“When you read this book, you will eat my life.”
“Gran Cocina Latina” is chef, historian, and author Maricel E. Presilla's magnum opus. Guiding her readers through 20 Latin American countries and hundreds of restaurants, chefs, home-cooks, vendors, and markets, Presilla presents over 500 recipes that encapsulate the flavors and techniques of Latin American cuisine. As chef and owner of restaurants Cucharamama, Zafra, and Ultramarinos in New Jersey, Presilla has kept a foot in the culinary world while also publishing four preceding collections of histories, lifestyles, and recipes of the Caribbean. Winner of the James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year and International Cooking, “Gran Cocina Latina” is a testament to Presilla’s comprehensive collection of Latin American food, history, and life through cuisine.
Presilla’s recipes are direct as she’s able to meet readers of varying levels of expertise in Latin American gastronomy. She guides readers through recipes as fundamental as preparing rice while highlighting its deceptive simplicity. Whether to prepare it as fluffy and al dente (like in Colombia), with raspa or cucayo crust (from Cuba and Colombia), or without a gummy texture (disapprovingly called api in Ecuador), the simple rice is as variable as the regions that use it.
The winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic Region in 2012 also demonstrates her culinary prowess as she distills some of Latin America’s most complex recipes into page-long summaries. She steers the complex world of Mexican moles, walks curious readers through fermenting Chilean chicha beer or Costa Rican vino de flor de Jamaica (or hibiscus wine), and dissects the infamously difficult dessert flan into digestible steps. The ingredients and measurements are explicitly clear, and her directions are elegantly concise as they maintain a consistent syntactical flow throughout the book.
Presilla’s mix of literary style in “Gran Cocina” is as much a memoir of her life in Cuba and travels through Latin America as it is an informative cookbook. In the introduction to the collection, Presilla confesses, “Writing this book is a way of acknowledging my expanding personal identity and the way I cook now.” She explores the complicated identity that Latin Americans within the United States have — a duality of simultaneously holding two identities of being American and also Latin American that is only recognized within the U.S. As a Cuban immigrant, she became obsessed with piecing together the “seductive smells and flavors of a living, boiling cooking pot, its hidden potential to reveal the past, present, and future.” Yet, Presilla’s mission is to uncover the unifying features of Latin American cooking and the underlying unifying pieces, and honor the distinctions between respective cultures’ traditional ingredients and methods of cooking.
“Gran Cocina Latina” is a testament to food’s power to ground readers in culture and make connections across continents by sharing a meal at a dinner table. Presilla “honors her very personal account of how Latin American food became a core of my existence,” and navigates readers through a complex historical and geographical understanding of the unity and uniqueness of Latin cuisine.
“Two inspirations lie at the heart of this book,” Priscilla explains: “To celebrate the wonderful present moment of mixing that is creating a Latin American identity without boundaries in the United States, and to search diligently for what can be preserved of traditional and sometimes even ancient practices […] My aim is to adapt and transform the elemental beauty and tastes of Latin American cooking to the modern kitchen while respecting the food’s primary flavors, and to create earthy, intensely flavored dishes that keep you reaching for more.”
As a trained cultural anthropologist and holder of a PhD in Spanish Medieval History from New York University, Presilla’s vast knowledge and academic research shines through her ethnographic narrative. After leaving Cuba in 1970, Presilla found curiosity in “understanding how Arabs, Jews, and Christians each contributed to the development of the Spanish character, culture, and cuisine.” As her research became rooted in the liminality of the Latin American identity in the United States, Presilla “began to see what had made Latin America the world’s first and greatest laboratory of intercontinental culinary ‘fusion’.” Through “Gran Cocina Latina,” Presilla offers an encyclopedic collection of flavors, ingredients, and cooking methods. Her short glossary on the uses of a variety of peppers analyzes the evolution of Old and New World spices and she intentionally catalogs the array of cooking tools that populate traditional Latin kitchens. Her recipes thoughtfully combine the origins of the dish — like her highlighting the Mayan significance of cohinita pibil — with her own experience tasting and learning about the recipes she presents.
Interwoven throughout the book are brilliant visuals. Photography couple Gentl and Hyers honor Presilla’s dishes in Vermeer-style portraiture. The photographs are clear, natural, and elegantly complex, featuring creative uses of light and color, since many of Presilla’s dishes are accompanied by detailed illustrations. Presilla’s diction provides an additional element of visualization as she provides vignettes about the dishes she shares. Her segment “Latin American Thanksgiving,” transports readers to dinner with her family during her first Thanksgiving in the U.S., and her recipe for “Salt Cod Season” demonstrates the communal melancholy and exuberance of Holy Week.
As a piece of personal narrative, continental memory, and almanac of ingredients and techniques, the size and depth of “Gran Cocina Latina” makes it a dense and thorough collection of experience. However, this volume of information may prove to be difficult for readers to engage with. Though the recipes are thorough and vast, simply skipping through the pages to find what to make for dinner loses sight of the text’s significance. Yet, its 900 page depth is a daunting choice for a casual read.
Instead, “Gran Cocina” is a book you return to throughout your lifetime, a staple for any kitchen, and a sentimental tribute to Latine cultural identity. If you’re looking for a simple cookbook with straightforward recipes, this may not be the read for you. But if you’d like to understand the Latin American food scene and the origins of some of the most well-known global flavors, this book can become a lighthouse.
—Staff writer Julia Yanez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.