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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Library event explores Nuevo Latino cuisine

Venezuela’s national dish, the pabellón arepa, is a tasty blend of three major cultural influences.

The arepa, a grilled corn flour bread, goes back to Venezuela’s indigenous tribes. Inside the arepa lies shredded skirt steak, of Spanish influence, and black beans and sweet plantains, which are Afro-Caribbean.

The dish is representative of the ideas explored during Monday’s Nuevo Latino Cuisine convivium – Latino food is fusion food.

“[Latino cuisine] has had an enormous global influence from the very start and right through to the modern era,” said Ken Albala, professor of history at the University of the Pacific.

Albala, who teaches a food history course and is author of many culinary books, was one of four speakers at the convivium. Clare Hasler, executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute, Steve Sando, owner of Rancho Gordo, and Leopoldo López Gil, owner of Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, also spoke.

The UC Davis Library put on the event in the Putah Creek Lodge. Roughly 25 community members attended for an entrance fee of $50 and enjoyed a Venezuelan lunch catered by Pica Pica.

Pica Pica has a location in Napa and one in San Francisco’s Mission District. It serves traditional Venezuelan food, but has also begun to serve Californian influenced dishes. Adriana López, Leopoldo’s daughter and part owner of the restaurants, said that traditional Venezuelans would never serve vegetarian dishes. However, Pica Pica offers an arepa filled with tofu, avocado, plantains and beans. Venezuelans also rarely use dipping sauces, but Pica Pica offers a sauce menu.

Adding fusion elements is nothing new for Latino cuisine, Albala said.

“Latino cuisine’s traditional varieties are global even in its roots. Thus, it can continue to evolve and still hold on to its historical roots,” he said.

Albala gave a brief history lesson about Latino cuisine, dating back to the days of the Maya, who relied on corn as a staple.

“Corn is still everything,” he said.

Additionally, medieval Spanish food included items such as almond milk, ground nuts and bread crumbs used as a thickening agent. These still exist in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, the flavors in Mole poblano – a typical Mexican sauce made of chilies, cinnamon, cloves, anise seeds and other spices – don’t exist in modern European dishes. But they are prevalent in Indian curries.

“Cuisines need foreign influences to evolve … without constant probing from the outside, there would be no innovation,” Albala said.

Leopoldo also discussed Latino cuisine, and how different varieties use very different flavors and ingredients. For example, Colombian food utilizes a lot of potatoes and Peruvian food is unusually rich.

Sando shared his success story of turning the common bean into a culinary superstar. He grows his heirloom beans in Napa, and those beans are purchased by celebrity chefs, such as Thomas Keller.

“I’m really subtly changing the way people in the Bay Area eat, and that’s really powerful,” Sando said.

Currently Peter J. Shields Library has a Nuevo Latino Cuisine exhibit. About 150 books and recipes take viewers through the historical and anthropological progression of the cuisine.

Food, culture and literature are all tightly intertwined, and they deserve academic exploration, said Randolph Siverson, acting university librarian. Siverson said he hopes Monday’s convivium will be the start of a string of similar events.

JANELLE BITKER can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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