There’s this very American mentality that Latin cuisine isn’t healthy. Sure, starchy carbs and processed meats aren’t great for you but there are a lot of foods and ingredients—vegetables especially—that our abuelos and abuelas grew up eating that are filled with loads of nutrients. It’s the processing, dairy and even certain meats that have fattened up the Latino diet. But if you go back to the way our ancestors were eating centuries ago, you’d learn that the Latino diet can actually be quite healthy. In fact, there’s a whole decolonizing diet movement around it that a lot of health-conscious Latinas are adapting. They’ve even mastered how to decolonize some of their favorite Latino holiday dishes. The movement of decolonizing diets simply means embracing the plant-based native foods that came from the land that our indigenous and African ancestors ate and connected with.
“Decolonizing food during the holidays means asking both my grandmothers what they ate, ingredients they used, and ways they prepared food during the holidays back in our home country of the Dominican Republic and making it with them,” says food justice activist and founder of Woke Foods, Ysanet Batista. “It is important for me to learn from elders in my family how to make dishes they’ve been making for the holidays as a way to keep myself connected to them, our culture, and traditions. I feel a deep sense of love when I prepare pastels en hola from scratch using fresh ingredients with my paternal grandmother.”
Batista along with a few other Latinx food justice activists, chefs and food experts break down how you can decolonize your Latino holiday dishes while still enjoying the flavors you grew up loving!
Plant-based Latino dishes are still tasty AF.
“The first time I decided to go vegan was right before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014. I decided to cook alongside my grandmother, Ramona, and I copied whatever she was making for the holiday dinner that had meat in it and made it vegan like lasagna with vegetables and pasteles filled with spinach,” says Batista. “Other dishes were already vegan, like arroz con guandules, so the only thing I didn’t have was turkey but I personally have never been [into] turkey. Latinx and Black people continuously rank #1 and #2 when it comes to bad health outcomes that have been linked to lack of access to quality food …. With my business, Woke Foods, I get to create access to information and quality food and that is what inspired these cooking classes. I love that the classes take place a 5-minute walk from my family’s apartment in Harlem and that they are much more affordable than other cooking classes out there.”
Keep a lookout on Woke Food’s Instagram page for Batista’s next vegan Latino cooking class in NYC!
It’s super easy to make Latino holiday dishes vegan.
“To decolonize your diet is to bring back ancestral foodways prior to colonization. It could look like recipes that cut out processed food, and focus on whole, local, and sustainable food,” says Jocelyn Ramirez, the founder of Todo Verde. “This type of diet kept generations healthy and with so many of our communities of color facing preventable diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and cancer; it’s important to recenter our palates and reclaim our health. There are so many plant-based recipes out there for “traditional” dishes, that’s it’s becoming easier to veganize the things our families love to eat over the holiday season.”
Vegan dishes are not just salads people.
“Some people think that “vegan” is just salads, fruits, and smoothies. I find it’s often easy to make a plant-based version of your favorite dish,” says Community Foodtivist and certified natural foods chef, Chef Yadira Garcia. “I am Dominican and love making empanadas with chickpeas guisado, pastelon with a mushroom picadillo, moro de guandules en coco, asopao with West Indian pumpkin, pasteles en hoja with braised veggies for my family and community cooking classes.”
Find your balance.
“We’re often told or led to believe that being vegan will restrict our ability to enjoy our culture’s food. I think this is a major untruth that results in an overconsumption of animal, impacts our health and is one of the leading causes of climate change,” says food activist and founder of Liberation Cuisine, Gabriela Alvarez. “Just 2-3 generations ago, people did not have access to the amount of meat that we expect (and claim) in our Puerto Rican diets. I also believe in being gentle with ourselves. If you are really committed to living a vegan life and eating Puerto Rican dishes on the holidays is what’s holding you back, make an exception for the day. There are over 300 days left. I might also suggest reaching out to those with whom you’ll be celebrating and thinking together about how to make sure there will be lots of plant-based foods in addition to animal-based dishes.”
There are a lot of Latino holiday dishes that are already meatless.
“In every culture,” there are many dishes that ARE vegan,” says Alvarez. In Puerto Rico we eat arroz con guandules, potato salad, arroz con habichuelas, pasteles, tostones, etc. The animal protein is a small portion of the dish. We can still hold its essence with plant-based proteins.”
Start off by decolonizing your seasonings.
“Comadres, we need to decolonize our seasonings as well,” says Garcia. “We don’t need culturally appropriated sazones sold back to our communities with high amounts of sodium’s, harmful fats, chemical flavor and preservatives. Make your own sofritos, adobos, moles, hot sauces, curtidos, salsas, and more to amp up the flavor of any vegan dish.” Batista’s sofrito seasoning recipe is super simple to make.
Buy organic seasonings.
Founders of Loisa, Scott Hattis and Kenneth Luna created a line of organic sazons and adobos to prove that Latin foods can still be healthy. “We created our organic sazon and organic adobo to serve a need we both shared, and one we believe others connected to this culture shared—a desire to keep traditional Latin foods and flavors a part of our lives, especially as we start families of our own without having to compromise on quality or health,” they tell HipLatina. “The way we see it, flavor is the heart of this cuisine, so introducing organic versions of these classic seasonings was a way to deliver on that belief from day one.”
Try substituting your white rice with guandules with a healthier grain.
“I absolutely love white rice and grew up eating really big portions of it. White rice is a grain that has had the bran and germ removed, which are the most nutritious parts of the grain, and it leaves it with very few essential nutrients,” says Batista. “I think now that I understand its nutritional content, I try to eat grains that have more nutritional value—like brown rice, bulgar, wheat, or farro,” says Batista.
Make some modifications to your potato salad.
“You can remove the egg in the signature Dominican potato salad (ensalada Rusa) and use a vegan mayonnaise,” Batista adds.
Try a vegan ceviche.
“Our ceviche de palmitas is definitely a crowd favorite, but ceviche can be made with marinated cauliflower as the base too,” Ramirez says. “Let your ingredients marinate in a mix of lemon juice, oil, and salt to bring the flavors out.”
Don’t be afraid to make tostones.
“Tostones are fried green plantains,” says Alvarez. “My main consideration for making something that is deep-fried less unhealthy is the frying oil. Use a high heat oil such as grapeseed, coconut or avocado oil and don’t overcook them. They should be golden rather than dark brown. When we burn foods they become carcinogenic.”
Make yourself vegan pastelon de maduros or lasagna .
Batista replaces meat proteins with diced eggplant or vegan beef crumbles sautéed in sofrito. She keeps it dairy-free by using nut-based cheeses.
Make healthy vegan Latino appetizers.
Garcia is a huge fan of yuca and tostada de casabe. Add some avocado, baby tomatoes, and sprinkle some red chili peppers and you got yourself a party-friendly appetizer that’s sure to be a hit.
Make vegan pasteles en hoja.
Batista also uses eggplant, spinach or vegan beef crumbles to replace the meat in her pasteles en hoja, which are a classic holiday dish for Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
Make vegan flan.
Just because you’ve cut meat or dairy doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a delicious slice of flan. “Plant-based ingredients such as agar and egg replacers like Follow Your Heart make vegan flan hold up just like flan made with eggs,” says Ramirez. “Coconut cream also helps give plant-based flan a creamy and rich texture.”
Make platano maduros.
“I love to roast sweet plantains. Requires less oil,” says Alvarez. “I usually use olive oil or coconut oil, both oils with healthy fats. I slice the plantains lengthwise and roast them inside the skins. With a drizzle of oil and the peel still intact, they don’t dry out. Served with some fresh arugula, an egg, and some black beans … my favorite breakfast!”
Make or buy dairy-free coquito.
Batista’s food business Woke Foods makes dairy-free, vegan coquito every year for customers and it’s just as delicious as the real thing!