COOKING FRESH AND LOCAL HAS TAKEN LATIN AMERICA BY STORM and multicultural blending is the operative phrase. “Borrowings are inevitable in a multicultural pan-Latin context,” says Maricel Presilla, chef, scholar, restaurateur and an authority on the cuisines of Latin America—referring to a region of the world that is touched by pre-Columbian Native American, African, Iberian, Cantonese and Italian influences.

Here, see how three countries—one South American, another Central American and the third Caribbean—are each embracing its cuisine in its own way.

Chile: Rediscovering Its Roots
What’s old is new again in Chile. One way this is surfacing is in a return to the use of indigenous foods and ancestral spices. “We are seeing an interesting presence of our native mushrooms, diguenes, and our native spice,  merquen—a distinctive blend of dried and smoked red chilies, toasted coriander seeds, cumin and salt, still produced by hand by the Mapuche people in the Araucanía region of Chile,” says Chilean food and wine expert Daniel Greve. Today, Chileans are sprinkling merquen on fish, shrimp, poultry, beef, potatoes, cheese and pasta, and mixing it into soups and sauces, tuna salads or tossed salads.

“Contemporary Chilean cuisine and traditional Chilean cuisine are absolutely complementary,” notes Santiago celebrity chef Christian Correa who not only serves as executive chef at Comer y Beber restaurant but also oversees the kitchens of local restaurants Agua, Vendetta, Miguel Torres and Mestizo. Even the menus of these “it” restaurants of Chile are likely to include traditional flavors, “like the sweetness of corn paste, the spicy smokiness of merquen, or our aromatic basil,” he says, plus time-honored dishes like caldillo de congrio (classic fish soup) and the Araucan curanto, layers of pressure-cooked Chilean mussels and clams from southern fjord waters, meat, potatoes and other vegetables covered with nalca (Chilean rhubarb) leaves.

Restaurants draw on the bounty of the rich Pacific waters (hot and chilled seafood soups and ceviche are menu mainstays) and of the subtropical central region, where Chile has a long tradition of cheese production, from cows raised naturally and fed water fresh from the Andes Mountains. Panquehue, Mantecoso and Chanco cheeses are particularly known for their mild, nutty taste and semi-softness. “Cheese is a key ingredient in so many Chilean dishes, including baked South American razor clams topped with melted parmesan cheese, Chupe de Locos (a seafood preparation topped with melted Panquehue) and our most popular sandwich, the Barros Luco (fine slices of grilled beef with melted Matecoso),” notes Renato Poblete of AndesFoods, one of the country’s premium cheese producers.

“Olive oil has been a significant addition to our cuisine, as Chile has become an important player as a country producing olive oils,” says Jose Miguel Cuevas, of Olave, the leading exporter of Chilean olive oils into the U.S. Juan Carlos Fabres Durrels, the president of ChileOliva, the Chilean olive oil organization, as well as the managing director of olive oil producer Soho S.A., says, “The land of famous wines is becoming increasingly known for its prize-winning olive oils.”

Many of Chile’s olive oils have won prizes in international competitions. For example, TerraMater estate’s premium extra virgin oil, Petralia, extracted from the Racimo varietal (unique to Chile), is considered world-class. “Even in this arena, producers are revisiting traditional Chilean flavors,” says Fabres, pointing out that some manufacturers are infusing their extra virgin olive oils with merquen, or lemon and domestic basil.

“Chilean cuisine is about cooking local for local flavors… we don’t water down our cuisine for foreign markets,” says Greve.

Executive Chef Correa points out, “What we are seeing in Chile today, really, is a cuisine that reflects the country, its amalgamation of flavors and ingredients—wonderfully given expression in a plate of charquican (hearty Chilean stew), a dish that’s bold and mild, somewhat spicy and sweet, fresh and savory. Like us. Because we are, essentially, what we eat.”

Panama: A Culinary Merging
“Panamanian cuisine is multicultural, as Panama has been a crossroads for people of diverse origins,” says Chef Elena Hernandez, director of the Academia de Artes Culinarias in Panama City. “Spanish, French, Chinese, Afro-Antillians have all influenced our cuisine.”

Distinctively Panamanian ingredients and flavors include beans, corn, the root vegetables yucca, taro root and yam, as well as culantro, a flavorful herb not to be confused with the less pungent cilantro. It’s used ubiquitously in Caribbean cooking, most noticeably in Panama’s national dish, sancocho (a culantro-infused vegetable and poultry stew).

In modern Panama, traditional cuisine still reigns, but new chefs who have studied abroad are bringing back trends like cooking exclusively with local foods, according to Hernandez. The Panama City restaurant Tinajas touts “authentic regional cuisine prepared with the freshest native ingredients.” Classic fare such as ropa vieja (spicy, shredded beef over rice), carimañolas (yucca rolls stuffed with meat), Corvina ceviche with pixbae tomatoes and cilantro, Creole-style sea bass and breaded crayfish with coconut highlight the menu.

Because of the immigration of thousands of laborers to build the canal, Panama City is home to Greek, Italian, Spanish, French and Chinese restaurants. “Panamanians are fond of dim sum for brunch,” says Matthew Parker, historian and author of Panama Fever. In his view, the best “new Panamanian” restaurant in the city is Barandas at the Bristol Hotel, where renowned chef Cuquita Arias has created dishes that bring together the best of local ingredients with culinary influences from the region’s immigrant populations. Updated traditional recipes include plantain won tons, sea bass in tamarind sauce, maize soup, grouper in ginger and chicken roasted in pumpkin seeds.  

In Brooklyn, N.Y., Kelso Dining is introducing diners to the world of Afro-Panamanian cooking, incorporating Haitian, Trinidadian, Jamaican and Dominican culinary influences into indigenous Central American Indian elements—a tantalizing blend that came about when immigrants from the West Indies arrived to work on the canal and in the banana plantations. Fare includes Colombian-like arepas (fried or baked cornmeal that is sometimes stuffed) drizzled with searing green hot sauce featuring the Caribbean’s Scotch bonnet peppers; liver and onions zapped with Jamaican-style curry.

Dominican Republic: A Truly Caribbean Cuisine
“Dominicans prefer their food as close to the traditional standard as possible,” says Clara Gonzalez, co-author of Aunt Clara’s Dominican Cookbook, with “traditional” firmly entrenched in a blending of all the Hispanic Caribbean cuisines. “The cuisines of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic [each a combination of indigenous and Iberian flavors] have more in common than not,” she says.

“In the Hispanic Caribbean, where there’s a stronger Iberian influence than an indigenous one, the flavor palate is less spicy than other Latin-American cuisines because bolder native foods, like chilies, are used sparingly,” says Presilla.

The Dominican Republic finds national identity in the traditional soup sancocho; yet, not surprisingly, so does Puerto Rico. “The Dominican and Puerto Rican sancochos—which are tinted red by achiote and a taste of cilantro and culantro—as well as Cuban ajiaco [stew], are three siblings born of the marriage of the Taíno Indian pepperpot and the Castilian olla podrida [stew],” notes Presilla.

“Dominicans also borrowed mofongo [garlic mashed plantains] from Puerto Ricans,” points out Ramona Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York.

While traditional cuisine has mostly maintained its flavor, what’s changed in the Dominican home is availability of time and, consequently, cooking methods. “We don’t use wood-burning stoves anymore so dishes that require slow cooking, like berenjena asada [grilled eggplant] or maiz caquiao [creamy corn] that have been adapted to gas stove cooking won’t have the exact same flavor,” Gonzalez points out.

In restaurants—from the capital city of Santo Domingo to the Dominican enclaves in New Jersey and New York City—chefs are sticking to time-honored dishes and conventions. D’Classico restaurant’s head chef, Nelson Roman, uses a mortar and pestle to mash plantains into a thick mixture. “It makes D’Classico’s mofongo, the house specialty, taste better than any in Manhattan’s Dominican neighborhoods,” says Erika Cuesto, cook and food purchaser of the Paterson, N.J. establishment.  There are dozens of varieties of the Dominican Republic’s signature dish, with various combinations of fish, meat, garlic, onion or olive oil. “Mofongo has evolved into a personalized dish much like pizza,” explains Jocelyn Allen, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies and Research and Development, based in Paterson.  

According to Gonzalez, Dominicans get acquainted with new cuisines but remain faithful to the dishes they ate at home as children. “It is not rare to find tostones [fried plantains], for example, offered at Chinese restaurants. Having an element of our cuisine on the menu, I suppose, brings us some measure of comfort,” she says. “It links the unknown to the familiar.”

Lynn Santa Lucia’s writing has appeared in Food Arts and Yoga Journal.