There’s no better time than Hispanic Heritage Month to reflect on the cultural history and gastronomical complexity of Latin Cuisine, influenced by 400 years of Spanish colonization. It is much more than the three culinary staples we tend to think of: corn, beans and chiles.

Important in Latin cuisine is umami, one of the five basic tastes we experience when eating. It’s a brothy or savory taste naturally occurring in the flavor DNA of foods such as tomatoes and mushrooms, and developed through fermentation in products like soy sauce and parmesan cheese. If we take a look into the Latin pantry, we’ll find a variety of ingredients that deliver umami to enhance and develop flavors in recipes:

  • Maggi is one of the most popular ingredients used in modern Latin cuisine. It is a dark and savory fermented sauce used for seasoning. Invented by Julius Maggi in 1890, it’s an inexpensive substitute for a reduction of natural beef stock.
  • Many cured and dried meat products are umami-rich. One example from South America is carne-de-sol, or sundried meat, which is made by slicing beef, salting it, and letting it dry in the sun for a couple of days. Carne-del-sol is a main ingredient in feijoada, a classic South American bean stew with beef and pork.
  • The Spanish pantry contains a multitude of products with umami notes, like sardines, anchovies and cheeses, but my favorite is Iberico ham. It is made in a similar fashion as prosciutto, but produced from a black-footed pig that feeds on acorns. It is often enjoyed on pan con tomata, a Catalan dish of toasted bread, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic and tomato – two other umami-rich ingredients.
  • Huitalacoche, well known for its dark and musty flavor, is also referred to as corn fungus because it grows on ears of corn – usually in very warm temperatures and drought conditions. Huitalacoche is an acquired taste and is hard for some to palate. However, it can enhance flavor if used subtly in recipes, like in sopa de flor de calabaza, or squash blossom soup (see recipe below).

Are your taste buds getting excited? Try some of these Latin-inspired umami flavors in your own recipes, and check out an image gallery of a sampling of PepsiCo products that feature umami taste experiences, as well as spice and heat, similar to the tastes found in Latin cuisine.

(adapted from The Texas Hill Country Cookbook)

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons butter
2 ears of corn kernels, removed from cob

3 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut in strips
1 cup coarsely chopped zucchini
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces huitlacoche
2 cups sliced mushrooms
4 cups squash blossoms, stems and pistils discarded, coarsely chopped
6 cups low-fat and low-sodium chicken broth
Salt to taste

Tostitos Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips, lightly crushed
Sour cream
Chopped cilantro

Prepare the soup:
- In a large sauce pan over medium heat, cook the onion in butter until translucent.
- Add the corn, chiles, zucchini, garlic, and huitlacoche and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Stir in the mushrooms and squash blossoms and cook for 4 minutes.
- Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes. Salt to taste.
- To serve,  use wide soup bowls and garnish with Tostitos chips, sour cream and cilantro.