To most of us in Central America, the holidays mean two things: food and family.
Our unique blend of ancient and modern cultures have given rise to a mouthwatering array of flavorful dishes. And we all know that they are best enjoyed with the ones we love.
As a child, limónes were an ever-constant presence in the kitchen.
They were everywhere, from the fresh agua de limón my mom would make for me and my sister after a long day of playing in the park to the jímaca she would pack for our lunches.
And, of course, a bowl with freshly cut limones was always sitting on the table.
But the use of fresh limónes extends far beyond my home.
In El Salvador, its people transform corn into a fantastic dish known as pupusa, a specialty from Central America where it’s consumed with passion from dawn to dusk. Made with masa, pupusas are thick, spongy corn tortillas that can be stuffed with various fillings before being cooked on a clay comal or steel griddle.
Chocolate means a lot to Colombians. A cocoa-producing nation, it has a long history of cacao consumption dating as far back as the Pre-Columbian era. It was first enjoyed by the Aztecs, who drank a sacred mixture of toasted cacao beans, spices, and water. From here, the concept of drinking chocolate (without cheese at this time) spread.
Latin America is well known for its beaches where visitors get to not only enjoy balmy water and the softest white sand but also the various countries' rich cultures – each with its traditional dishes, joyous music and welcoming people.
I would be hard-pressed to think of a time when yuca hasn’t been present on the dinner table at my family's home in Costa Rica. It was used to make fries, tamales, enyucados, and a particular favorite of mine: crunchy, deep-fried croquetas. Yuca is a widely used ingredient in many of our favorite dishes. It was one of our ancestors' most important food sources, and its roots extend from the north to the south of our continent.
It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it: the way tamales fill a home with a special smell when being cooked. It is a smell that permeates the atmosphere, awakens the appetite, and reminds us of special times with family and friends.
Like many Latinos, the first time I experienced Peru's most emblematic dishes was – dare I say it – outside of the country itself.
This is often the case because, over the decades, Peruvians have spread themselves far and wide, bringing their great culinary heritage to every place they go.
However, after dining at some Peruvian restaurants, I thought that I had a clear idea of exactly what Peruvian gastronomy was.
It's safe to say that many of us were a little confused when we woke up one morning to the concept of "superfoods".
Super what?, we asked.
Avocado and açaí, lcuma and aguaje, maca root and spirulina, quinoa and chia: suddenly these were not simply foods we ate everyday anymore. No, they were superfoods and their health benefits were touted far and wide by all.
Long ignored by the West, these native foods were suddenly in high demand.
For me, as for so many Latinos, avocados – or aguacates – were a staple of most meals growing up.
They served as the butter for every sandwich, the topping to every taco, and the humble side for a range of dishes spanning morning, noon, and night.
We celebrate Epiphany with rosca de reyes, say happy birthday with the tradition of la mordida, feast with chajá, and enjoy pan de Pascua at Christmas (along with a glass of cola de mono, of course).
In short, sweet foods like this have the power to turn ordinary gatherings into treasured memories.
But among the many desserts available, one has a special place for many of us: tres leches.
When Marta Sánchez thinks back to her earliest memories, she says that it's tamales that stand out.
Sat, aged just three, on the countertop in her abuela's kitchen, she can still remember the sights, sounds, and smells of her family assembling tamales during the holiday season.
In this ritual, the asador is the star.
For Diego, the sous chef at Momo Soho in New York, asado is an orchestra, and the asador is the conductor, in charge of the whole thing.
It lasts for hours. Everyone talks, drinks wine, eats cheese, and salad, waiting for the conductor to get the main event ready: the meat.