It is difficult to imagine Latin American food without at least some meat. After all, what is Argentina without its infamous steaks or Mexico and the Caribbean without Barbacoa? What about puerco pilbil and ropa vieja? While red meat has become a modern staple throughout Latin America, it was not always necessarily so.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, indigenous peoples had never seen domesticated animals like cows and pigs. They had never seen wheat flour or milk and cheese. Their diets consisted of whatever they could forage, hunt, and grow from the bounty of their lands. The Aztecs, for example, ate everything from the maiz, beans, squash, and peppers of their own floating gardens to various insects and even a form of nutritious algae called spirulina.
The indigenous diet was complex and sophisticated, full of a plethora of herbs and spices. Chocolate alone could be served infused with chili, sage, cilantro, honey, or vanilla. Their diet also included very little meat beyond the domesticated ducks and turkeys they raised or the deer they hunted. In a tropical climate where plant foods were abundant, hunting was less necessary for survival.
For a healthy twist on Latin American dishes, try a step back in time to an era before the introduction of European culinary influences, and the health problems that overindulgence can lead to. There are endless vegetarian options in the cuisines of Latin America, it is simply a matter of taking the time to look. Try these enfrijoladas or one of the endless meatless variations on enchiladas. You can stuff them with sautéed onions and mushrooms, or marinate some squash to use as a filling in tacos or pupusas. In revisiting the ancient origins of your home cuisine, you might discover something new and improve your health in the process. Buen Provecho!