Find our top 6 picks for the best Latin American cookbooks of the past 25 years.
Latin cooking is found in those parts of the Americas where Spanish or Portuguese is spoken: Mexico, much of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and, yes, South Florida. It's absurd to lump this food together. The range of dishes is vast and locally inflected, from the moles of Mexico to the African-influenced flavors of Bahian food in Brazil. Today, many major cities of Latin America are places of great chef-driven ferment. Here are cookbooks that open the door to both the deep traditions and the thrill of the new.
Truly Mexican By Roberto Santibañez, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011. Hardcover. $35; 264 pages
Truly Mexican focuses on salsas, guacamoles, moles, adobos, and pipianes, arguing they are the equivalent of the French "mother sauces": building blocks for all Mexican cooking. It's a neat concept, giving the book a strong, approachable window into a complex food culture.
Santibañez is a chef, so there's a lot of from-scratch prep, but recipes work. An adobo "should be so thick that if you tip your blender, it barely pours, instead inching forward like cooling lava." Hard to go wrong with this type of precise instruction.
GIVE THIS TO: Any cook happy to make the trip to a Latin market. —Julianna Grimes
New World Kitchen By Norman Van Aken, Ecco, 2003. Hardcover. $35; 322 pages
This very personal interpretation of Latin and Caribbean food comes via the travels and restaurant experience of celebrated South Florida Chef Norman Van Aken, who likens himself to a musician, pulling ideas from all over to create culinary music with a delicious Latin/Carib beat. At times the recipes are a bit of a modern mash-up: A fish chowder with Scotch bonnet chiles is finished with a shot of dry sherry, and Van Aken likes to serve it with an Alsatian pinot blanc. He also understands that the American cook is inclined to simplicity: In a recipe for Acarajé [black-eyed pea fritters] with Crabmeat Stuffing, he swaps a simple crab salad for a more complex Brazilian sauce, but it is delicious nonetheless. Still, this is not shortcut cooking: Dive in, and you'll soon be dealing with pigeon peas, annatto oil, chayote, and evaporated goat's milk, with plenty of clear guidance on regional dishes and flavors.
New World Kitchen is approachable, full of good food and good cheer.
GIVE THIS TO: A cook with flair. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
The South American Table By Maria Baez Kijac, The Harvard Common Press, 2003. Hardcover. $30; 478 pages
Maria Baez Kijac spent more than a decade pouring her heart into this dense but accessible book. Her goal: to knit together the cuisines of 10 nations for an American audience that has little idea about food traditions from Rio to Buenos Aires.
This is a no-glitz book, without photos. Recipes are organized by kind rather than country so that the reader can trace the interpretation of ceviches or tamales from region to region. Kijac's scholarly approach yields recipe headnotes that can stretch to almost a page (as for Purple Corn and Berry Soup, which she traces to an Inca ritual), but they're a pleasure to read. Recipes are wonderfully diverse: mango soup, partridge in coconut sauce, and Paraguayan polenta. Interesting uses of healthy ingredients prevail: A sauce of Peruvian peppers, goat cheese, and roasted peanuts is thickened with quinoa's whole-grain goodness.
GIVE THIS TO: The anthropologically inclined cook. —Sidney Fry
Mayan Cuisine By Daniel Hoyer, Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2008. Hardcover. $35; 224 pages
For those who love Mexican food yet feel they've exhausted the borders of that cuisine, this cookbook will open up new flavors. Mayan food traditions hail from the Yucatán Peninsula down to Belize and Guatemala, influenced by Europe, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. You'll find familiar dishes here, like colorful salsas and tamales, but also a wealth of less-familiar meat and seafood salads and soups. Many dishes begin with a homemade recado—a thick seasoning paste that lays the flavor foundation. Recado Colorado (Red Seasoning Paste) is based on ground annatto seeds, looks like thick red clay, and tastes deeply earthy. It's what gives the spectacular banana leaf-wrapped Cochinitia Pibil (Pit-Roasted Pork with Yucatán Spices) its flavor and fragrance, and Caldo de Venado (Venison Soup) its gorgeous color.
Here is traditional food that seems so fresh. Hoyer is helpful and encouraging; he understands the limits of American markets and is careful to offer lots of substitutions. This book offers recipes that the cook can trust will not just work but also deliver delicious results.
GIVE THIS TO: Serious cooks interested in authentic new flavors. —Ann Taylor Pittman
Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way By Francis Mallmann, Artisan, 2009. Hardcover. $35; 278 pages
Mallmann, who trained in France, is one of Argentina's most celebrated chefs, and he is simply mad for various forms of traditional Argentinian fire cookery: massive logs, heaps of embers, cast-iron oven-grills, open pits, enormous cauldrons, and various contraptions for his open-field conflagrations and "little hells." His Sunday asado—a big family outdoor picnic—involves a grill the size of a California Queen--sized bed. The photos, not only of the food but of fires and the beautiful Argentine country, make you want to hop the next flight south to partake of this vigorous life. A truly inspiring book, however modest your own grill.
There's plenty of meat, of course: skewered, salt-crusted, roasted whole—simple, bold, and often intriguingly named (Flipped-and-Flapped Lamb with Mustard, Oregano, and Lemon Confit). But it's not all meat. "Charring or even burning adds an extra dimension to breads, vegetables, and fruit," says Mallmann, evidenced by dishes like caramelized endives, burnt tomato halves, and griddled asparagus. There are plenty of salads. Seafood includes Cast-Iron-Seared Octopus with Murcia Pimentón. For dessert, oranges are burnt, with rosemary. Big, bold flavors under a big, bold sky—6,000 miles south of Colorado.
GIVE THIS TO: Grillers and travelers; pyrotechnically inclined cooks ready to move beyond basic briquettes. —Robin Bashinsky
Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen By Rick Bayless, with Deann Groen Bayless and JeanMarie Brownson, Scribner, 1996. Hardcover. $35; 448 pages
Rick Bayless holds a special place as our best-known passionate advocate for real Mexican cooking, serving up both casual and more intricate dishes at his beloved Chicago restaurants while evangelizing in his own genial way to the TV public. He has written several cookbooks, but this—his second, written in the mid-1990s—is a classic.
This is serious, handcrafted food, requiring lots of ingredients supplied by the good Mexican groceries that every American city seems to have. Bayless has layered his book to make it brilliantly useful: first with 15 "essential" sauces, salsas, and pastes; then with traditional recipes. Tacked on to the end of many recipes are adaptations, "simple ideas from my American home" (like Crusty Chipotle-Beef Sandwich). And he sprinkles variations and improvisations throughout.
GIVE THIS TO: Cooks of all skill levels who want to dive more deeply into Mexican cooking. —J.G.