Popularity of Hispanic Foods Evident at Trade Show

Many exhibitors on hand at Expo Comida Latina at the Javits Center in Manhattan

By Maura Grunlund, Staten Island Advance Staff Writer

All it took was one glance at the line of booths at Expo Comida Latina housed for the better part of a week at the Javits Center, Manhattan, to see that Hispanic food is hot.

Exhibitors from Spanish-speaking countries were there offering samples of their foods to meet the needs of the largest minority group in the United States.

The Hispanic population jumped 46 percent, from 22.4 million in 1990 to 32.8 million in 2000. Projected growth by the year 2010 is 47.8 million, according to Expo statistics.

Growing Population

New York has the largest Hispanic population in the nation with 2.2 million people, while Los Angeles ranks second at 1.7 million and San Antonio, Texas, at nearly 671, 394.

While the statistics are enlightening, the real story is how the growth and availability of these foods affects real people. Chef LaLa, a Mexican-American and author of the cookbook “Latin Lover Lite,” remembers that it was difficult to find Hispanic ingredients when she was a child.

Chef LaLa, whose real name is Laura Diaz, recalls dining at a huge Mexican scholarship pageant event at age 8 in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and the hotel didn’t even have jalapenos to serve with prime rib. Her father had the foresight to pack along some jalapenos which he shared with others at the event.

“This shows how far we have come, now we get to eat our foods,” said Chef LaLa, a spokeswoman for the event, waving her arm over the room.

Mexican Food Is Healthy

Chef LaLa, a certified nutritionist, also wants to clear up the myth that Mexican food is fattening and unhealthful. Traditional Mexican cooking methods actually involve steaming, grilling and baking—relatively healthy ways to cook. As for the native foods, menus are rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

When Mexicans immigrated to this country they adopted the American habits of deep frying foods and eating large amounts of meat to the detriment of their health. Her cookbook includes healthful recipes from 23 Spanish countries. Some of the recipes were passed down in her family through the generations and all are flavorful.

“Latinos are very passionate about food,” said Chef LaLa, owner of Savor! Catering in Los Angeles, Calif.

“They celebrate around the table. I didn’t want to feel like I was dieting.”

At Dos Caminos restaurants in Manhattan, business is up this year—18 percent at the location on Broadway near Houston Street and 12 percent at the site on Park Avenue South at 27th Street.

“At both locations we’ve seen a very significant desire for spicy, Latin, ethnic food,” John Linquist said.

“People want something different.”

Linquist was demonstrating Lamb Barbacoa, a slow-roasted lamb shoulder with a chili and garlic marinade. He chose the dish because it is traditionally prepared for celebrations in Mexico.

Although the dish is cooked in an open pit in Mexico, at the show it was wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an oven and then served with fresh tortillas and jalapeno and mint salsa.

Imported Produce

Four Seasons Produce Co. imports about 90 percent of its produce from Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, with the remainder grown in Florida. Top sellers include mango, papaya, avocado, plantain, yucca and chayote squash.

“Most people want a taste of flavor from their place of origin,” said Humberto Baez, specialty produce buyer for Hispanic foods.

Many customers emigrated from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Venezuela and Cuba.

“A lot of chefs are using Hispanic products,” Baez said.

Americans of other ethnic groups watch cooking programs and then shop for authentic ingredients such as jalapenos or tomatillas, Baez said.

Sigma Foods, a top producer of fresh meats in Mexico, is trying to break into the New York Market with brands such as FUD, Chen, La Villita and El Cazo.

“Our target is first, second and third generation Mexicans,” said Jose Figueroa, sales executive with Sigma foods.

Sigma started importing its USDA and FDA approved fresh meats, cheeses, frozen foods and other products to California, Texas, Illinois and Arizona last year.

“It’s 100 percent made in Mexico with a real taste of Mexico,” Figueroa said.

Energy Drinks

Hispanics consume more energy drinks per capita than any other population group in the U.S., said Arley Campbell, a spokesperson for Caballo Negro energy blend. He said this is because Hispanics often work more than one job and need an energy boost to keep them going. The beauty of the Caballo Negro drink is that it has 120 milligrams of caffeine and 11 other stimulating, health enhancing ingredients.

“We had to make it taste good because people don’t want to drink a vitamin pill,” Campbell said.

Introduced this summer were Refresco sodas from Goya Foods of Secaucus, N.J., that are in flavors such as pineapple, ginger, coconut and an orange flavor called champagne. Goya also is promoting a tropical fruit beverage that is lighter than nectar. Big sellers among the 12 flavors include guava, passion fruit, mango and pineapple.

Mojo chipolte marinade “goes across nationalities; everyone is consuming chipolte,” said Alfredo Valiente, a Goya marketing manager.