Playing with Picante

By Jeremy Booth

Sin título

If someone asks you “What do you picture when you think latino food?” you may conjure up images of tear-inducing sauces of varying shades of red-orange and booger-beckoning chiles. If this happens to you, then you’re making the mistake of generalizing Mexican food(or what Americans know as Mexican food thanks to Taco Bell and slightly less unflattering places like Don Pancho’s) across all of Latin America’s reaches. I urge you to proceed with caution: Most places south of the Rio Grande may disappoint you with tame levels of heat.

Do not confuse this with lack of flavor. Guatemala treated me the best damn pork preparation I’ve had to date (porcine liver and brains), and my current stay in Colombia has opened me to worldwide should-be culinary staples like Mote de Queso and Arroz de Coco. However, all in all, the typical plates in these countries are void of heat. In fact, anything approaching spicy can send a Colombian on the coast running for a glass of water. At my first host family’s house I made the mistake of not considering black pepper spicy, which in turn sent a host cousin screaming for water when she ate my meatloaf.

See what I mean?

In my current host-family situation, I realized early on that I lived with a woman whose comida horizons reached a little further. She sometimes served plates with fresh herbs, she had a large bottle of olive oil stove side, her salsa béchamel was technically perfect and as good as I had ever had. But after a couple months, despite obvious technical skill and a natural instinct for flavors, I noticed a limited rotation of plates. Turns out the other resident, her 19 year old son, is so picky that she couldn’t have fun experimenting with the techniques she learned years ago in culinary school.

My window of opportunity opened, and after lining up the 20+ spices/herbs/sauces on my designated shelf, I slowly began introducing each one. Lorena insists that every single one is spicy to some degree (not true, dill is there), and at first, refused to touch anything red. Except, of course, for smoked paprika, which I have to request from visitors from the States after I introduced it to her. She also uses Garam Masala, curry powder, and a Jamaican spice mixture among others.

“I’ve always liked exotic flavors, and these give a unique touch that you can’t get elsewhere.”

In recent months she has opened up a bit more, even going as far as adding Sriracha to a pasta dish. While this resulted in her giving me the entire pot of now “inedible” food, I commended her on trying something different.

This adventurousness is not new, but rather being revisited after years of safe yet boring cooking for her son. But as an endless wave of South American bikers continues through our front door, she has expanded her spice rack in order to give her guests something unique.

“It opens them up to a new culture,” she says. “It’s a different experience.”

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