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If youre already familiar with the rich variety of Hispanic foods, then you know that it includes more than just tacos, or other popular Mexican cuisine dishes like enchiladas and quesadillas. Hispanic refers to people who are from, or who are descendants of people from Spanish-speaking countries, so when referencing Hispanic cuisine, you’re technically talking about foods eating in countless countries, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and so many others scattered across the Caribbean and Latin America.
That means that while Hispanic foods have tons of similarities, like using many of the same ingredients including plantains, cilantro, peppers, and using similar cuts of meats like chicharron, cuisines can vastly change from one country to another.
One standout way in which Hispanic foods are similar though is that they tend to get a mistakenly bad rep for being unhealthy, and that’s not true at all, says Krista Linares, RDN. “The misconception that Latino foods are ‘unhealthy’ usually comes from incomplete knowledge about the cuisine or overemphasis on its special occasion or restaurant meals, versus how people from that culture cook and eat at home.”
Also, most Hispanic dishes can also be modified to meet health goals, adds Diana Mesa, RDN. “Whenever I hear people refer to Cuban food as unhealthy, my ancestors roll over in their graves. I’m a firm believer that we can still enjoy our cultural foods while honoring our health. We can choose to grill or sauté instead of fry, we can be mindful of our portion sizes, and we can add a side of extra veggies like a tomato and avocado salad, while still enjoying the tortilla or the rice.”
You can eat whatever you want in moderation, and Hispanic foods are a mouth-watering addition to any menu. So if you’re tired of ordering the same ol’ thing the next time you’re dining out or prepping dinner, here are some foods you should try, according to these Latina nutritionists.
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You can probably find a version of stuffed peppers in most cuisines around the world, but in Hispanic cuisine, the most common type of chile relleno (stuffed pepper) is a poblano pepper filled with cheese, dipped in a batter, and fried, says Linares.
“It’s up to you to decide if a fried dish makes sense to you, but Linares says that she find most of her clients can fit something fried, like chile rellenos, in on special occasions, aka enjoy it in moderation.
But, if you want to enjoy this dish more frequently, consider adding some plant protein (like beans) or an extra vegetable to the filling or serving, and you can always bake your peppers instead of frying them.
Over in Puerto Rico, pasteles are traditionally enjoyed during the holiday season, but you can eat them year-round. A pastele is kind of like a tamale, except it’s usually made with plantains, not a corn-based dough, and stuffed with pieces of pork, chicken, or other meat protein.
Pasteles are prepared in different ways, so recipes differ from person to person. “Some use only green bananas or green plantains that are unripe, firm, and very green for the masa or dough; others use pumpkin or yuca, also known as cassava, and others use only yuca,” says Diana Rodriguez, MS, RD, CDN.
You’ll often find them wrapped in either banana, plantain leaves, parchment paper, or foil. If you want to make your own, you can decrease the fat and calorie content of a pastele by using shredded chicken breast as your protein, says Rodriguez.
Tres leches, literally translates to three milks, which is what people use to make this cake (and some even use four). “It is a rich cake with frosting on top and served in a pool of sweet, creamy sauce consisting of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and regular milk,” says Rodriguez.
It’s so tasty it’s hard to resist once you’ve had a bite, but enjoy it in moderation, says Rodriguez.
Tacos are probably the most recognized Hispanic food of all, because…uh…what’s not to love?! Picture it: a warm tortilla topped with your protein and veggies of choice.
Yep, tacos are delicious, but even better, they’re also a balanced meal, Mesa says. “The tortilla serves as the source of carbohydrates, your fillings count as protein, and the toppings are veggies.” Just be mindful of your portions, and fill them up with as many veggies as possible to load up on fiber that’ll keep you feeling full and satisfied.
Arepa are typically served in countries including Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. An arepa is a traditional Venezuelan dish that consists of a disc made from a corn-based dough, and then stuffed with all kinds of fillings from meats to veggies to cheese.
“I teach my clients to think of the arepa itself as a source of complex carbs, which give us energy, and that the filling is our opportunity to add whatever other nutrients we need,” says Linares. Black beans are a popular filling that will provide both protein and fiber. Use salsas or avocado to complete the meal and get an extra dose of fiber, vitamins, and healthy fats, adds Linares.
A popular dish in Cuba, ropa vieja is a shredded beef dish made with vegetables like tomato, onions, carrot, and even olives. Ropa vieja translates to “old clothes” because the dish looks like a bunch of rags thrown together.
It’s typically served with rice and beans, so it’s already a pretty balanced meal, but if you want to up its health benefits, Linares recommends adding a serving of vegetables on the side, like fresh tomato slices.
Ceviche is a traditional Peruvian dish, but you’ll find it in many South American countries. It consists of raw fish cured in a lemon or lime juice as a base with chopped onions, cilantro, chile, corn, peppers, or whatever the person preparing it wants to throw in there.
“Ceviche [is full of nutritious benefits] due to its nutrient-rich protein composition from the fish, antioxidants, heart-healthy omega-three fatty acids, and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K, which are essential for fat absorption,” says Rodriguez. “The marinade also contains minerals such as zinc, selenium, potassium, and phosphorus, which help keep your bones, muscles, and heart working properly.
Paella is really a Spanish dish, since it originated in Valencia, Spain, but many Hispanic countries have adopted paella and made it their own.
It’s a rice-based dish that’s filled with veggies like peas, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, and all kinds of seafood, though you can choose the protein you add to it. If you do opt for a seafood paella, you’re also getting a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin B12, says Mesa.
It’d be hard to not find horchata on the menu of a Mexican restaurant. Horchata is a drink that’s made from rice and cinnamon, and then sweetened with vanilla, sugar, or other ingredients depending on the recipe used.
Some versions of it are higher in sugar than other, says Linares. So because of the sugar content, Linares recommends also drinking a glass of water before having horchata. The water addresses your thirst and then you can drink the horchata for enjoyment without going past your satiety level.
“I also recommend serving horchata with a high protein meal,” she says. The protein can promote a more gradual release of the sugar into your blood stream.
Pico de Gallo
If you’ve had fresh salsa at a Mexican restaurant, then you’ve likely eaten a version of pico de gallo. It’s made from fresh chopped tomatoes and onions, cilantro, and a variety of seasonings, including salt and lime juice.
“Pico de gallo is a really easy way to squeeze some extra vegetable servings and flavor into a meal,” says Linares. “It can be a good source of extra fiber and vitamin C.”
These may look like tacos, but they’re actually baleadas, a traditional Honduran street food that includes beans, cheese, and your choice of meat or other filling between a folded flour tortilla.
They can be eaten as a breakfast food when filled with eggs and avocado, or as a lunch or dinner when it’s stuffed with chicken, beef, or whatever you want really, says Mesa.
To up your nutrient intake, Mesa recommends adding some cabbage, tomatoes, onions, or other extra veggies, and choosing a whole wheat flour tortilla for extra fiber.
For the best lomo saltado, you’d probably have to make your way to a Peruvian restaurant. The Peruvian dish consists of sirloin beef strips sautéed in a soy and aji amarillo-based sauce (Peruvian yellow chile pepper) with red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Fries (yep French fries) are also smothered into the sauce, and this is altogether served over rice.
In the Domincan culture, sancocho is typically served at large family or friend gatherings. It’s a stew that people enjoy even in the summer months, and it’s made with up to seven different meats and large quantities of starchy vegetables, like green plantains, yautia (malanga), yuca (cassava), and corn. It’s also usually served with white rice and avocado, says Rodriguez.
If you’re looking to make sancocho a bit lighter, since it can be a carb-heavy food, Rodriguez recommends substituting some of the starchy vegetables, like potatoes, with carrots and turnips, and using a combination of lean skinless chicken and skinless chicken thighs as your protein.
Chicken mole is really all about the sauce—the mole, which the chicken is dressed in. “Mole has many different regional varieties. Mole poblano is perhaps the most popular version and features multiple types of chile, sesame seeds, almonds and cocoa,” says Linares.
Though you might think tossing your chicken in sauce makes it unhealthy, it’s actually not. “Clients often forget that sauces are also a source of nutrients and mole poblano provides fiber, fat, and a small serving of vegetables,” says Linares.
To make it a full veggie serving, she recommends also garnishing your chicken mole with ingredients like red onion and avocado slices.
Elote (Mexican Street Corn)
Elote is an upgrade to your basic corn on the cob. “It’s typically served with either Mexican crema (a condiment similar to sour cream) or mayonnaise, cheese, lime juice and chile powder.
But it’s really up to you what you throw on there. “The nice thing about elote is that they usually are made to order so you can work with the elotero (the person making it) to get it the way you want. This could mean asking for more or less of certain toppings, depending on your health goals,” says Linares.
The name of this drink translates to “die dreaming,” in English because it’s that good. The traditional morir soñando calls for evaporated milk, regular milk, white sugar, and orange juice, so it can be a bit high in calories, says Rodriguez.
But you can make a healthier alternative by reducing the amount of evaporated milk you use to make it, opting for low-fat milk instead of full-fat, decreasing the amount of sugar added, and going for fresh-squeezed orange juice, instead of store-bought which tends to be higher in sugar, Rodriguez explains.
Tostones Rellenos (Stuffed Fried Plantains)
Tostones rellenos, or stuffed fried plantains in English, is one of those dishes that every Hispanic country has a version of, says Mesa. “In Cuba, we enjoy tostones rellenos with picadillo (ground beef) and olives or camarones enchilados (creole shrimp).”
The dish typically is made by molding a piece of fried plantain into a cup shape and stuffing it with whatever you prefer from guacamole to meat to fish. The meal is a perfect balance of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats, says Mesa. But to avoid frying your tostones in an excessive amount of oil, Mesa recommends making them in the air fryer.
Arroz con Pollo (Rice With Chicken)
“Everyone’s abuelita has a special version of arroz con pollo,” says Mesa. “Chunks of chicken are cooked in yellow rice with mixed vegetables, like peas, peppers, carrots, and onions, depending on where in Latin America you’re eating it.”
This dish is highly nutritious because the rice is cooked right in the chicken bone broth, which is packed with protein and minerals like calcium and iron, says Mesa. You can also add more vegetables to the rice to increase its nutritional value, she adds. Some regions of Latin America also add olives to the dish, which contribute heart-healthy fats to it.
Most Latin American countries have their own version of an empanada, but they can differ in fillings, preparation style, or even their name (some countries refer to them as pastelitos), says Mesa. “Cuban empanadas are wrapped in dough and filled with ground beef, raisins, and olives, while a Salvadorian empanada [might swap] sweet plantain for the dough.”
If you want to up your nutrient intake, go for empanadas stuffed with veggies like mushrooms, peppers, or even potatoes.
The easiest way to describe pupusas, a dish typically served in El Salvador or Honduras, is that it’s basically a stuffed flatbread. The filling usually includes several ingredients like refried beans, cheese, and meat.
Rodriguez recommends opting for low-fat ground chicken and cheese to help reduce the saturated fat and calorie content in your pupusas.
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