ARROZ CON HABICHUELAS: When food speaks, listen

There is this soup in Cuba that I can best explain to you as a sort of meaty, starchy, hot nectar. The dish is the essence of Cuba. The roots of the soup are native starches that lend grit to the tender pork, beef and chicken that, when combined with the unique blend of Cuban spices and soul, hits home with the best of comforts. Ajiaco is the name, and, if ever you were to dip the ladle a little further in the pot, you would discover that the essence of this dish is more than nutrition - its culture.

The backbone of Ajiaco is African tradition in the form of spices and ingredients mixed with imported flavors of Europe. It is said that Ajiaco is the one dish that encompasses the racial and cultural essence of Cuba, a result of multiple ingredients that when put together lose some of their original flavor to become one other extraordinary flavor. Ajiaco is very similar to the Bayou tradition of gumbo, only in gumbo the European influence is French, and it has a steady infusion of Gulf seafood.

Food speaks a lot about a culture. It talks about what is valued, how people work and where they come from. In America, hot wings say we can take a punch or a kick and those McDonald's fries everyone is so keen on - unhealthy comments aside - say we are "lovin' it." And then there is the classic Chicago hotdog, sold from a street cart as customers move on the go and compete with the Polish flair the Windy City has to offer. The point is that without ever knowing America, people from around the world can make some sort of statement about who we are based on our food. The same can be said for Latin America. Without me having to provoke any response, the terms "spicy" or "tropical" probably popped in your head. Although, those stereotypical responses have legitimate foundations, there are some who feel that Mexican food is where the buck stops.

Latin food is more than Mexican. I promise it gets better. Food that whispers to your taste buds the stories of cultural beginnings, and flavors that nudge your mouth to move to rhythms to which your feet can't even tap. The food tells everything. Take a taco for instance. It screams indigenous from the tortilla and shouts Europe from the seasoning.

A question came up in one of my classes that prompted me to use food as a metaphor for culture. After watching a film about the black roots of Latin America, students wanted to know how to determine what someone of Mexican, Costa Rican or any Latin American heritage looks like. Well, food is good place to start. After that, research history. Realize that just like the United States, Latin American countries are built upon individuals of mixed heritage. What is important to do is erase any idea in your head of this stereotypical image or in food, taste.

Exploring different food is a good way to start learning where roots lie, that way the dissection of the food can show how those ingredients, much like the people who put them together, combined in some unique way, at some divine moment for our benefit now.

Latin America is so diverse. The people who are filling our communities from these places are all gradations of black, brown, white and tan and carry with them a proud heritage. Embrace all of it as they try to embrace yours.