June 20, 2014

Pumpkins, Peanuts, and Corn - Oh My!

I posted a little while ago about how memories and a sense of familiarity can be triggered in a completely exotic and foreign land. Almost as if there are global currents of smells and feelings that touch you no matter where you are. Well, in the case of food, there is a very obvious current that takes it around and that's us. As in, people. Human beings. For example, did you know that sugar cane is native to South Asia, not -- as many believe -- the Americas, where it is grown in abundance? Did you know that oranges are actually a hybrid fruit? Spend some time looking up your favorite fruits and vegetables on Wikipedia. You may be very surprised by some of their origin stories.

It always blows my mind when I remember that tomatoes, potatoes and cacao are New World crops and did not make their way to Europe until after the Spanish colonization of the Americas. How iconic is the potato in Ireland? Think about what Italian cuisine has done with the tomato. Can you imagine a more luxurious bar of chocolate than those manufactured by the Swiss? Europe took a hold of these news fruits (and tubers) from the New World and made them their own. Added their cultural touch and created dishes and treats we can't imagine living without today. It's very interesting the way the same foods are utilized by different cultures.

And that leads me to pumpkins, peanuts and corn. All very notably New World crops. Most surprising to me, though, is the peanut. Yes, the peanut. Can you imagine anything more American? I mean, except apple pie? If you say baseball, I will remind you that peanuts are a staple snack at baseball games. What about peanut butter and PB&J sandwiches? So, where do you suppose the peanut originates? Why, in Paraguay, of course! And yet Paraguayans look at you weird when you extoll the virtues of peanut butter. So what's the deal? This is the peanut's home turf and people aren't consuming peanut butter by the spoonful?

However it made it's way to the U.S., the peanut was initially used as a feed crop for livestock and eventually exploded onto the scene when George Washington Carver (you should look him up; he's really interesting) developed over a hundred recipes and uses for the peanut, but I'm going to go ahead and say peanut butter is the best one. Here in Paraguay, the peanut is consumed most often in two ways: 1.) as a garnish (crushed and toasted), and 2.) mixed with miel negra (think a sweeter, less viscous molasses) to form a sweet treat known as dulce de maní. As a garnish, peanuts are often used at breakfast time, sprinkled into cocido (a traditional drink made from yerba mate and sugar). Dulce de maní is somewhat like peanut brittle, but with a much softer texture and honey-like flavor.

As a non-allergic American, I love peanuts in a fierce way. I was very intrigued by the idea of having a big container of crushed, toasted peanuts around the house. I wanted to get a little more creative than just tossing it in my cocido. I decided it would go great in my mom's peanut butter chicken recipe, in peanut butter cookies and also mixed with honey and cinnamon as a fun substitute for maple syrup. Oh, and it also goes great in oatmeal (with cinnamon and sugar, of course).

Homemade pancakes with a honey, cinnamon, crushed/toasted peanut topping.

I don't have too much to say on the topic of Paraguayan pumpkins except that they are much more like giant squashes (yes, pumpkins are a type of squash) than the round orange fellas that we give faces to on Halloween. Despite the difference in appearance, the smell is the same. The seeds are smaller and darker, but make for a delicious snack just the same (the idea of toasting and snacking on pumpkin seeds was particularly strange to my new Paraguayan family). Since I couldn't find any cans of pumpkin puree in the Paraguayan supermarkets, I had to make some myself, which is easy, but time-consuming. Gut it, cut it up, stick it in the oven, puree it. Then it goes into my favorite recipe for pumpkin bread, which everyone loves.

Lastly, corn. The odd one out. Just kidding. Peanuts are kind of the odd one out here. Pumpkins (squash) likely originate in North America, and corn (maize) in Mesoamerica. Beans, corn, and squash make up a powerful and wholesome trio called the Three Sisters, once cultivated by indigenous North Americans. Contrary to the peanut story, Americans tend to be purists about corn. We like sweet, mature corn -- crunchy and juicy-- and we tend to like it on the cob, or in a heap on our plate next to other food items. In Paraguay, corn is a bit more versatile. In the first place, they prefer something they call choclo, which is younger corn, rendering it softer and chewier. They put it in salads, on pizza (for shame!) and in one of their most beloved traditional dishes, chipa guazú, a type of moist cornbread which typically includes choclo, onion, cheese, milk, and eggs.

Gringaguaya fusion: Asado (grilled meat) with biscuits and rice with green pepper and choclo.

I absolutely love learning the histories and uses of different foods and coming up with what I call gringaguaya fusion plates. I can't wait to discover the next interesting combination!

June 17, 2014

Understanding Latin America

I think as humans (or simply an organism), we tend to seek out order, organization. In fact, we ourselves are a defiant manifestation of order in a perfectly chaotic universe. It really is one of the most amazing things about life. Our need to make sense of an often messy world can drive us to create boxes with labels and to want to place people within those boxes. I mean, if every single individual is unique, how are we supposed to work with that? The thought of getting to know that many people is exhausting and in order to live our lives at a normal pace, we sometimes make assumptions about people without knowing them that well. I'm sure there's a whole sociology paper on this somewhere, that explains how we use general cultural information to approach people we don't know, and how that is some kind of survival strategy, at its core. It's understandable. But as we all know, it can lead to problems.

I remember when I first visited Paraguay, people back home were surprised that spicy food is not a mainstay of the Paraguayan diet. It seems like most American assumptions about Latino countries are based around what they know -- or think they know -- about our neighbor, México. Of course, as many Latinos abroad find themselves repeating, not all of Latin America is like México. In fact, Latin America is wildly and almost mystifyingly (word?) diverse, while at the same time maintaining a percieved homogeneity that I guess is based around language, and perhaps a few other dusty relics of Spanish occupation.

I began to really think about the cultural and geographical scope of Latin American yesterday while listening to the radio. Some type Reggeaton beat was going, and what seemed like distinctly Caribbean flair and dialect. Here we are, far, far away from the Caribbean (or the ocean, for that matter), surrounded by rolling fields full of cattle, where the staple foods tend to involve cheese and anise, listening to this groove that speaks of scantily-clad beach-goers -- rum and fried plantains, maybe. But Paraguayans listen to it, they like it, they "get" it -- whatever the moral of the story in a Reggeaton song may be (likely very little to do with morality). And that's certainly more than I can say about it. So where's the common ground? Is it really just the Spanish language? A common appreciation for the female backside? It's hard to put a finger on. Perhaps a secret that only Latin Americans know. Alike, yet so, so different.

So, this post doesn't really have a conclusion. I'm simply mystified (definitely a word) by the phenomenon that is Latin America. It is not defined by borders and it can't be boxed in by assumptions of commonality. It's a messy, chaotic, and nuanced beast. Like everything, no matter how much we struggle against it. I certainly tire of answering questions or making broad statements about America and Americans. It's hard to to break down something as complex as culture and just say, "this how we are, and this is how you are." At the end of the day, I really just want people to realize this is how I am, and realize that while I am influenced by culture, I am not determined by or beholden to it. Much less so a stereotype or assumption. Culture isn't something you can define with brevity. I just want respect for who I am as an individual, with a healthy but distanced appreciation for how culture may have shaped me. And I'd like to think I can return the favor.