Learning from Experts: Lourdes Castro on making healthy Latin food delicious

Many people in the US associate Latin restaurants with greasy, cheesy, fattening foods. Those unfamiliar with Latin food and the diversity within that designation might expect these qualities from Latin restaurants and use them to assess “authenticity.” This notion has allowed the idea that traditional Latin foods can’t be healthy which is a tough thing for chefs to dispel. Using the word “healthy” can feel like a double-edged sword, potentially signifying bland, boring food, or that it means that everything else is unhealthy. Furthermore, some customers might feel that “healthifying” compromises authenticity.

We recently spoke to our friend and collaborator, Lourdes Castro RDN, about healthy eating in Latin American restaurants from a customer perspective. As a dietitian and health coach, her expertise helped us frame realistic and sustainable healthy eating goals that incorporate Latin food. This month, we’re asking Lourdes to showcase more of her culinary expertise and offer some tools for restaurants looking to encourage more healthy eating in their establishments.

Can you tell me about some of your favorite collaborations you’ve done with Latin American Restaurants?

I have had some great experiences working with Latin American Restaurants and have been fortunate to have worked with them in a variety of capacities.  Two collaborations that stand out are my work as a cookbook author with a Cuban restaurant, where I was tasked with researching how Cuban cuisine has evolved over the past 60 years, and my work with a Puerto Rican restaurant, where I was able to flex my nutrition data analytics muscles. 

My collaboration on the cookbook Cuba Cooks with Guillermo Pernot from Cuba Libre restaurant in Philadelphia is definitely a highlight in my career as it offered me the opportunity to travel to Cuba (my parent’s homeland) and interview many of the chefs driving the culinary movement in Havana at the time. I spent time in their kitchens performing research for the book and learned a great deal from their ongoing situation.  Given their lack of reliable access to ingredients, they are in a constant battle to do more with less.

I also really enjoyed the work I did with Que Chevere, the Puerto Rican fast-casual restaurant in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was in collaboration with the LARiA project. In that undertaking, my role was that of a Registered Dietitian and my task was to nutritionally analyze their top-selling menu items and work with the LARiA team in constructing guidance to the restaurant on ways to improve the nutritional offerings while at the same time providing revenue enhancements.   

The Fresqueria Bowl from Que Chevere in NYC

What are some simple changes or first steps LARs can make toward healthier menus?

The first thing is to reframe the concept that Latin American cuisine is unhealthy. We have so many hero ingredients, such as beans, avocado, root vegetables, tons of spices and herbs, citrus…the list goes on.  Bring a focus on those ingredients, and showcase them at the restaurants by placing them in bowls and bins to remind the diners that these are the foundation of the menu.  The good news is those ingredients are relatively inexpensive, shelf-stable, and versatile so they can make their way into menus in a variety of ways.

How can LARs offer healthy dishes that still make the experience feel special or indulgent?

Roasted Corn + Tomato Quinoa Bowl from Lourdes Castro MS RDN

I think presentation is key.  How a dish is plated and served can make something that is drab feel fab!  Personally, I love squeezing fresh lime juice on dishes and feel the addition of a simple lime wedge elevates a plate.  Adding other fresh and colorful touches like a small mound of pickled onions or a tangled mess of fresh cilantro adds flavor and visual fun.

Some chefs and LAR owners we’ve spoken to seem to think that healthy food has to be all or nothing – that is, a healthy menu has to be kale salads, grain bowls, and nothing else, or that incorporating healthy foods into a Latin menu compromises the integrity or dilutes culture. Do you think this is the case? How can LARs work towards offering more healthy options and still offer certain classics that customers expect?

The notion that Latin American food is not healthy is ridiculous!  But I agree it exists.  In my view, we have allowed ourselves to believe that Latin American dishes are fattening and unhealthy but if we really take a look at our ingredients we will see the cuisine offers many great options  Smoothies may not be traditional but batidos are.  Grain bowls seem trendy and inauthentic but rice and beans don’t.  Regardless of the Latin American country, I can find enough soups, stews, salads, grilled meats, root vegetables, leafy greens, and fruits within its cuisine to fill up a menu.  My advice to Latin American chefs and restauranteurs is to keep true to your menu but try to bring those hero ingredients I mentioned previously to the forefront.  And have fun with menu titles!

We’d like to thank our friend, Lourdes, for her invaluable perspective and endless support of our project. We hope for these conversations to continue the advancement, understanding, and appreciation of Latin American cuisine in the US. To learn more about Lourdes Castro’s history, her tasty recipes, and best-selling cookbooks, head to her website.

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