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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Jose Garces is among the most talented and innovative chefs in America. He opened his first restaurant, Amada, in 2005, and since then, his Garces Group has opened 14 other restaurants across the country. He won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2009, and he's also a Food Network Iron Chef, along with the likes of Bobby Flay, Cat Cora and Michael Symon.

Now Chef Garces has a new book, "The Latin Road Home." Part cookbook, part memoir and travelogue, Garces leads readers on a delicious journey through five distinct cultures and cuisines. Chef Garces will join us in a moment, but we also want to hear from you. Tell us about one food or meal, which instantly transports you home. Our number: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Chef Jose Garces is in the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. So good to have you with us. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOSE GARCES: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

NEARY: Now this book, "The Latin Road Home," focuses on the cuisine of five different countries: Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. First of all, why those five countries? What is it that they have in common that you wanted to explore?

GARCES: Well, they're all countries that have been inspirational to me throughout my 20 years of cooking. And they all have their own kind of unique elements that have inspired my cooking. And, you know, we could start with the first one, Ecuador. I'm Ecuadorian. I was born and raised in Chicago, but both of my parents emigrated from Ecuador. And then, I mean, really, I could tell a story about each country and why it's particularly...

NEARY: You know what I was going to try and do with you, if you wanted to play this game, kind of an "Iron Chef" kind of game, which was just sort of go through each of the country and give me a quick, little thumbnail sketch, maybe even just word that's - one word that might be - really will describe, you know, something about that country's food. Let's start with Ecuador since you were talking about it.

GARCES: Oh I would say Indian native.

NEARY: And that means what exactly?

GARCES: That just mean - these indigenous people that have been there and have, you know, have their traditions in food have been translated throughout the generations and are still ever present.

NEARY: Spain.

GARCES: Spain. Well, you know, for me, I think Spanish food is festive. It's European. It's classic, and it's involved in all of the cuisines that I spoke of.

NEARY: Mexico.

GARCES: Mexico. Ancient, traditional, really - gosh, the root of cuisine.

NEARY: Peru.

GARCES: Peru, I think has the same similar features that Ecuador has and their neighboring countries. But just again, very indigenous, very rustic, home style.

NEARY: And Cuba.

GARCES: Cuba. The country where my wife is from, so Fidel Castro and...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCES: It is a cuisine that is Caribbean. It's festive. It's fun, but it has some roots.

NEARY: You know, I like the fact that these are all linked in some way, and it's almost hard to trace the links. You sort of open the book by saying that, you know, certain foods had gone back and forth across, you know, from Spain to - from the New World to the old, and then back again. And I wanted you to talk a little a bit about that and how they're all kind of linked in some way. Do they all begin in Spain, or...

GARCES: I think that the Spanish domination throughout, you know, the - throughout time has - they've imprinted their cuisine, their culture in these different areas. And then you take the indigenous population that was there during the Spanish colonization, and that marriage is really what was become their cuisine currently.

NEARY: Yeah. And I know so little about - you know, so interested that your heritage is Ecuadorian, if that's the correct way we're putting it...

GARCES: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: ...because I don't know a thing about Ecuador. I was thinking about it. I thought, I don't know about food from Ecuador, what it is like.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCES: Yeah. Well, it's not a popular, I would say, mainstream cuisine here in the U.S. It's something that, I think, still needs to be discovered, and it's a very flavorful cuisine. I think, you know, one of the things that I've - some of the best cooks that I've cooked with, whether it's in New York or Chicago or even here in Philadelphia, are actually Ecuadorians. And there's something about their palates that really just inspires me, and has a really deep sense of flavor.

NEARY: Can you give me an example of a sort of, you know, classic Ecuadorian dish or meal?

GARCES: Sure. In "The Latin Road Home," I talk about this kind of peasant style that's called las cosas finas, along with frittata. So frittata is a fried, crispy pork, and las cosas finas translates into the finer things, or fine things. And what it really is is a corn in hominy salad with fried pork. So that would be something that I could remember when I was seven years old. I would see these ladies drive around these large carts and scream mote, mote. And that would just mean that there is this hominy salad with crispy pork, and that would be a, I would say, one - an Ecuadorian staple.

NEARY: One thing about this book is you write about, you know, the food that people cook at home, would cook home, but also about the culture of street food. How is that - how - why has that flourished so much in these cultures, the street vendor?

GARCES: Well, I think it's, you know, it's an inexpensive way to eat, obviously. And I think that most people are on the go, and they're moving. They're working, and to get something quick. And to be a successful street vendor, you have to put something, a product out there that's really flavorful and can nourish people at the same time. So it's a study, I think, in really nourishing the people of the streets in a fast way.

NEARY: Yeah. Who was the cook in your family? Was it your mother?

GARCES: My mom and my grandma were both great cooks. My grandma, Mamita Amada, who's 91 years old, actually taught my mom how to cook. And my mom kind of passed on a lot of those recipes and techniques to myself - but both really solid cooks.

NEARY: Is there one dish that they cook that you particular love beside the one you just mentioned? Or...

GARCES: Well, I think - I mean, they cook so many things well, but I would say my grandma's empanadas are some of the best. And there's a big section devoted just to Ecuadorian-style empanadas. And my mom, I mean, she just has an array of flavor, so her Ecuadorian-style shrimp ceviche is one of my favorites.

NEARY: Now, empanadas are a food that you would find across a number of these cultures, right? You would find different versions of empanadas?

GARCES: Yeah, absolutely. If you were a Colombian, you would have your version of an empanada. If you are an Argentinean, you might find a dough that's baked and has a butter sheen on it. And then in Ecuador, you'll find more crispy-fried empanadas. So, yeah, every culture has their own version of empanadas.

NEARY: Now, I was asking about a dish that reminds you of home, because we've asked our listeners to tell us about some foods that remind them of home, or transport them home. And we have some callers. So let me go now to - I think it's Alicia(ph) in New York. Hello?

ALICIA: Yes. Hi.

NEARY: Hi.

ALICIA: Thanks for having me on the show. I listen all the time.

NEARY: Good. Great.

ALICIA: The one dish that I said that brings me back in just beans and rice. My grandfather was from Texas. My grandmother was from Oklahoma. And we just had Mexican food all the time. It was delicious. And they would always make beans and rice. And even now, they're both passed, but we still have it. My aunt just made it for us. And just the smell, the flavors, it just reminds me of them and of my family, and all the people that I have here and all the people that I still don't - I can't see anymore, but I still - it just brings me right back.

NEARY: You - are you a cook? Do you like to cook it yourself, or you'd like it when...

ALICIA: I...

NEARY: ...others prepare it for you?

ALICIA: I love to cook, but I don't do it very often. But - and I can never make beans and rice. It would come out crunchy or mush. But bless the people who can make them, because I can't.

NEARY: Well, maybe Jose has some advice for you. Thanks for calling in.

ALICIA: Thank you.

GARCES: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Beans are a staple, and my wife is Cuban. So I have to partake in my weekly dosage of Cuban beans, whether they're red or black or pinto. I mean, you name it. And, you know, one thing that's in beans, I think, having some ham product, whether it's bacon or a smoked ham hock, good aromatics and just giving them their time to cook. A good soak always works, as well. So soaking the beans overnight and then cooking them with enough liquid and just letting them go slow and low works.

NEARY: Yeah, that liquid. I think liquid - do you have a good balance of liquid and beans?

GARCES: A ratio?

NEARY: Yeah.

GARCES: Probably for, like, one cup of beans, you would have about six cups of water.

NEARY: A lot of water, then.

GARCES: A lot of water. Yeah. And then, you know, if they start to dry, just add more. And as they break down, they start to release some of their starch, and it begins to really make a flavorful broth, as well.

NEARY: Why is it that certain foods like beans, corn - I think you mentioned corn - avocados, those are sort of basic foods that I associate with Latin cuisine, different Latin cuisines. How does that happen?

GARCES: Well, I mean, corn is just - it's a crop that has been indigenous to these different countries, and beans, as well. And so, you know, they're cooking things that are grown in their areas. And so for years, that - those traditions have gone forth. And, yeah, I mean, I think - as you mentioned those ingredients, that, to me, signifies Latin cuisine. They couldn't be more Latin, corn, beans, avocados. Right on.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another caller. We're going to go to Marie, who's calling from Needham, Arizona. Hi, Marie.

MARIE: Hello. I'm in Needham, Arkansas.

NEARY: Oh, OK, Arkansas. Sorry about that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARIE: Yeah. AR stands for Arkansas.

(LAUGHTER)

MARIE: My food is lefse. It's a Norwegian - I call it a Norwegian tortilla, because you roll it flat and fry it on the griddle. And you can sprinkle it with sugar and butter and roll it up and eat it. Or you could wrap it around a hotdog or a polse, as a Norwegian would say, and have a little mustard on it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Marie. So that's interesting, a Norwegian tortilla. And that's interesting, Jose, the way certain foods can translate to another culture. And before you answer that question, I just want to remind our audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

But, again, Jose, it's interesting how, you know, certain foods that, in certain countries, they're Latin. In another country, they're - you know, they take on a whole other sort of feel.

GARCES: Sure, sure. And I think that, you know, if I could just speak to maybe what the wrap is. So that like a tortilla, which is one of my favorite vessels for transporting flavor, you know, a popular thing, a popular trend these days is Korean tacos. So to transport the tortilla into a dish that has spicy Korean pork and kimchi, you're starting to mix both cultures together. And, you know, if it works, it works.

NEARY: And sometimes it does, really well.

And some - yeah.

Let's go to Pablo, who's calling from San Antonio, Texas. Pablo, go ahead.

PABLO: OK. Hello. Thank you very much for the opportunity. I was actually driving back from the hospital. I'm a doctor from Ecuador, and I live in Texas. And I used to live in Chicago. That's where I trained. And I listen to your show(ph) today, and it was interesting, because the other night, I actually dreamed that there was lady yelling: chochos con tostado.

(LAUGHTER)

PABLO: And my family - the last time they brought chochos con tostado in - from Ecuador. And, unfortunately, I don't know the translation of chochos in English, but maybe Jose can actually help me with that.

GARCES: Chochos means toasted corn. So chochos are - they are toasted corn, but that's how I would translate them.

PABLO: All right. And, well, they're delicious. They sell them in the street, and that, you know, takes me back to my hometown. And I really appreciate the call. Thank you so much.

NEARY: OK. Thanks so much for calling, Pablo. I hope you can find some. Maybe you can find some in San Antonio. I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: But, you know, that's really interesting, the way of food or - can take you places, can take you home that way, you know, just instantly brings up memories and...

GARCES: Absolutely. And, you know, one of the things that I hope to do with "The Latin Road Home" is transport people to these different countries. So you open the chapter in Cuba, I'm taking you to a paladar, which is a restaurant in somebody's home in Cuba. And I'm sharing with you an - a meal that I experienced in a different paladar.

And that's been the goal of "The Latin Road Home," is to really give folks some insight into these five different Latin countries and transport them for that one hour or two hour that they're cooking and experiencing the food, and that they're feeling like they're in one of these Latin countries.

NEARY: I thought - so the paladar is actually a restaurant in someone's home?

GARCES: Yeah. Paladar is a - I found that the restaurants weren't as great in Havana as the paladars were, which were little tables inside somebody's home. So it might only be like two or three tables, but folks were cooking their home-cooked meals, and that's where you would have dinner.

NEARY: That sounds great. That sounds wonderful. Let's take one last call. Rick is calling from Norwich, New York. Hello, Rick.

RICK: Hello, there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

RICK: Well, the food that transports me back home - my mother, God bless her, she passed away. We lost her in 2005. But every Christmas, she made something called baumkuchen. We were German. And baumkuchen is basically like a jelly roll, but she made it with - it was totally chocolate. The cake was chocolate. The filling was chocolate. The stuff you drizzled all over the top was chocolate, chocolate-covered strawberries and raspberries. We - my family jokingly called it the chocolate suicide.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Rick. Appreciate it. And, again, Jose Garces is with us with his new book - talking about his new book, which he hopes - "The Latin Road Home," which he hopes will transport you to five different countries and their cultures and cuisines. So good talking with you today, Jose Garces.

GARCES: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: And tomorrow - and if you'd like to see some recipes, we posted his Empanadas de Viento and Ropa Viejos con Frijoles Colorados. That's at our website, npr.org. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington.

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