How to Build an Ethnic Pantry: Latin American


To celebrate the many different types of cuisines around the world, we’ve created a mini-series, “How to Build an Ethnic Pantry,” that offers some advice on the kinds of ingredients every cook should have when they make a particular cultural dish. We also asked grocery store owners and chefs for suggestions and what they think makes their food unique. Check out what ingredients fill Latin American kitchens throughout the world...

Interested in making Latin American cuisine but don't know what ingredients you need?

Don't worry! The folks at Mi Tierra Supermarket in Jackson Heights were kind enough to share some knowledge this week. Located on 85th Street and Roosevelt Avenue as well as on Northern Blvd and 81st Street, Mi Tierra is the hub of Latin American grocery shopping. The market spans half of a block and caters to a predominately Mexican customer base. But all other Latin Americans also visit the store regularly and navigate through the long line of shelves in order to get the products they need to whip up a tasty traditional dish.

Ericka Ramirez and Jackie Hernandez, sales counter associates at Mi Tierra, offered some insight into what every aspiring Latin-American-loving chef should have in his or her pantry:

1. Rice 2. Salt 3. Beans 4. Cilantro 5. Onions 6. Peppers 7. Picante (chilies or hot sauce) 8. Sliced Beef 9. Salad (one that consists of mostly lettuce) 10. Adobo (for seasoning meats and vegetables)

All of these ingredients, they said, are crucial to Latin American cuisine. Some, if not all, are heavily found in traditional foods such as mole, a type of sauce used in Mexican cuisine that consists of one or more kinds of pepper, and guacamole. Customers also use some of these ingredients to make quesadillas, which are flattened tortilla sandwiches filled with cheese and other kinds of ingredients. Others may use ingredients like salt, cilantro and onions to make pozolé, a Mexican pork and hominy stew that has been known to cure hangovers.

Ramirez said what makes Latin American cuisine particularly unique is its focus on flavor. Much of that, she pointed out, obviously comes from the ingredients (some of which are listed above), which help highlight the savor of Latin American food.

“Everything has to do with flavor,” she said. “That’s why it’s hard for some people to copy our food.”

Photos : Julien H and Craig Dugas

Cuchi-what? The Puerto Rican Way to Fry Everything

Get ready New York City! The National Puerto Rican Day Parade is happening this Sunday in honor of the over 8 million Puerto Ricans inhabiting NYC and "la isla del encanto," Puerto Rico. Before Sunday, however, you can spot Latin pride all over the city and in honor if this prideful occasion we're featuring some Latin highlights and photos from one of the largest spots in Harlem- Spanish Harlem. Here's our first feature...

Since moving to New York, it has been my personal mission as a self-proclaimed foodie to really expand my taste buds and dive into the Big Apple's culinary explosion, head first. However, with a dwindling bank account, it can be difficult to navigate the waters without first having the money to throw down. With that said, when I found a restaurant where I can shell out $1.50 for some bacalao (codfish fritters), both my stomach and wallet were very, very happy.

Cuchifritos Frituras, directly east of the Lexington Avenue subway at 116th street has been serving traditional Latin American fare for years, and is one of the most famous spots for this Puerto Rican fried food phenomenon. But what in the world exactly is a cuchifrito? Often described as Puerto Rican soul food, cuchifritos are simply fried food and most traditionally, pork. Cuchi, short for cochino, translates to pig, whereas frito describes something fried. Put it all together and you've got fried goodness, served with love, for a total bargain of the price.

In Spain, cuchifritos were typically found near Castilla-La Mancha, the same region of Spain where Don Quixote, the famous novel by Miguel De Cervantes, takes place. Historically, when people had to sustain themselves by living and eating off of the animals they had, every piece of the pig was used to concoct some dish. Years later, Cuchifritos is keeping that same tradition alive by creating dishes such as chicharron (fried pork skin), morcilla (blood sausages) and pigs ears and tongue.

Cuchifritos in Spanish Harlem, off of 116th Street may perhaps be one of the most famous spots for people to bask in the tradition of eating cuchifritos, which for many, brings them back to memories of their childhood. Whether it be your first time tasting crackling pork skin or your twentieth, the experience to be had at Cuchifritos is nothing short of remarkable.

Before even entering the restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat. Perhaps the best part about Cuchifritos is the flashing neon sign hanging above the door.  With that and the fact that I was being served by an older gentleman wearing a candy striper uniform reminiscent of an amusement park vendor, I truly felt like I was being transported to an unexpected part of New York I had yet to discover. I began my culinary journey with a small parcha refresco naturale, a passion fruit-flavored juice that was exceedingly tart and sweet, the perfect thirst quencher on a balmy NYC afternoon.

Instead of browsing through pages of a menu at Cuchifritos, all the different options for food are layered and enclosed in a small, glass case that people line up and practically glue their faces to in order to decide what to eat. At first glance, it's overwhelming, especially if you find yourself a bit clueless looking at all the various tubs of fried food, vegetables, plantains and the like. Let's just say, it was quite the display.

Growing up in an Italian household where I ate platefuls of arancini - traditional Italian fried rice balls filled with meat -  I couldn't resist trying the papas rellenas, fried potato balls stuffed with meat at Cuchifritos. The golden-brown, oval shaped, were gleefully oversize in portion and rich and comforting in taste. The crunchy potato "crust" melted in my mouth and the butteriness cut through the decadent, homey taste of the beef. After devouring a full one, I was absolutely full, but like I always do, I pushed through the pain, convincing myself I had to try a few more things.

The fried cod fish fritters ($1.50, people!) were surprisingly light, flakey and mild in flavor while the maduros, or sweet plantains, were dark brown in color, super-ripe in texture and beyond flavorful (and sweet), making for the perfect "dessert" for my adventure in cuchifritos. Something I distinctly noticed were the different options for plantains on the menu - whether stuffed with meat (pionono relleno) or softened and ground with garlic and chicarrones (monfongo al pilon), plantains seemed to be a classic for all cuchifritos lovers.

My first experience at Cuchifritos was a very rustic one - though I wasn't able to try everything I wanted to on the menu (next time, blood sausage!), it was a unique and tasty first trip. While I'm already planning my return, I can't help but urge those who haven't tried Cuchifritos, to hop on the uptown 6 and give it a try. Fried pork skin and coconut juice is literally calling your name.

Photo: Juntos Worldwide

The Hispanic Society of America

By: Dylan Rodgers

Founded on May 18, 1904, by Archer Milton Huntington, the Hispanic Society of America features more than 800 paintings and 6,000 watercolors and drawings from Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American artists.  The most famous exhibition of the Hispanic Society, that of Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, was recently reopened after a two-year renovation.  Sorolla's Vision of Spain along with other late nineteenth and early twentieth century Spanish and Latin American paintings are in the North Building Galleries.

Another notable painting is that of "The Black Duchess," by Francisco Jose de Goya which is on display at the Hispanic Society.  It is a painting done of the Duchess of Alba in a period of mourning in the late 18th century.

For those interested in less artistic mediums of cultural expression, the Hispanic Society's has an extensive and unparalleled library of 250,000 books and periodicals, some dating before 1701.  Researchers are welcome to peruse through these along with 200,000 manuscripts ranging from the twelfth century to the present.  The Hispanic Society is nothing short of a goldmine for anyone interested in Hispanic history and modern Hispanic culture.

The best part of about the Hispanic Society of America is that they offer their remarkable collection entirely free of charge.  They also provide free 45 minute tours of the collection.

Located at 613 West 155th Street in Harlem, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm and Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm.

For more information on the Hispanic Society of America, click here.

Photo: Mark B. Schlemmer