Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Discovering our flavors: Hispanic cheeses, multicultural explosion

The Spaniards introduced to the New Continent their cheeses and the ways of preparation and processing. However, Hispanic cheeses -far from European- are simply bathed of mixed races or ´mestizaje´. 

Unlike very aged or cured cheeses that which are of stronger flavors, in Latin America the kings are fresh cheeses. For this reason, it is common to have as an integral part of Hispanic cuisine cheeses such as ´panela´, ´cotija´, and ´asadero´. 

And if one talks of Mexico, then the best cheeses are from Chihuahua, Oaxaca. Hand-Made or ´De Mano´ and ´Telita´ are classic items for Venezuelans; and of course, we cannot forget the unique ´Costeño´ from Colombia.

According to the United States Dairy Export Council, 85 percent of the national production of cheeses are fresh cheeses, called frescos.  “Its flavor is friendly with any dish,” said Esteban Suárez, chef of the restaurant inside of a supermarket located in the Southwest of Tulsa. “Adding cheese to a plate improves it, because it is more flavorful.”

For María Sánchez, the cheese is an essential part of the kitchen. “You cannot make mistakes when you add cheese to your dishes", said Sánchez, who is from Guatemala, while doing her purchase in a market located in East Tulsa. “This cheese from Guatemala resembles ´queso de morral´ or backpack cheese for my people," she said. “We say so, because we tied the cheese to a backpack, then we sell it on the street.”

Like Sánchez, Piedad Soto, cannot be without cheese in her fridge. “I may lack a few items, but not the cheese,” she said while taking two wheels of cotija cheese. “I use it for everything.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mexico is tenth in the world for production of cheese; and with regard to its consumption, stands at eighth place. “For me there is no better cheese such as ´queso criollo´ or creole cheese from Taxco, Guerrero”, said Raimundo Pérez, via Twitter. “It is not easy to find.”

The Lord of the Cheese
Iván Ledezma has been working at a Hispanic market in East Tulsa for the last 5 years. His job is to set and rotate cheeses in the refrigerators of a huge warehouse. “The fresh ones are the most popular. It is ideal for enchiladas”, he said. “Then we have ´requesón´, although here they call it ricotta. It is also good to fill enchiladas.”

Another fresh cheese known as panela, or basket, is typically characterized by braids that make its outward appearance. “This is the king of the appetizers”, said Ledezma.
Among the soft cheeses, Oaxaca is the leader. “It has no competition. Every single quesadilla must have it.”

Ledezma stressed the flavor of cotija cheese, when aging is in play. “It is the parmesan of Mexicans,” he said without hesitation.

Finally the local expert expressed that "everyone likes a particular cheese, but at the end of the day everyone wants a fresh product that does not steal all of the flavor from the food".

A very different cheese
The Mennonite communities located to the North of Mexico, produce a cheese that is distinguished by its yellow color, similar to the popular cheddar. This is the famous Chihuahua cheese. “It's my favorite,” said Verónica Salcedo, who was looking for it in a market in East Tulsa. “There are many brands, but ´El Supremo´ is the best. The problem is that I never find it.”

This cheese is ideal to be melted, being a sort of delicacy for the so-called fried cheese.

In the U.S. we will hardly see woven baskets filled with crinejas or braids of cheese, or cheese balls covered in corn cob, typical of the cheese makers of the past, but at least we can find its flavor in the refrigerators in local supermarkets.

Photos by Juan Miret

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