While most of us are familiar with the most iconic dishes from Latin America, namely tortillas, arepas, or quesadillas, renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez’s latest book, “The Latin American Cookbook” ($65, Phaidon) takes a deep dive into the lesser-known specialties such as Goat Stew, Ecuadorian Easter Soup or Chilean Sandwich Cookies.
“This book shows the pride that we “the Latinos” have for our culture, we have all been part of this book, we are many people,” he explains.
To properly represent the vast region of Latin America, Martínez spent years researching and consulting with more than 60 village elders, home cooks, anthropologists, and traditional cookbooks to produce over 600 local recipes from 22 Latin American countries.
He also brings with him substantial pedigree himself, having worked in around the world before opening his flagship restaurant, Central, in 2013. Described as an “an ode to Peru” the Lima restaurant made it to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in its first year and has since been named the number one restaurant in Latin America multiple times. You might also recognise him from Zac Efron’s 2020 series “Down to Earth” and also the series “Chef’s Table”, both found on Netflix.
Martínez’s passion for celebrating “food of origin” began while travelling and it was the thrill of exploration and finding something undiscovered that propelled him to where he is today. But as he quickly points out, it’s also the people that he has met along the way that really tell the story of this new publication.
“I have gained many friends [by creating this book] and I have many friends who have supported this project,” he explains. “I feel that it has been a surprise to find how each one sees their region and is involved [with this book] without receiving anything in return. It’s this act of sharing which is the purpose of the kitchen and that connects us in a positive way,” he says.
Coupled with beautiful photos from Peruvian food photographer Jimena Agois, “The Latin American Cookbook”, celebrates the cultural vibrancy of Latin American people as inextricably linked to food. Recently, Virgilio Martínez spoke with T Australia about the endless appeal of Latin American food, what the pandemic has taught him about cooking and which countries in Latin America produce the best recipes.
What is your earliest memory of food?
“My passion for “food of origin” came from the trips I made around Peru and around the world when I was young. I think that the idea of exploration and the passion to know something new was always resulted in new products, new flavours, food, new cultures, and that for me got me hooked on food.”
How do you describe the appeal of Latin American food?
“There is a very deep historical legacy of other cultures [in Latin American food and culture] and because of that there is a very interesting miscegenation that has taken place since the meeting of the Americas with Europe. Then again later with the arrival of Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Arabs, more Europeans, France, Italy… That miscegenation is still evolving today in our culture and in our food.”
Which Latin American country is your favourite for its culinary offerings?
“I don’t have a favourite country. In some countries for example you get a lot of depth and a lot of information in their food, for example I cannot deny that in Mexico you find an impressive culinary legacy in favour of their culture, but I would also like give some recognition to the lesser known food of countries, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, a country so big with so much to offer.”
What is it about Bolivian Turnover that appeals to you?
“I think Bolivian turnovers are a result of the history of that country. The taste speaks to the varying flavours across the regions of Bolivia and the recipe is repeated in all regions of Latin America and around the world. There is this wonderfully tactile sensation of having something like these turnovers in your hands and a comfort that you can find them in the most of humble of places.”
This recipe is for Bolivian turnovers, how do they differ from Argentine empanadas?
“Well, Argentinean empanadas are fried and Peruvian and Bolivian turnovers are baked, plus the dough is different. Also the way Argentinean empanadas are finished off generally looks nicer, while the Bolivian ones look rougher but are more spicy and have more varied fillings. The Argentinean ones tend to have a more intense flavour and are closely linked to the asado (barbecue).”
Bolivian-Style Turnovers (Salteñas)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
The flat-bottomed salteña, with its stewed interior, is like the soup dumpling of empanadas. Despite its name, which refers to the Argentine city of Salta, this baked empanada actually has its origins in Bolivia. During the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas in the nineteenth century, a writer named Juana Manuela Gorriti, from Salta, was exiled to Potosí just over the border in Bolivia and came up with the recipe as a way to make a living. People in Potosí would often say go and pick up an empanada from “la Salteña”, the woman from Salta. The nickname stuck and eventually the form left Potosí and spread around Bolivia, with many regions creating their own versions.
To add to the confusion, the city of Salta is also known for its empanadas, which in Argentina are generally referred to as empanadas salteñas. The fillings are more similar to the Bolivian version than they are to other empanadas in Argentina and it’s served with a spicy sauce similar to the Bolivian hot sauce llajua, though the dough is quite different and the repulgue (seam) is usually on the side rather than the top like those in Bolivia.
For the dough
5 cups (650 g) all-purpose (plain) flour, plus extra for dusting
2 tblsps sugar
1 cup (250 ml) melted butter
2 egg yolks
1 ½ cup (120 ml) warm water with ½ tsp salt added
1 whole egg, beaten, to glaze
For the filling
½ cup (120 ml) melted lard
2 white onions chopped
1 fresh ají amarillo (spicy yellow pepper) chopped
450g ground (minced) beef (or shredded chicken)
5 cups (1.2 liters) beef stock
1 gelatin leaf, soaked in ice-cold water
3 tblsps parsley chopped
6 peeled and boiled potatoes, cut in small cubes
1 cup (130 g) cooked peas
1 tblsp spicy yellow pepper paste
salt and ground pepper
1. Heat the lard for the filling in a large frying pan until very hot. Sauté the onions and fresh chile for 8 minutes or until soft and brown.
2. Add the beef, cook for 4 minutes then pour in the stock with the squeezed-out gelatin and let it simmer for about 35 minutes.
3. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat.
4. Add the potatoes and peas and place in the refrigerator until needed.
This is an edited extract recipe from “The Latin American Cookbook” by Virgilio Martinez, published by Phaidon, $65, phaidon.com