When I decided to delve into Latin American cooking as a young adult, I realized I would have to build my pantry from scratch. Reaching back to my memories of cooking Cuban food with my grandparents, I began to stock it with the things I used to reach for instinctively. Going further, I added a few items I have found along the way that weren’t strictly part my grandparents Cuban pantry but seemed to fit right in.
Still, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to come up with a list of only the essential items for a Latin pantry. I worried what I might be leaving out but didn’t want to include specialty items that may find themselves neglected after one use (like the adzuki beans, pistachio oil, and purple yam powder now taking up precious cupboard space) . I tried to include the items that lend themselves to the largest array of recipes and dishes. Mostly, I wanted to pull together a list of ingredients that make me feel at home no matter where I find myself.
While the degree of heat in Latin American food varies wildly by country and region, we generally agree to keep it spicy. Mexican oregano, more pungent and less sweet than the Mediterranean kind, is a perfect match for cumin in stews, soups, and marinades. For added smoke, Chile’s merquén, a Mapuchen blend of cacho de cabra (goat’s horn) peppers, coriander and cumin, is an interesting alternative to Spanish pimentón.
Finally, bijol, a pre-ground blend of corn flour, annatto seeds, and (even more) cumin, turns white rice yellow, but if you feel like splurging, a few threads of saffron is still the most elegant way to make it go gold.
Oils, Wine & Sherry
Though recipes branch off in a million directions, most start with some kind of sofrito. Olive oil is a standby though sunflower and safflower oil pop up a lot in Mexican recipes. Dendê or palm oil is a great find if you’d like to attempt Brazilian cuisine. When it all comes to a simmer, it’s always best to use a cooking wine you’d actually want to drink but there’s something comforting about having a hulking, screw top bottle of vino seco lurking somewhere in the cabinet for emergencies. It’s inexcusable and undrinkable, but dependable if you don’t use wine often. For a more palatable choice, I also keep a bottle of Spanish Jerez on hand.
The variety of peppers available can be overwhelming but when you’ve decided how much heat you can stand, pick from the dried chilis sold in bulging bags at the grocery store ready for roasting, soaking and stewing. While fresh peppers are always preferable, some like Peru’s ají amarillo are almost impossible to find stateside but too good to miss out on. Available jarred and as pureed paste, the hot/sweet pepper is perfect for salads and sauces. A little less exciting but no less essential, sliced and chopped pimientos are the standard finish for tomato based stews and rice dishes.
Beans and Grains
Black, red, white, chickpeas or pigeon peas, every Latin pantry should be stocked with dried beans for when there’s time and canned beans for when there’s not.
Masa harina, lime-treated corn flour more commonly known by its brand name Maseca, is used for making tender and flavorful tortillas and tamales at home. Masarepa, a slightly coarser pre-cooked corn flour, is mixed with water, a touch of butter or oil, and salt to make arepas. Bake and fill the finish arepas with whatever add-ins you have on hand – cheese, beans, shredded beef. Lastly, quinoa, an ancient Incan heritage grain, is so completely packed with every kind of nutrient that you could probably get by on little else.
Stock your pantry with a few cans of evaporated, condensed or coconut milk, and you’ll always be just a few steps (and eggs) away from an array of custards, puddings, and flans.
Mexican chocolate, sold in disks and rolled in sugar, makes an incredible spice-laced champurrado but also flavors moles and savory sauces.
Guava, sold as a sweet paste or jelly, preserve or poached in syrup, goes great with cream cheese for a last minute dessert.
Galleticas Maria, sweet crackers, popular for breakfast, with tea or merienda, an afternoon snack, can also be ground up and substituted for graham crackers in pie crusts.
Finally, unrefined cane sugar, sold in large chunks as Colombian panela, Mexican piloncillo or papelón, and Brazilian rapadura, to name a few, is a healthier alternative to processed sugars.
That’s my ideal Latin pantry. I’d love to hear what’s in yours?
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.