Spoilt for choice: the UAE's growing love affair with Latin American food

From tacos and ceviche to steaks and spices, Latin-American food is a delicious study in variety, which is just one reason it’s so popular in the UAE

Ceviche at Coya. Courtesy Coya Abu Dhabi 
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Beyond fine dining in France, late-night tapas in Spain and hearty ­eating in Italy lies a ­culinary world slowly making itself known on a global scale. The food offerings from Latin America are as diverse as the region's undulating landscapes and multicultural population.

Who can forget the slow- motion, hyper-focused shots of flickering flames licking at slabs of Francis Mallmann's perfectly marbled meat in Chef's Table? The award-­winning Netflix docuseries can be credited for catapulting the vagabond chef to international fame in 2015, when he shared the intricacies of cooking on fire, Patagonian-style, with the world beyond Argentina.

His wood-smoked steak was enough to make even the most seasoned of converted vegetarians salivate. It also happened to be the final push I needed to book a trip to South America for a taste of the real thing at Siete Fuegos, Mallmann’s restaurant in Mendoza (I have never tasted a steak so perfectly cooked – “vuelta-vuelta” for rare – in my life.)

Rocoto-miso-glazed Chilean sea bass at Asia de Cuba. Courtesy Asia de Cuba
Rocoto-miso-glazed Chilean sea bass at Asia de Cuba. Courtesy Asia de Cuba

Others profiled by the series that’s known for highlighting the cream of the culinary crop include Brazilian chef Alex Atala, Peruvian Virgilio Martinez and, most recently, Cristina Martinez, a Mexican immigrant bringing her native barbacoa (a beef dish wrapped in maguey leaves then slow-cooked for several hours underground, which originated with the Taino people of the Caribbean) to Philadelphia.

Rising popularity in the UAE

It’s not just the United States that’s benefiting from the chilly and citrus-packed flavours of Latin America anymore, though. “It’s no surprise to see this particular food trend also flourish in the UAE, especially with the explosion of our restaurant scene,” says Jen Sahi, the food blogger behind Dubai Food Diaries. “People living here come from all parts of the world. They love to eat out, and our palates are becoming increasingly adventurous,” she notes.

In fact, Dubai ranked eighth in a recent Google survey of the most diverse foodie capitals of the world, with Colombian (La Hacienda), Mexican (Chalco's Mexican Grill), Argentinian (Asado), Peruvian (Waka) and Brazilian (Chamas) restaurants topping the best of the Latin American offerings here. The region's appetite for those flavours doesn't end at its restaurant scene. Expect a celebration of the Latin American culture and cuisine in April at Dubai Latin Fest, which promises to be the world's biggest festival of its kind.

“My go-to Latino haunt is Asia de Cuba, at The Westin Mina Seyahi, which in fact bridges Latino cuisine with some dedicated Cuban dishes to create food that is wholesome with rich, comforting flavours,” says food writer and Foodiva founder Samantha Wood, who was raised in the Caribbean. “I love that the cuisine covers so many countries,” she adds.

Cuban-style baba at Asia de Cuba. Courtesy Asia de Cuba
Cuban-style baba at Asia de Cuba. Courtesy Asia de Cuba

In that sense, the term Latin American cuisine is much too generic to take in the breadth of flavours that’s making its way over to us from the expanse of land that spans Central America, from Mexico and across to Cuba, then down to South America, from Colombia all the way through Ecuador’s equatorial line to the ends of the Earth in wild Patagonia. The food offering across the continent varies drastically, too, from ajiaco, the spicy chicken soup packed with citrus flavours and spiked with a punchy aji, from Colombia’s mountainous Bogota, to the dense, carne-filled empanada-packed lunches of the Argentine gaucho.

While high-end Argentinian steak houses, such as Asado, Gaucho and La Parrilla, have been in the UAE for a while, Sahi says she's noticed that casual Mexican dining is at the forefront of the region's Latin American food offering. "A couple of years ago Peruvian restaurants were all the rage, but taco bars have started cropping up, with El Mostacho in JLT, Maiz Tacos in Al Safa, El Noctambulo in D3 and, of course, the Taqado Mexican Kitchen chain with its 17 branches across the ­country, which introduced [us] to burritos and barbacoa," says Sahi.

A handout photo of Huevos Rancheros (Courtesy: Taqado) NOTE: For Afshan Ahmed's feature about all-day breakfast  *** Local Caption ***  al27no-breakfast-taqado.jpg
Taqado Mexican Kitchen serves Mexican fare, including huevos rancheros, at its outlets across the UAE. Courtesy Taqado Mexican Kitchen  

Peruvian delights 

In terms of foodie destinations to visit, Peru has topped the bill in The World Travel Awards as the World’s Top Culinary Destination for six years in a row, with celebrity chefs, such as Martin Morales, doing their bit for dispersing the fiery recipes of the Andes beyond South America.

Among dishes, ceviche, fresh fish delicately marinated in citrus and spice, can be credited with making this cuisine stand out on a global scale. UAE export Lima won the Best Latin American restaurant at the Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards this year, shortly after its sister restaurant Lima Fitzrovia earned its first Michelin star (the only Peruvian restaurant to do so). For a fresh take on Andean flavours in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there's flora-and-fauna-lined Coya, which melds Peruvian dishes with Japanese, Chinese and Spanish influences for a distinct and expertly crafted fusion menu.

Anticuchos at Coya. Courtesy Coya
Anticuchos at Coya. Courtesy Coya

If you're planning to visit South America, consider Santiago. Just south of Peru, sandwiched between the Andean mountains, the Chilean capital is another spot stirring up the world food scene and has become ­something of a gastronomy hub in recent years. The economy has been growing ­consistently, with Chile leading Latin America in income per capita. This means an increased penchant for dining out among its people, as well as a flourishing restaurant and bar scene – including the revival of traditional Mapuche cuisine, the food of the ­Andean tribes (visit ­Peumayen in Santiago for Ancestral cuisine).

Funny then, that a metropolitan melting pot of cultures like Santiago, full of sushi hot spots and ceviche ­restaurants, should favour a humble sandwich as its dish of choice. But if there’s one thing that this city is famous for, it’s the completo – a hot dog nestled into a soft bread roll, topped with chopped tomatoes, mayonnaise and sauerkraut. “A completo with all of the toppings just takes me back to childhood,” says Santiago local Maria Piedra. It’s a dish she insists visitors should try when in Santiago. While this specific flavour of South America is a bit harder to find in our part of the world, it may well be the easiest to replicate, so bring on some Chilean chilli, green sauce and cheese, and have fun with it at home.

Read more:

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A chat with Richard Sandoval, the chef who brought Toro Toro to Abu Dhabi

How Peruvian cuisine has taken the UAE by storm