The diverse flavors of Latin American cuisine embody a mix of indigenous, African and European influences. Latin American cooking uses fresh foods available to each region such as fish and other seafood, beef, avocados, beans, chili peppers, corn, tomatoes, rice and tropical fruits. The trans-Atlantic slave trade further expanded Latin American cuisine. Enslaved Africans brought new ingredients and cooking techniques into Latin American culture. While many Latin American foods use the same basic ingredients, distinct regional variations are evident. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, Latin American cuisine “varies from region to region, from town to town, and from family to family.”
Sofrito sauce is one of the most important seasonings of Latin American cuisine. Each cook is said to have her own version of sofrito. Some sofritos have a red sweet pepper and tomato base while others have a green pepper and herb base. Latin American sofrito originated from the Spanish version which was made with sweet tomatoes and complimentary spices. In parts of the Caribbean, sofrito consists of raw vegetables such garlic, onion, mild peppers and culantro or cilantro leaves. The ingredients are pureed and will keep for several months if refrigerated. Some versions of sofrito are cooked before pureeing. Cooking reduces the shelf life of the sauce. Sofritos are added to meat, rice, vegetables, beans and anything else that requires extra flavoring.
Empanadas are meat- or cheese-filled turnover pies popular throughout Latin America. The fillings, crusts and cooking methods vary tremendously throughout the region. Fillings range from ground beef cooked with sofrito, olives and soy sauce, to shredded pork mixed with seasoning, boiled egg and capers. Chilean empanadas have a flour crust and are baked instead of fried. Baked Argentinean empanadas are smaller than most other Latin American empanadas. Fried Colombian empanadas include rice as a filling and have a flour pastry. Venezuelan empanadas have a crust made of corn meal or “masa” and are fried in oil.
Flan, also known as “crème caramel” or “caramel custard,” is a favorite dessert among Latin Americans. Like sofrito and empanadas, flan recipes vary widely from region to region. Most flan recipes call for cooking sugar into a caramel sauce and coating a dish with the caramel. The custard is poured over the caramel and cooked in a moist oven. To serve the chilled flan, the chef inverts it and the caramel at the bottom coats the custard. Some recipes use only milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Others use heavy cream or half and half or tins of evaporated and condensed milk in place of milk. Further variation adds coconut milk or cocoa powder to the custard for flavored flan. Flan is almost always served for dessert at Christmas and Easter dinners in Latin America.