Last week while we were visiting with friends in Siesta Key, Fla., we decided to eat out at a Latin restaurant.
"What's Latin?" one friend asked. "Mexican?"
Well, not really.
"There is a Peruvian restaurant nearby call Javier," another friend offered. "Is Peruvian Latin?"
Well, sort of.
The official language of the ancient Roman Empire, Latin was spread to many different countries in Europe: Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. These languages combined with local dialects to form what are the Romance languages of today: Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Inhabits of those countries in Roman times were called Latin.
When these countries settled the American continents, they brought their languages with them, primarily Spanish and Portuguese. The conquered areas consequently became known as Latin America. Today, we rarely associate them with the Latin language but consider Latin America anything south of the Rio Grande - Central and South America, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay, to name a few.
Latin American cuisine refers to typical foods, beverages and cooking styles common to the food and cultures of these countries in Latin America. Latin America is expansive and diverse, but one thing is for certain: Its food is robust, flavorful, always inventive and extremely popular today.
This richness is no surprise considering Latin cuisine pulls from a colorful cultural history - from the Mayans and Aztecs to European colonizers to modern global transplants - and relies on a spectrum of ingredients. Long before the Europeans discovered South America, the native populations knew how to cultivate an incredible array of plants. They developed elaborate irrigation systems, and terraced the steep Andes Mountains. They grew corn, lima beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chile peppers, avocados, peanuts and chocolate, items that are today staples of all foods Latin. All Latin cuisines were also defined by the parent country, then adjusted to the local products and resources available.
Although each country has its own endless traditional dishes that spotlight the area's fresh food, unique agriculture, special recipes and techniques, there are several characteristics that are typical when we say "Latin American cuisine," as well as items we see over and over.
These treats are what make Latin American food so much fun to explore. Here is a guide. This is a small sample of its vast offerings to whet your appetite for all things deliciously Latino.
Peppers of all kinds - Chili peppers: Serrano, jalapeno, aji roja and habanero; all colors but mostly hot. Sweet peppers: Green or yellow or orange, but mostly red.
We ate out at Javier's. I ordered the shrimp ceviche as an appetizer, in which the acid of orange, lemon and tomato juice had cooked the raw fish. It was savory but not spicy and the shrimp was very tender. As an entre I had the tapas sampler.
You can experience some Latin cuisine at the 22nd annual Celebrity Chef Dinner. This year they "go Latin" at the Holiday Inn on April 7. Invitations are available at the chamber or by calling 774-7768.
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