Spain and Latin America

Text by Maricel E. Presilla ©2008

Spain and Latin America are separated by the Atlantic Ocean as well as a turbulent history of conquest and resistance. Yet they are also linked by more than five hundred years of intermingling and exchange.

Cultural mixing is a rather abstract and academic term for the rich dialog that took place among peoples of extremely different temperament and experience: Spaniards from all regions of the Iberian peninsula, and native Americans who ranged from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers, and from loosely-organized tribal societies to highly-stratified, politically-unified empires like the Inca and the Aztecs. Indeed the Latin American world would soon include actors from every other continent, Africans brought in as slaves as well as Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern immigrants. The contacts among these people left no one untouched and no part of the world unchanged.

At first Spain’s conquest brought it wealth and inflated its sense of national pride. Yet the silver and gold that flowed across the Atlantic in wooden ships actually led Spain to over-reach, over-spend and bankrupt itself. Spain could not merely use the Americas to fulfill its dreams, instead the Americas presented a challenge imperial Spain was unable to meet. Similarly the proud Spanish at first disdained the humble products of the Americas. Spain’s role as conqueror left its people ambivalent as to how much they should embrace and learn from their country’s colonies and their people, whom many Spaniards considered inferior. Emblematic New World crops like cacao took Spain by storm in the seventeenth century, but staples like tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, were slower to make an impact. In the end, though, these New World products took center stage in Spanish cuisine.

In contrast, the hybrid people of Latin America, the descendants of Spaniards, native Americans, and world immigrants (the people we call today criollos), flexibly and creatively absorbed the culinary legacy of Spain, its crops, and medieval cooking techniques like the sofrito (cooking sauce) and the adobo (marinade) and made them their own. (Even today, young Latin American chefs make the pilgrimage to restaurants like elBulli and Arzak to learn from the masters of Spanish new cuisine and on their return many apply what they have learned to their own criollo cooking.) Spain at first resisted, and then, without quite admitting it, gave in to the influence of its colonies. Latin America mixed, blended, and preserved—through centuries of both reverence and experiment.

After the nineteenth century wars of independence, colonial Latin America fractured into Spanish-speaking nation states that were neither a copy of the Spain the conquistadors left behind nor an untouched continuation of its pre-Colombian past; their cuisines, a tasty amalgam of what came in Spanish ships, the foods of the land, and the contributions of transplanted people from other continents.

I think of Latin America as the world’s first great laboratory of intercontinental culinary fusion. With Spanish ships and soldiers came cooks with memories of a world built on earlier fusions of Christian (Iberian and Pan-European), Muslim, and Jewish cooking traditions. How their knowledge was grafted onto the cooking traditions of the New World and those of other people from around the world is a fascinating saga of gains and losses. What resulted are some of the most exciting cuisines in the world, alive with vivid flavors and aromas, way more complex than the cooking of any of their progenitors.

With Spanish cooks came Spanish farmers and ranchers whose mission was to transform the land into a vision of old Spain. And so animals and plants that belonged to specific ecological niches--cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep, goats, rice, sugar cane, wheat, legumes, garden vegetables, grapevines, olive saplings—were imposed on societies that had no knowledge of invasive animal husbandry nor of crops that required vast amounts of land to grow and prosper.

Each Old World introduction, particularly monocultures like sugar cane, required different farming techniques and new systems of land organization that were bound to alter the landscape and the fabric of the new colonial society. It is a triumph of the human spirit that the vanquished and enslaved people who were herded together on great plantations still continued to grow their own food as much as possible by their ancient, sustainable systems.

Through sheer force of will, the Spanish were determined to turn the Americas into a new Spain, and to some extent they succeeded. Yet, the Americas also conquered the Spanish. Finding that nature always imposes limits, the colonists often had to adapt and make do with what they learned from the vanquished peoples. Native crops like yuca, corn and potatoes, and agricultural techniques like polyculture (a system by which several food plants can grow together in a small space) survived and sometimes even prevailed. It was a form of riches greater in the long run than all the gold and silver of New Spain and Peru.

We Latin Americans have helped to preserve the past of Spain. In our traditional cooking, Spaniards have the chance to recover foodways and ingredients that have been lost in the peninsula—for example, the use of cilantro in cooking and the aromatic spices that once scented sweets and savories in Spain. But it has always amazed me how little of Latin America’s cuisines has been incorporated into modern Spanish cooking. Whereas brilliant Spanish chefs dabble with science and borrow freely from French and Asian cooking to revamp traditional Spanish cuisine, they seem willfully to neglect thrilling ingredients like the great chiles and ajíes of Mexico and the Andes and the many flavorful Latin permutations of very old and basic Spanish techniques like the adobo and the sofrito.

It remains to be seen if the great wave of Latin American immigrants that is flooding all regions of Spain-- the Ecuadorian farmers who till the soil in Murcia, the Peruvian fishermen who ply the cold waters of Galicia, the Dominican housekeepers in Madrid-- will have the same culinary impact as did the great process of Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas. It’s a positive sign that Latin ingredients are no longer curiosities to be found only in Spanish Ultramarinos stores, but can be bought in large supermarkets catering to Latin immigrants all over Spain.

It would be unfortunate if the stigma attached to poor immigrants was attached to their foods to make them less appealing, less worthy of being showcased in an upscale modern Spanish menu, thus repeating a pattern of inequality born of conquest that once separated criollos and peninsulares (pure Spaniards). It’s my hope that in modern Spain those who remained at home and those who ventured across the seas to blend with others will have a chance to come together again as long lost relations. Together, they have a chance to create the kind of exceptional and exciting Pan-Iberoamerican food that can make us all proud.

Maricel PresillaMaricel Presilla
MARICEL E. PRESILLA is a chef, author, and culinary historian specializing in the cuisines of Latin America and Spain. She is the chef/owner of Zafra and Cucharamama restaurants in Hoboken, NJ, which specialize in traditional Pan-Latin cooking. Chef Presilla, who holds a doctorate in Spanish history, is also the author of The New Taste of Chocolate and a forthcoming, comprehensive book on the culinary traditions of 21 Latin American countries. (Weehawken, NJ)

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