Cross-Culture Cilantro Sauce And Other Secrets Of 'Gran Cocina Latina' : The Salt For her new book, Gran Cocina Latina, chef Maricel Presilla visited homes and restaurants across Latin America to document their food. But one dish familiar to Americans, the sauce often served with Cuban-style yuca fries, has a surprising origin — Presilla herself.
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Cross-Culture Cilantro Sauce And Other Secrets Of 'Gran Cocina Latina'

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Cross-Culture Cilantro Sauce And Other Secrets Of 'Gran Cocina Latina'

Cross-Culture Cilantro Sauce And Other Secrets Of 'Gran Cocina Latina'

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If you haven't had your breakfast yet this may get you in the mood. If have had your breakfast, this may get you in the mood for seconds.

Our colleague David Greene recently had a visitor and a cooking lesson.



Hello. Maricel?


GREENE: Hi, I'm David Greene.

PRESILLA: Hi, David. How are you?

GREENE: Very nice to meet you, welcome to my home.

PRESILLA: I have a tamarillo, book...


GREENE: You have a restaurant in a suitcase.

PRESILLA: More or less.


GREENE: My guest, Maricel Presilla, she's a petite woman with one huge personality. And she dragged this roll-aboard suitcase down to Washington, D.C. from Hoboken, New Jersey, where she owns two restaurants. Now, she doesn't like the word chef. She says it sounds too French. But she's written a lot of cookbooks and her newest is a guidebook to Latin cooking, it's called "Gran Cocina Latina."

PRESILLA: Here, I brought yuca.

GREENE: So that's what a yuca looks like. It's brown. It's shaped sort of like a big cucumber, I would say.

PRESILLA: A big cucumber, are you kidding? Have you seen a cucumber of that size?


PRESILLA: Not even the biggest cucumber...

GREENE: A really big cucumber.


GREENE: Presilla, who's a native of Cuba has cooked in kitchens all over Latin America. And she brought one of her recipes to my kitchen.

PRESILLA: Yuca fries is a large with cilantro sauce a la Brasilia. I need a big knife.


PRESILLA: So we cut this yuca into four-, five-inch lengths, cutting through two layers of skin. So you see there's a thin, brown bark-like...

GREENE: It's almost like the bark of a tree.

PRESILLA: Exactly.

GREENE: You're peeling off the bark.

PRESILLA: Exactly. Now, let's get a pot of water.


PRESILLA: And then let's start cooking.

GREENE: OK. So tell me about the name of the book.

PRESILLA: "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America."

GREENE: And it is a massive book. Its how many years of work went into it?

PRESILLA: My whole life. My whole life. There are recipes there of my childhood, things that I remember my family, my aunts doing. But also things that I learned as I started through travel Latin America. For example, I went to Mexico and I remember being in Oaxaca and I befriended a woman who's a very good cook. And she made tamales with black mole from Oaxaca. And I just loved those tamales. And I loved the sauce. And I took down the recipe very carefully.

GREENE: Now, those yucas have been boiling for a long time.


GREENE: They've got to go for a while?

PRESILLA: Yeah, they're done. You see they start to open. There's a section here, like a spindle, that you have to get rid off before you cut this into fry-length pieces. All right, so we're going to make the cilantro mayonnaise. And, you know, there is a story about this.

GREENE: What's the story?

PRESILLA: The yuca fries in cilantro sauce are now in every Cuban restaurant. But it's my recipe. And I did that because I was so in love with yuca, with experimenting with yuca, and I said yuca needs a sauce. So I said, OK, I want to do something similar to cilantro chutney; something that I learned in India. So when I went back to my house in New Jersey, I just experimented with it. And I created this creamy aioli, almost a mayonnaise with garlic and cilantro.

And so, everybody who tries that thinks it is an authentic traditional Cuban recipe. When, in reality, Cubans don't like cilantro that much.

GREENE: So we're bringing a marriage of India and Latin America here, right?

PRESILLA: So when I started doing this, of course, I used to make my own mayonnaise. But...

GREENE: I don't need to make my own mayonnaise to be able to make your recipe here.

PRESILLA: Oh, no, no, no. You need help with...


PRESILLA: it is. And just about two cups. You need about two cups.

GREENE: Into the blender.

PRESILLA: Into the blender. I'm chopping cilantro now.


PRESILLA: Did you get the hot peppers?

GREENE: We have hot peppers. We're both those standing here, but you talk about the value sitting when you're doing cooking - Latin America cooking.

PRESILLA: It's a chore, absolutely. I call it the Zen of the Latin kitchen.

GREENE: Ooh, the Zen.


GREENE: So we're not Zenning-out here because we're...

PRESILLA: No, we're not. We're not because we're doing something with a knife. But in Latin America, there are many chores like preparing the dough for tamales, wrapping tamales, or grating coconut to make coconut milk, that do not require standing up. So you can sit.

GREENE: So you would rather sit.

PRESILLA: You can even lie down in a hammock. All right, so it's about one teaspoon of cumin.


PRESILLA: I love cumin. It's an elusive spice. I also use like half a teaspoon of oregano and about a quarter teaspoon of the allspice. So you have to easy because allspice is powerful. All right, so we're going to puree it.


GREENE: What does this tell us about a Latin America dish and how it can kind of evolve with a new spin in the United States?

PRESILLA: What's happening in the U.S. is that the U.S. is another Latin American country, because all Latin cultures are coming together. So it's really unavoidable that sooner or later you're going to start learning from your neighbor. Maybe in your own country you guarded your pot. But when you're here, so in the same boat.

GREENE: The rivalries just melt away.

PRESILLA: So they melt away. I was shocked by how much we share when I started traveling in Latin America. And sometimes it would be very subtle. I would be, for example, in Cartagena and I would get a taxi. I begin to bond with this man and we started singing and we know the same songs, and they're not Colombian songs. We're singing Mexican songs.

GREENE: Can you give me a line or two of one of the songs you sang in the...

PRESILLA: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Pretty.

PRESILLA: (Singing) Pa-da-da-da-da-da.

GREENE: So what did you sing? What are the...

PRESILLA: I'm saying, you know, if I...


PRESILLA: My Dear Mexico, if I die, you know, outside of Mexico, please bring me back. So we both get teary eyed when we started singing this song.

GREENE: So you're Cuban. You're with a Colombian.

PRESILLA: Yeah, I'm Cuban with a Colombian. We're singing Mexican songs.

GREENE: Mexican songs.

PRESILLA: I think that we should check the yuca and see how we're doing.

GREENE: Let's check the yuca.

PRESILLA: OK, you're going to cut this.


GREENE: Looks like thick French fries. We're ready to fry?

PRESILLA: We're ready to fry.

GREENE: Now, give us the set-up here. We've got vegetable oil.

PRESILLA: Yeah, so we want to create a beautiful, pleasurable cross. You know?


GREENE: We have our yuca in the oil.

PRESILLA: Looks like a Jacuzzi.

GREENE: It does look like a Jacuzzi, yes.


GREENE: It's bubbling oil.

PRESILLA: Yeah. Try to get it golden like this.

GREENE: And you just put it on a plate with a paper towel under it.


GREENE: So it's tasting time?

PRESILLA: So, it's tasting time.

GREENE: I'm going in. Oh, yeah. That is really tasty. Mmm.

PRESILLA: The result that is really this dish that it's very simple but very appetizing, it's something you can do when you have guests. And you have your mojitos in the kitchen or your capellania, and it's about conviviality. People are there watching you fry this and they eat the yuca fries with the sauce, as you fish it out...

GREENE: As they're coming out of the fryer.

PRESILLA: ...of the fryer. And so it's just perfect.

GREENE: Well, we're going to dig in here. But first, Maricel Presilla, thank you for coming into my kitchen. This has been so much fun.

Oh, for me, it's been fantastic, muchas gracias.

PRESILLA: Muchas gracias.


INSKEEP: And that was our colleague David Greene with Maricel Presilla. You can find recipes from her book, "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America," at our food blog, The Salt at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


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