In Panama, culantro is the herb that gives the canal country’s dishes their distinctive flavor.
That’s culantro, not cilantro, as chef Elena Hernández explained to a gathering of chefs, food purveyors and educators as the fifth annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens symposium got under way Wednesday at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.
She didn’t know if she’d be able to find the pungent herb in San Antonio either, so she brought it with her in her luggage. She did the same with her favorite types of chiles, too. And when she was stopped at customs, she informed the agent that it has all been blanched.
Laughs of recognition greeted that statement, as the crowd featured a number of chefs from Central and South America, who have traveled to other countries only to discover that they could not prepare their cuisine in an authentic manner because a dried chile or an exotic fruit was not available.
Yet Hernández, who organizes the Panamá Gastronómica International Fair, did find fresh culantro in San Antonio, a sign that the city’s ethnic markets and specialty groceries are growing to meet the expanding tastes of people within the city.
That same story is happening across the country, which is why the CIA presents the symposium. You’ll find Latin flavors throughout the celebrated cooking of Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo or Maricel Presilla of New Jersey’s Zafra and Cucharamama as well as small kitchens in cities from San Francisco to New York.
Demand for Latin food and drink continues to grow, which is why the symposium is able to draw top chefs and food writers, including Roberto Santibañez, Mark Miller and Anne E. McBride in addition to Bayless and Presilla. This year, a handful of San Antonio names appear on the speaker list, including Puerto Rico-born Nelson Millán of the San Antonio Country Club, Jeret Peña of the Esquire Tavern, and Elizabeth Johnson, Geronimo Lopez-Monascal and Iliana de la Vega, all of whom work in various capacities at the CIA.
The list of visiting chefs from abroad include Francisco Casto of the Panamá International Hotel School, Dante Franco of Espacio Dolli in Buenos Aires, Christian Bravo of Punta del Mar in Merida, Mexico, Hubert O’Farrell of O’Farrell in Buenos Aires, and Rodrigo Oliveira of Mocotó in São Paolo, Brazil
Topics this year include The Latin Wow Factor Strategy, More Than Lettuce: The Versatile Salads of Latin America, Cuisines of the Southern Caribbean, and How Do You Do Latin Cuisines Outside of Latin America?
The following is a sample salad from Francisco Castro, which is part of the More Than Lettuce discussion.
Panama-Style Beet Salad (Ensalada de Feria)
2 pounds potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 pound beets, cooked and peeled
1 cup mayonnaise
4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1/4 cup celery, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
Cut the potatoes and beets in 1/4-inch dice.
In a glass bowl, mix the mayonnaise with the eggs, onion, celery, parsley, and lime juice.
Add the reserved potatoes and beets; mix with wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 8-10 servings.
From Francisco Castro/Latin Flavors, American Kitchens