What is Latino heritage, and where can you find it along the North Coast? The answer depends on who you talk to.
Sonoma County is home to a diverse Latino population with roots in Central America, South America, the Caribbean and regions of Mexico that have very little in common.
Each group brings with it a rich and complex blend of history, customs and traditions that perhaps are most apparent in the food
“Many of the region’s countries were first settled by the Spaniards, who were very open to incorporating into their own cuisine the dishes and ingredients of indigenous peoples in South America and the Caribbean, Africans, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italians, Asians and so many others,” said Laura Larque, a Latin American historian who teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“Depending on the ingredients available and the geography, regions or even towns next to each other developed a completely different way of cooking. Tamales in Oaxaca are not the same as in Guerrero, and they even vary from one region of Oaxaca to another,” she said.
“That’s why Latin American cuisine is so rich, with unique flavors that you just won’t find on other continents.”
To provide a window into the culinary richness represented in Sonoma County, we asked six chefs with very different roots — from Mexico’s Oaxaca and Yucatan regions to Cuba, Peru, Brazil and Puerto Rico — to describe the quintessential ingredients that make their cuisine uniquely authentic.
Their answers range from indigenous spices to special sauces, often made with family recipes that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Manuel Arjona — Maya Restaurant, Yucatan
For Chef Manuel Arjona of Sonoma’s Maya Restaurant, the tiny orange-red seeds of a small tropical plant, achiote, are the herald of Yucatan cooking.
“It’s an ancient spice,” he said, “a little nutty and savory. It has a unique taste, something similar to paprika, that gives an unmistakable flavor to pork or chicken. It’s a very strong flavor, very distinctive, and a little goes a long way — you might compare it to saffron in that way, something that you use in very small quantities. The Mayans used achiote in almost every dish.”
At Maya, Arjona recommends Cochinita Pibil — pork slowly roasted in banana leaves with achiote and sour orange — as a good way to learn about the spice. “It’s a simple dish, but the flavor — unforgettable!”
Those banana leaves also play a big role in Yucatan cuisine. “It’s a unique flavor,” said Arjona, “like using parsley, or cilantro or any other fresh herb. It’s toasted, and I add it to our dishes and stocks. We also wrap our tamales in banana leaves, just as Mayans did.”
Octavio Diaz — Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar, Oaxaca
“We are so rich in food in Oaxaca,” said Chef Octavio Diaz of Healdsburg’s Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar. “We use mescal, black beans, blue beans, blue corn, white corn; and grasshoppers have been around for a long time. But if I have to name one ingredient that sets us apart, it’s mole.
“Mole exists throughout Mexico, and everywhere it’s different. In Oaxaca, though, we’re the region most overpopulated with spices, and you see that in our Mole Negro de Oaxaca, with many kinds of chiles and spices, Mexican chocolate, garlic, almonds, tomatoes, raisins.
See all stories in our Latino Lifestyle Special Section