Latin American Cuisine Continues To Shape Menus In The U.S.

America is having a love affair with Latin American cuisine and has started to incorporate true Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian and many other countries’ dishes and ingredients. Even extraneous cooking tips have spilled over to mainstream America such as leaving the avocado seed on guacamole, grilling corn on the cob and preparing salsas on a stone molcajete. Mexican Coca-Cola and other products previously geared specifically to Latin American markets are now at some groceries and restaurants as well. Latin American cuisine is shaping menus around the country and its influences are here to stay.
Bradford Thompson, owner of Bellyful Consulting in New York City, couldn’t agree more. “American style has changed. People have started to understand Mexican food. It’s not all the Tex-Mex cuisine we grew up with, it’s all more authentic and true to the Mexican food, you see a lot more chefs using authentic Mexican herbs, spices and fruits in their menus.” Other cuisines such as Peruvian and Brazilian are also following suit and have the competitive advantage of being more compatible with America’s food industry. “Latin cuisine is more accessible for more chefs and it can work with other cuisines very well, especially American gastronomy … Latin elements can be incorporated seamlessly into different menus,” adds Thompson.


Although both savory and sweet sides of Latin cuisine have plenty to offer, when it comes to innovation, pastry has the most potential to lead the way. Thompson shares, “Pastry chefs are the innovators that sort of push cuisine into new directions; trends usually come from pastry.” Without a doubt, Latin herbs, spices, nuts and fruits hold great potential to take the specialty dessert industry to the next level.
“Latin America is so diverse, so many fantastic ingredients, many that have yet to even become available in the U.S. market. Though with the emerging growth of international markets and trade in formerly low-commerce countries, I foresee more development and common use, mainly with the high-end and experimental segment, with great U.S. produce newcomers such as aguaje, cocona, noni, tumbo (banana passion fruit) and lucuma,” says Philip Harrington, executive pastry chef for Harris Teeter. With all the diversity coming in from Latin America, the question remains: Which ingredients and desserts are most likely to leave a mark on the American industry?
Sara Hooton, cooking school manager at Central Market, believes that ingredients and desserts that have a familiar element to them are more likely to succeed in the U.S. market. Coconut, tropical fruits, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon and guava are a few of Hooton’s suggestions. “I personally would love to see more passion fruit, and acai is definitely becoming more popular,” adds Hooton. In regards to finished desserts she also favored “homey” offerings such as rice puddings, flan, cocada, churros and quindim. “I think brigadeiros are starting to become really popular here.” Brigadeiros are simple bonbons that are a traditional Brazilian dessert.

Harrington shared similar views and described how it’s only a matter of time for Latin American ingredients and desserts to succeed in the U.S. market, “there are so many great items in Central and South America: Brazil’s mousse de maracuya, pudim de claras, brigadeiros, mazamarra morada and picarones from Peru, empanadas de leche and atol de elote from El Salvador.”
Chiming in, Thompson believes chiles, condensed milk, coconut milk and fruits have the greatest potential. “People are beginning to understand how to play with chiles and chocolate. I see it even at the grocery store level; a lot of the dark chocolates have different chiles. It’s something that people have never thought of before but when you try it, it makes perfect sense.” He also explains the gains of condensed milk: “I start to see more chefs utilizing condensed milk, cooking and incorporating it into batters and cakes – it’s a unique sweetness.”
Healthful options are another trend that’s shaping the specialty dessert industry in the U.S. and many Latin American influences can only contribute to the trend. Coconut milk and fruits offer unique solutions such as less sugar added due to the levels of natural sweetness. “Foods [in Latin America] are so intense because of the climate. You get a lot more sugar in a lot of them such as in mango and papaya. This allows chefs to use more of the natural sugars found in the fruit and less added sugar.” In addition, Thompson explains some of coconut milk’s benefits, “People seem to be moving away from dairy, and I think coconut milk does more than replace dairy in terms of flavor and texture.”

As we can see, Latin American cuisine – just like its culture – is full of variety and has something to offer to every segment of the specialty dessert industry. In an endless sea of possibilities, how do chefs and operators identify and apply Latin influences in their businesses? It could be as simple as assessing the adoption stage of the consumer. Early adopters or innovative consumers are more likely to be found in high-end restaurants or progressive patisseries and are more willing to try completely new flavors and textures whereas the other end of the spectrum, the “laggards,“ can be found at places where safe options are favored. However, innovation is always welcomed regardless of the consumer – it’s just a matter of the extent to which it should be implemented.
When it comes to the pastry section at the grocery store, according to Harrington, “The basics always rule. Many do not foresee dessert as an adventure. It’s simple – they want satisfaction and they know what they have enjoyed in the past.“ Harrington goes on to share, “Yet as pastry chefs and industry professionals, I believe we have the responsibility to educate and to help the consumer in being more knowledgeable concerning their food. I find the best approach is to take a classic, put a small improvement or unique spin on it. Keep the integrity of the dish but add or change the main flavor component. And like anything new, it needs to be promoted. And unless Dr. Oz is behind it, that can be very tricky. Keep change small – small enough that you will not scare the consumer but intrigue them.”
Hooton also explains an easy approach to incorporate Latin American influences in the U.S., “I think the most successful way would be to incorporate new flavors such as acai into existing familiar desserts or take a very familiar American dessert and splice it with a Latin American dessert.” Hooton also suggested other applications such as passion fruit crème brûlée and tressed the potential of brigadeiros, a small pastry that falls perfectly into the monoportion category and would be a natural alternative to cupcakes.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics will constitute 30 percent of the nation’s population by 2050. In an industry where trends take off rather quickly, it’s just common sense to explore Latin American cuisine thoroughly. Change doesn’t have to be far-reaching; it’s ok to introduce new flavors and desserts progressively enough to keep consumers interested regardless of their capacity for adoption. Although incorporating new flavors into familiar desserts is a natural first step, chefs and operators should find ways to take these new ingredients to the next level by combining cuisines and influences. There are plenty of ingredients to discover in Latin America, and an endless possibility of creations to draw from them.