As we build sustainable communities and seek to cultivate a lifestyle that serves our bodies and our minds, the food that is the best for us is the food that is local to where we live and native to our cultures. Latin America and the Caribbean have a bounty of native superfoods that are likely ingredients you are already very familiar with from your own kitchen. It’s easy to enjoy the comida criolla your abuela used to make (guilt-free) when you focus on letting the nutritional value of these ingredients shine through in the dishes.
Papaya – The papaya is the fusion of two or more species of Carica native to Mexico and Central America. Today it is cultivated throughout the tropical world and into the warmest parts of the subtropics. Containing an enzyme called “papain,” papaya helps to cleanse the digestive tract and reduces the conversion of protein to fat. So next time your stomach feels a little sour or you just want a natural way to cleanse your body get yourself some fresh papaya!
Gandules (Pigeon Peas) – There is nothing like a fresh pot of arroz con gandules to warm your heart and your belly. But who knew that gandules could provide so much nutrition? Gandules (also known as pigeon peas) are legumes. While not originally from Latin America (they were first cultivated in India many millennia ago), it is now a staple food ingredient in a lot of Caribbean and Latin American countries. Gandules are packed with protein, folate, anti-inflammatory properties; they help keep your heart and digestive systems healthy. Interested in cooking with gandules now? Try my arroz con gandules with brown rice recipe.
Beans – For generations beans have been grown in the Americas with the the first evidence of lima beans being cultivated in Peru around the second millennium BC. Like gandules, lima beans are packed with all kinds of nutritional goodness. Lima beans, like most other beans are super versatile. There are endless ways to prepare beans and they are fantastic sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans.
Viandas (Root Vegetables) – A typical dish in my house growing up was “viandas con bacalao”. All of the viandas used in this dish, including Yautía, chayote, malanga, batata, papas, and yuca, are native to the Caribbean and Latin America; they were eaten by the Arowak and Caribe native people. Viandas provide a smorgasbord of nutrition, packed with complex carbs, fiber, vitamins A and C. Viandas are a great alternative to rice or potatoes and can be served with any meal. I love to boil some viandas and put a poached egg on top!
Acai – Sort of like a blueberry, Acai grows in the Amazon River basin of South America. When the berries are eaten fresh they have huge nutritional value. This versatile berry is used in anything from food to cosmetics and is a delicious way to get antioxidants while preserving your cellular integrity. A great way to enjoy acai is in an acai bowl loaded with your favorite fruits and nuts.
Chicha Morada – A Peruvian fermented fruit drink, Chicha Morada has been consumed for generations. Because of the way it is prepared it packs an antioxidant punch, helps to boost your immune system, and manage your stress levels.
Pau D’arco Tea – Native to South America, Pau D’arco tea is made from the bark of a special type of tree. The tea has been consumed for centuries to cure ailments such as fever, boils, ulcers, and various cancers. It’s easy to find Pau D’arco tea in Whole Foods tea section, enjoy it every morning for an extra boost!
As you can see, the foods that are native to our cultures provide the nutritional benefits that we need to be the best versions of ourselves. Cook all those traditional dishes you love by building the dish around the nutritional value of each ingredient, learn new ways to cook these old favorites and live your best life!