Regional Culinary Specialties—Caribbean & Latin America
An article by Cassandra Lucca, Let’s Go Editor-in-Chief and Danielle Eisenman, Let’s Go Associate Editor
Though the burrito is a mainstay of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine well-known in the US, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean offers other equally palatable dishes. While of course it’s possible to find authentic samplings of each dish presented below, the tricky thing is possibly finding an equally-authentic version here at home.
1. Coquito, from Puerto Rico
If you enjoy the creamy, sweet richness of eggnog, but aren’t enthusiastic about the raw egg aftertaste, try coquito. But, be warned: this drink is dangerous. It lures you in with coconut milk, coconut cream, and sweetened condensed milk, and comforting Christmas-y flavors, like cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. Coquito, however, is sneakily alcoholic. You might not taste the Puerto Rican rum, but trust us: it’s there. If you’re in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, or Haiti, try their variations on coquito.
2. Moqueca, from Brazil
This fluorescent yellow fish stew comes in two varieties: moqueca capixaba from Espíritu Santo in the Southeast of Brazil, and moqueca baiana in the state of Bahia in the northeast. The flavor of the dish comes from tomatoes, onions, garlic, and coriander being slowly cooked in a terracotta pot with a creamy, indulgent base. The seafood in your moqueca depends on whatever’s freshest where you are—the stew may feature anything from boneless fish to lobster to shark. Moqueca capixaba has been around for at least 300 years, and reflects the blend of Native Brazilian and Portuguese cultures in Espíritu Santo. Bahia’s African heritage informs their moqueca, the less healthy, but (in our opinion) tastier of the two. Instead of extra virgin olive oil, moqueca baiana uses dende oil (palm oil), and is made even creamier with coconut milk and cashew. Cashews are more than just the neglected member of your trail mix: native to northeastern Brazil (“cashew” comes from the indigenous name, acajú), they elevate the stew with nutty indulgence. If you’re aiming for pure decadence, add yucca flakes, and some vinegar to cut into the creaminess.
4. Curry goat, from Jamaica
Curry goat is popular around the Indian subcontinent because Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork. The Caribbean’s South Asian diaspora brought curry goat to the islands, where it has become a popular party dish. At big events, specialists often come in to cook the perfectly tender meat. At its best, curry goat is slowly simmered with an aromatic blend of spices (curry, garlic, ginger, thyme, onions, and hot pepper) until the meat reaches a succulent state of melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Pair your meat with a side of Caribbean rice and beans, and you’re good to go.
5. Dulce de leche, from Argentina
The origins of this sweet paste are disputed, but one story claims that a maid was heating milk and sugar on a stove when she suddenly had to leave the kitchen; when the woman returned, the contents of the pot had turned into what we now know as dulce de leche. Though not identical, it strongly resembles caramel. One common appearance is in alfajores, a popular dessert or snack composed of two shortbread cookies stuck together with dulce de leche or a fruit paste. They are then dusted with powdered sugar, shaved chocolate, or grated coconut.
6. Buñuelos, from Colombia
Popular throughout Latin America and varying widely in toppings and fillings, buñuelos are primarily made of fried dough. In Colombia, the dough surrounds a small-curd white cheese; the ball is then deep-fried and served with different accompaniments. It is typically eaten alongside natillas, a thick, sweet custard resembling flan and made from milk, brown sugar, and cinnamon; another common accompaniment is manjar blanco, a dish made of rice, milk, and sugar. These three dishes, together, are often served at Christmas time, but can be found in grocery stores year round.