Most Caucasian Americans think the only time cinnamon belongs in milk is in Christmas eggnog. They’re probably pleasantly surprised when they discover horchata, a traditional Hispanic drink where the cinnamon joins rice milk, cane sugar and vanilla.
Many similar surprises await as traditional Hispanic dishes and flavors are discovered – although, with their high level of infiltration, there don’t seem to be many Hispanic dishes left to discover. Instead, many Hispanic dishes are being Americanized (for better or worse) and, at the same time, those once exotic flavors are influencing many non-Hispanic dishes.
Since 2000, the Hispanic population in the U.S. has expanded from about 35 million to more than 44 million in 2006 (the last year for which there is a U.S. Census Bureau report) and represent more than half of the nation’s population growth. (For the Census Bureau, “Hispanic” refers to people whose origin is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Spanish-speaking Central or South American countries, or other Hispanic/Latino, regardless of race.)
Hispanics are expected to top 102 million by 2050, representing 24.4 percent of the population.
For the food industry, this means a shift in the ever-changing American cuisine – as well as a mainstreaming of Hispanic dishes and flavors. The Hispanic influence on the nation’s cuisine has broadened beyond regions like the Southwest, where it has always been part of the tradition.
“Growing up in southwest Arizona, we had tamales every holiday like the rest of our neighbors,” says Merrilee Jacobs, owner and founder of 3 Hot Tamales, (www.3hottamales.com), Apison, Tenn., an innovative company that creates organic vegan tamales.
“When we became vegetarians, we didn't want to give up our holiday tradition, so decided to try and create the same flavors, just healthier,” she continues. “The burger-style/red chili is my favorite because it tastes just like the beef tamales I grew up eating. There's nothing that says comfort food like potatoes/green chilies and cheese!
“Since rolling tamales by hand was also a part of our tradition, we wanted to share that feeling of homemade goodness with our friends, so we package them dressed in their cornhusks,” she adds.
Add the consumer’s growing desire to experience new flavors to the increasing Hispanic demographics and you have a food trend that forces manufacturers to take notice.
“The growth in the Hispanic population in the U.S., coupled with the need to try new and more authentic flavors, expands Americans’ repertoire of Hispanic flavors,” says Chris Keegan, R&D chef at Cargill Flavor Systems (www.cargill.com ), Minneapolis.
The most popular flavors are chipotle, cilantro, chilies, masa, cumin and lime. “We’ve noted the use of these flavors in many non-traditional applications because the flavors add a nice twist to favorite American dishes. For example, creating a green-chili sauce to top omelets, or adding chipotle to soups, stews and creamy dips,” Keegan says. “More unique applications include adding cilantro to rice dishes and marinades to add brightness, and roasting chilies and using them in meat sautés, soups and stews.”
Hispanic flavors also have attracted the health-minded consumer. Traditional Hispanic staples – such as beans, peppers and tomatoes and the many fruits like mango and papaya -- are some of our healthiest foods.
French Meadow Bakery (www.frenchmeadow.com), Eagan, Minn., will add gluten-free tortillas to its line of sprouted organic tortillas. French Meadow’s “in-house Hispanic market expert,” Efren Sepulveda, provides insight into both popular Hispanic flavors and expansive applications.
“For cooking or on prepared foods, cheese and lemon juice are two items you see people using all the time,” says Sepulveda, who is managing director of French Meadow Bakery.
"Obviously you cannot forget salsas, corn, avocado and chocolate as ingredients or flavor enhancers to dishes with meat and chicken. Less traditional applications include chocolate in mole or tortillas, avocado as a flavor for tortillas or seasoning, and cheese in candy or ice cream or as a filling in chilies.”
The influence of authentic Hispanic dishes and flavors represents a healthy trend in the American cuisine that savvy food manufacturers will continue to take seriously.