthy choices. All of them are authentic, and all of them pack a whole lot of delicious flavor.
Q: Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate the many options that you’ve offered them in Latin American Street Food. Which dishes would you suggest that they try first?
A: This is another great thing about Latin American food in general and the streets offer many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free foods too. Vegetarian recipes abound in my book. I go crazy over my recipe aptly called “crazy corn” or Elotes Locos and the Mexican corn stew called Esquites, both of which offer the classic combination of corn, crema, and cheese. I also love the Argentinean pizza and the empanadas filled with tomatoes, cheese, and basil, as well as the Cheese and Poblano Quesadillas, and the Honduran Breakfast Wraps. There are too many vegetarian recipes to mention here. I also offer suggestions on how to transform some of the recipes into vegetarian offerings. As for vegan dishes, there are many options such as the Mango Salad, Salvadorian “pupusas,” Mexican paletas (popsicles), amazing beverages such as the rice and almond drink called Horchata, which actually looks like milk, and many others. One of my favorite vegan dishes is the Central American Rice and Beans. Gluten-free foods include all of the tacos made with corn tortillas, the arepas—which are the Venezuelan and Colombian flatbreads, yuca fries, and many of the soups and stews in this book.
Q: You include an outstanding chapter on Condiments, Toppings, and Side Dishes. Which three selections from this chapter could serve to jazz up a humble dish like a rotisserie chicken or a plate of beans and rice?
A: I love this question! All of these toppings can be mixed and matched. To tell you the truth, chicken or rice and beans are only the beginning! In fact, you can use all of these condiments as part of your everyday meals. You can dress plain, grilled chicken breast (or fish or steak or shrimp or eggs—even tofu!) with the Avocado-Tomatillo Taco Truck Sauce, or the Roasted Tomato Sauce and it will taste just as heavenly as it will with the Yucatan Pickled Onions or with the Sweet Red Chile Sauce. Just a dollop of the Red Garlic Sauce or of my friend Francisco’s Chimichurri will be enough to take an average dish and send it over the top. This was by far my favorite chapter to write because each one of these “extras” allows cooks to make the recipes all their own.
Q: How about dessert? What do you like to have on hand for those of us with a sweet tooth?
A: Well, the desserts here are so awesome that you could make a whole meal out of them. How about we start with fluffy, Giant Meringues, and then work up an appetite for Argentinean Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies, and finish up with great ice creams or fried dough—Churros with Chocolate! I like to say that Latin America is a virtual Sugarland and the desserts chapter won’t disappoint.
Q: You are not only a food writer but you are also a culinary instructor. How did your teaching impact the way you wrote this book?
A: I have taught thousands of cooks for the past two decades and I’ve learned that cooks today are looking for practical recipes that work every time. Therefore, I’ve peppered the pages of this book with many of my cooking tips. I point out the recipes that can be completely made ahead of time and frozen, and then give instructions on how to thaw and re-heat them. I also include tips on how to fry food efficiently, and how to keep food warm safely. I give advice as to how long dishes will last if made ahead of time so that readers can cook their recipes by stages and also suggest which recipes can be made quickly, start to finish, with just a few ingredients. I also include tips for entertaining with the recipes in this book. Most importantly, every recipe is developed in a practical way and tested multiple times to ensure that cooks of every level can understand and follow them with success. I also feature step-by-step photos for some of the recipes in this book. I always have my students in mind when I write a book.
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