Using Cooking to Connect to Hispanic Culture
In every culture, food is representative of comfort and family. In addition, we associate our memories of food with significant life events. In some cultures, the types of food and cuisine are indicative of much more significance than simply being a meal.
Deals between kings, presidents, and generals are made over meals; business is negotiated and conducted; families and societies celebrate together, reinforcing bonds with each other.
Hispanic culture is built around food as the anchor and centerpiece to the community. Hispanic culture is as diverse as its area, but the main pillars to Hispanic culture are family, faith, food, and music as the primary bonds.
And why does food matter so much in Hispanic culture?
The food itself plays one of the more integral parts of connecting, serving the functions of nourishment, security, and wellbeing.
Also, meals are more than just an opportunity to eat and satiate basic needs. Meals are spent together for hours catching up, telling stories, sharing laughter and love.
Most meals are essential daily functions centered on family, but Hispanic culture has a dish (or dishes) for every occasion for unique and significant events.
As we grow, our connections through food mature from a sense of connection with family to a relationship with others outside our immediate household.
This evolution from the home to society helps create stronger bonds within communities and common experiences and memories that further strengthen the bonds that are being formed and reinforced.
Food then is one of the more important things we can spend time on and with people we love.
To understand the value of cooking to connect with a Hispanic culture is to understand what food can tell us about culture and tradition.
What Food Tells Us About Culture And Tradition
Food is something shared between generations; it is passed down from one generation to another and acts as a teaching mechanism to learn about tradition, history, and culture as a result.
Hispanic cuisine represents the comfort that comes from foods we grew up eating but also expresses cultural pride.
Recipes and dishes are central to keeping memories and thoughts about people who have passed alive. There are whole days and holidays dedicated to remembrances, and with those days come events, fiestas, and food to remember and celebrate.
Additionally, regional ingredients influence the type of foods we eat and ways of preparation that make the food unique to a specific area.
Cooking food in different parts of Latin America is going to be influenced heavily by the region. For instance, in Mexican cuisine, chili peppers of all types are a central ingredient, and tortillas are crucial as vehicles for food and sauces.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the empanada is a primary food type, and the flexibility of the pastry makes it the primary dish. The difference between Mexican food and Argentinian food is that much of the food in Mexico is based on regional and historical influences. At the same time, Argentina is more a fusion of local, indigenous, and immigrant cuisines.
Another reason food varies by region is that each represents the foods available in the area and marries with immigrants and indigenous cuisines.
Throughout Latin America, indigenous peoples made food from what was readily available. At the same time, settlers brought recipes and favorites from the homeland, and those marriages of cuisines created some tasty dishes such as the empanada, as mentioned earlier.
As recipes are handed down from generation to generation, food is a teaching tool about the history of the area and the culture behind it. As the elders of the area taught the young ones to cook and prepare the dishes, storytime and various other narratives would occur that educated the listeners of their shared history.
This act of teaching while cooking bonds the generations together, making it more fun to learn about the history behind the food and why it has the significance that it does. Teaching about why an Asado (BBQ) in Argentina is such an all-day event is just as important as the meats, cheeses, and sausages that are prepared.
The type of dishes made, the time it takes to prepare them, and the significance that the dish is attached to, from weddings, holidays, funerals, births, and other events, make Hispanic cuisine so unique, fun, and educational at the same time.
Meals are a social event in and of themselves. Although taking time to prepare the meal shows love toward the guests, taking the time to eat and socialize helps break down barriers, misunderstandings and to nurture better relationships.
Families wishing to keep the traditions alive focus on passing down recipes between generations, teaching about dishes that include beans to Menudo, paella, and more, all to honor their heritage. The bonds created and reinforced through cooking are a significant way we learn about our shared histories and the importance of relevant events.
How Food Connects Between Cultures
Food creates a bond with everyone that shares in it. It serves as a reminder of good times and significant events and serves as a comfort when we’re sick or in difficult times.
In other words, food is a social adhesive that binds people together and can bring different groups to the fold. Whether it’s to recognize significant events and important people or to celebrate and observe holidays and life events, food serves as the common bond between people.
Food can tie together the present with the past, reinforce cultural norms, provide comfort and security, and create a fusion of old and new cuisines.
Immigrants bring recipes from the homeland to share in remembrance of the past and open up to the community as a whole of what makes the culture unique. It’s often a point of pride to share a recipe from home with others and is a ritual that stems long in human history.
Cooking recipes from the homeland is a great way to share about the Hispanic culture but also serves as a coping mechanism to alleviate homesickness and other anxieties when relocating or immigrating.
As each dish has special significance in the region it derives from, cooking allows for a doorway into the dish’s culture, traditions, history, and importance that helps others learn about the area that the dish stems from. This creates a connection between different cultures and peoples through the shared comfort of the food.
Another way food connects cultures is that as regional dishes are made elsewhere, they may not have access to a specific ingredient, or that ingredient may be different from at home.
These variations create different (albeit slightly) tasting dishes, and sometimes these dishes may be altered to create an altogether different dish. These fusions are best seen by the influx of Chinese, Portuguese, and Italian cuisine on the regional dishes throughout Latin America, especially in the South American countries.
Other examples are the importing of dishes from Hispanic culture to other areas. Some Hispanic dishes with historical roots include:
Barbacoa: Thought to predate the Hispanics, Barbacoa was a Mayan dish that was prepared by wrapping meats in agave leaves before being placed in a hole in the ground. Spanish explorers were thought to import Barbacoa into all parts of Latin America and North America specifically, where the idea of barbeque originates.
Birria: Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, birria was a stew made of a goat, but today can be made from all meats, including beef. This flexible and adaptive stew has even been made into tacos in parts of the United States.
Tacos: Proof that food translates and travels over time is the ubiquitous taco. In some areas of Latin America, tacos are made from corn tortillas, while in others, flour is more traditional. Rarely are the fried, crunchy taco shells that are so popular in Tex-Mex and American tacos.
Celebrating Significant Events Through Cooking
Every fiesta, holiday, and celebration has an opportunity to deepen the roots and understanding of Hispanic culture. There is a celebration for everything and a meal to accompany that celebration.
Cooking together is one way to educate different generations about the history and traditions while providing a way to show the pride of Hispanic culture physically.
Below is a list of a few more common and essential celebrations throughout Hispanic culture and Latin America specifically.
Dia de la Independencia
Every country celebrates its national independence from colonialists, with the majority celebrating September 15th or 16th. In Mexico, it’s traditional to celebrate with Pozole and Chiles en Nogada, a stuffed poblano dish served with a walnut sauce.
The coming-of-age tradition for young ladies known as Quinceanera is celebrated throughout the Hispanic culture. The traditional dishes include enchiladas, corn-wrapped tamales, mole sauce, and pan de Polvo, which is a special sweet bread that is a real crowd-pleaser.
Dia De Los Muertos
In many parts of Latin America, Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated on November 1 and 2. In remembrance of loved ones that have been lost, ofrendas (offerings) are placed on an altar and include sugar, skull cookies, and other treats. During this time, people celebrate and remember by eating meals of tamales, mole sauces, and champurrado - a thick hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon and other spices.
The week before Christmas is known as Semana Santa and is celebrated by observing it with strict dietary guidance that disincluded meats like beef, chicken, lamb, pork, deer, and most other meats. Instead, dishes often include eggs, milk, fish, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
The re-enactment of the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus is known as Posadas. The tradition includes having parties at different homes every night for nine days, simulating the experience of seeking shelter. Dishes include hot punch, fried cookies known as bunuelos, specialized tamales, and more.
Christmas Eve is celebrated throughout Hispanic culture with tradition, celebrations, fiestas, and a midnight Mass. Music, dancing, and food are the central components of Noche Buena before congregating at Mass. There is typically the most significant feast of the holiday season featuring Menudo (Mexico), Hallacas (Venezuela), and turkey (Peru) are traditional dishes for Noche Buena.
Dia de Los Reyes Magos
The Three Kings Day observed on January 5th is a celebration of the Three Kings that traveled to visit Jesus and give him gifts after his birth. The festival begins at the start of a new year when children write letters for gifts to the Three Kings and are surprised on the morning of January 5th. Traditional meals begin with a soup or salad before the main course includes picadillo meat with rice and beans before having a “Kings” cake for dessert.
Food As A Point Of Cultural Pride
Cultural dishes celebrate the region they come from and the people that live there. Sharing these dishes with others helps convey the pride and importance of these dishes to others, as well as helping share the beauty of the food.
The pride that people have regarding their cuisine is shown by the dishes they offer guests and the timing and significance of those dishes during special occasions.
Hispanic cooking can bring together generations, allowing the older generation to teach and educate the younger generation on customs and traditions from the homeland, especially in situations where people have migrated.
Learning to spend the time needed to make tamales, that while not complex, does take a lot of care and patience to get done correctly, is one way to learn about Hispanic culture.
Celebrating the holidays with traditional dishes that reflect the customs of the holiday is another way to connect to Hispanic culture through cooking. Special events require unique dishes, and the marriage of conventional Hispanic cooking with a life event helps show the pride, richness, and deliciousness of Hispanic cuisine.
Bonding between generations through learning and teaching traditional dishes helps reinforce the love and understanding of Hispanic culture. However, regardless of the celebration, learning to cook a dish that historically is associated with it keeps alive those customs and traditions that the food and observances are centered around.
Sharing in the meals reinforces the strength and importance of family, and food can be said to be a sense of personal and cultural identity.
From forming group identity to reinforcing roles and customs, associating personal feelings, providing comfort and security during difficult times, and celebrating and observing significant holidays and life events all center around food and dishes that reflect the significance.
On the most basic level, food represents a biological need that is fulfilled, but on a more substantive level, food is the central adhesive for societies and cultures. Historically food is seen as a form of wealth, power, culture, and history.
Cooking together and sharing in the fruits of those labors builds community and cohesion between people and can create common bonds and memories.
Food is central to personal and cultural identities. Learning to cook traditional dishes to celebrate with is a great way to foster bonds and educate about ancestry, history, and traditions.