Whatever you do, don’t come looking for a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. NAO (pronounced “nay-oh,” meaning to weave or intertwine), the restaurant that opened Friday at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio (at the stunning Pearl Brewery complex) is dedicated to new world Latin flavors from South America. That means a menu devoted to dishes from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, among other countries, and a host of ingredients that you’ve probably never heard of. Chances are, even savvy eaters will be surprised. It’s quite possible to eat at NAO, as I did last week at a preview diner, and not recognize over half of the menu.
Dinner kicked off with causitas, a sushi-style Peruvian dish made of purple potato puree, crabmeat and Botija olives, and a Oaxacan “stone soup,” spicy shrimp broth with shrimp, Serrano chiles and herbs that was cooked at the table thanks to a wood-fired hot river rock. I’m still dreaming about the chocolate rum sorbet nestled in a pile of salty chocolate “dirt.”
Sound funky? It is, but it’s also delicious, and exciting that the CIA is confident in pushing the boundaries in a city best known for puffy tacos and melted yellow cheese. “The CIA opened our San Antonio campus to help elevate the cuisines of Latin America,” Dr. Tim Ryan said at the opening, “We’re proud to showcase new world flavors at NAO.”
Is the purple potato the next pork belly? I predict that NAO will fuel the trend of increasingly exotic Latin ingredients on menus across the South, so I asked their executive chef (and Venezuela native) Geronimo Lopez-Monascal and chef instructor Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick for a primer on 10 ingredients that need to be on our radar.
1. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) A fuchsia color root vegetable, the size of a fingerling potato. Oca has a buttery flavor profile and a texture somewhere between a carrot and a potato. These Andean tubers are now grown in New Zealand and are available in the summer months and early fall in the produce section of your grocery store.
2. Palillo (Turmeric Root) Fresh turmeric root that also goes by the name cúrcuma or urucum in other parts of Latin America. Palillo gives a bright orange color and hint of nutmeg to food. Fresh turmeric root is one of the most important ingredients in the Amazonian pantry.
3. Malagueta Small, fiery pepper used in Brazilian cuisine as a condiment, or in sauces “molhos.” Malagueta is almost always preserved in vinegar, as are all of Brazil's hot "pimentas."
4. Huitlacoche/Cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis) A gray-black fungus that grows on fresh corn and comes from the Nahuatl word cuitatl, meaning excrement and cochitl which means asleep. Considered a delicacy in pre-Columbian times as it is today. In Mexico cuitlacoche is consumed fresh, but in the United States it is sold both frozen and canned.
5. Sacha Inchi Seed-like nut produced from a tree native to Peru and Ecuador that tastes like a peanut on steroids. When you bite into the nut it has layers that crumble in your mouth.
6. Purple Potato Purple potato native to the Andes with a medium starch content that retains a good deal of its purple pigment after cooking. The purple color represents high levels of minerals and antioxidants.
7. Ají amarillo (Capsicum baccatum) The DNA of Peruvian cuisine and used is other South American countries like Colombia and Bolivia, the ají amarillo has a unique floral bouquet, fruitness, and medium piquancy that sets it apart from other American capsicum. Ají amarillo is available frozen in Latin grocery stores and is being grown in our Latin Seed Research Project.
8. Sour Orange (Seville Orange) Also known as bitter orange, the Seville orange was once widely grown in Texas. Today the variety is popular again and gorwn in Florida and California. It is too bitter to eat but imparts a unique acidity and bitterness to sauces, salad dressings, and marinades. Seville oranges are usually in season during the early Spring.
9. Tamarillo (Solanum betaceum) Also called “tomate de arbol.” This tomato is said to be the ancestor to the modern tomato and is native to Peru. This tomato grows on a tree, not a plant. In Peru, tamarillos are used in sauces, and just like it's tomato cousin, tamarillos are a good source of umami.
10. Xoconostle A type of prickly pear fruit from a variety of Opuntia nopal cactus. The prickly pear is a light pale green and pink lemonade color with the seeds concentrated in the middle of the fruit, as opposed to the dispersed throughout. The flavor is a mildly sour and the fruit if often preserved and eaten with cheese or used in desserts.
What South American flavors are you crazy about?