Why Virgilio Martínez Wants You to Rethink Latin American Food
The long-awaited culinary bible by Peru’s buzziest chef is not what we expected—and that’s a good thing.
It took Virgilio Martínez and an army of researchers six years to write The Latin American Cookbook, a 400-page hardcover released in November with 600 recipes hailing from 22 countries. It is the newest, and perhaps most hotly anticipated, culinary bible by Phaidon, the publisher behind such emblematic releases as Japan: The Cookbook, India, and The Silver Spoon.
Last year, when we heard Martínez was crisscrossing the Western Hemisphere gathering recipes and local lore for an epic Latin American cookbook, we were delighted—and admittedly skeptical: How could a single book do justice to the foodways of an area stretching from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn?
It sounded like mission impossible, even for a go-getter like Martínez. If Martínez’s name sounds familiar, that’s probably because you met him on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The soft-spoken phenom from Peru starred in a 2017 episode that charted his trajectory from troubled teen to toqued stagiaire to, today, culinary eminence and lay anthropologist. On the show, Martínez gives viewers an intimate look at Peruvian cuisine—the glimmering Pacific seafood, the sticky Amazonian tree saps, the knobby Andean tubers, and everything in between.
Now, he brings the rigor and curiosity that won us over on Chef’s Table to The Latin American Cookbook, which is our December/January pick for SAVEUR Cookbook Club. The goal of the compendium, as Martínez states in the introduction, was never to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of Latin cooking but rather a “culinary snapshot” with dishes that can be adapted freely to suit personal preferences and available ingredients.
The recipes run the gamut from international hits like black bean soup and Colombian arepas to lesser-known gems like Chilean disco fries and Bolivian schnitzel dolloped with rocotó-tomato salsa. “Christ’s knees,” we learn, are hot, yeasty buns from the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca bursting with queso fresco and streaked with blood-red achiote oil. There’s even a section on cooking ants, grasshoppers, and palm weevil larvae—ample proof that Martínez is determined to give it to us straight. As he explained to us via video chat, this is, happily, not another Latin-“light” cookbook for the mainstream American market. Here is our interview with Martínez.
You grew up in Lima, Peru’s capital. What foods did you love as a kid?
Some of my earliest food memories are of ceviche. It was street food, not trendy or elaborate like it can be today. We also ate a lot of stews like carapulcra, which is made with pork and potatoes, and ají de gallina, made with chicken and yellow chiles. To me, Peruvian comfort food smells like onions and chicken stock and melted cheese. These platos de olla (dishes from the pot) were always incredibly flavorful, which I’d later learn was because they incorporated ingredients and techniques from different cultures: African, Portuguese, Spanish, Creole…
So, some dishes people would call Peruvian are in fact a product of many cultures.
Yes, and that’s true of Latin American cuisine as a whole. Latin America is a gigantic pantry, filled with different types of corn and potatoes, cacao and coffee. We also have the oceans to play with, with all their bounty. The influence of various cultures over the last 500 years created a fusion cuisine, and to me, the epicenter of that melting pot is Lima. In Lima, food is filling and exploding with flavor. Nothing is watered down. There are no kids’ menus, no plain pasta or potatoes. Fast food arrived late in Peru. For us, fast food was the street vendor ladling out ceviche or soup.
The Latin American Cookbook—that’s an ambitious title! Were you overwhelmed by the task of compiling a book so broad in scope?
I took the responsibility of writing such a book seriously, but I didn’t overthink it and got right to work. Because of Mater Iniciativa, our research arm, I was already in contact with cooks, farmhands, grandmothers, food writers—people who, in sum, could contribute to making something truly great. I knew what I didn’t want to do was write another book of Latin American comfort food with a few pretty photos and call it a day. We made a point to go deeper. We’d ask people across the region what they ate when they were little, what crops they grew, and what was important to them about each particular dish. And I have to admit, I couldn’t have done this alone. It helped that I had a whole team behind me along the way.
How would you describe the recipes in the book?
We started with over 1,000 recipes and winnowed the list down by about half. It’s a book for home cooks. There are simple recipes you can make in 20 minutes. We included many emblematic and traditional dishes and also some newer ones, since the dishes that the current generation loves will likely become classics in the near future.
What do people most often get wrong about Latin American cuisine?
That it’s all meat and potatoes. The potato part really gets me—you have no idea how many varieties of potatoes there are, and how nutritious they can be. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t just make you fat. They are filled with vitamins and can taste like one corner of the Andes or another depending on their origin.
What changes are afoot in Latin American cuisine? What does the future hold?
At fine-dining restaurants in Japan, in the middle of an elaborate tasting menu, they’ll give you, like, a slice of perfectly ripe mango. And that’s the course. In Latin America I think we can learn to give our native ingredients this same reverence and respect. Imagine the same treatment, except instead of a mango it’s a pitaya cactus.
While stitching these diverse food cultures into the patchwork quilt that is this book, did anything strike you as a common thread?
The ingredients may change from region to region, but the sense of community is palpable wherever you go in Latin America. In Guatemala, when families gather for a funeral, they make a point to cook and get tipsy together. One person chops the carrots while the other plucks the chicken for soup… This idea of a family unified around food, paying tribute to their lost brother or sister—it’s priceless and beautiful. I’d even call it innovative: How many families do you know that cook together? What would society look like if we were more collaborative in this way?
What surprised you the most over the course of your research?
The willingness of people to help. Every time we reached out to someone for a recipe, some information, or whatever we needed, the answer was always a resounding “¡claro que sí!” That says a lot about the pride Latinos have in their food.
Where do you think that pride comes from?
When something is yours—meaning, you grew up with it, and you know it inside and out—you want to share it with the world. I think it’s a natural human impulse. People everywhere are passionate about their food, but in Latin America it takes on a different dimension because food is so present. And perhaps there’s something to be said for the lack of recognition for producing and exporting some of the world’s favorite foods and recipes. We want to say, look where your chocolate and tacos and coffee are coming from.
Will there be a sequel to The Latin American Cookbook?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey, it’s how little we know about our own history in Latin America—how certain ingredients arrived here, and how others were sent abroad. It’s nice to realize that there’s still lots to uncover. You know you’ve done a project justice when you can step back at the end and say, “¡Caramba! I’m ready for more!”