However, it seems that things are changing as diners in the country widen their palates in line with global tastes.
Chef de cuisine at Jeddah’s Pampas restaurant, the country’s first Argentinian restaurant, which was recently reviewed by Arab News, shares his take on the trend.
“Latin American food is evolving in Saudi Arabia and I think at Pampas we are educating the audience about the cuisine and it will become more and more popular,” Lucas Adrian Farias told Arab News.
His own journey from Buenos Aires to Jeddah — via Dubai — may well be testament to this.
“I began my career in Buenos Aires, where I got the opportunity to work with the owner of the acclaimed restaurant ‘Olsen’,” he said. “I learned a lot from the brilliant Chef (Germán) Martitegui and he pushed me to join the best culinary institute in Argentina (the Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía).
“After this, I worked at ‘Sucre’ with a chef who was the consultant chef for the ‘Gaucho’ restaurant chain, which is where I learned about authentic and creative Argentinian cuisine.”
Following this, stints with the Sofitel Hotels & Resorts group in Buenos Aires and at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai led to him landing in Saudi Arabia, with a mandate to help diners “live the South American experience with all the senses.”
So, what exactly is this South American experience that seems to have taken the culinary world by storm across the globe? According to Farias, “Latin American cuisine has introduced the world to a whole new range of fresh ingredients and traditional cooking techniques. I think this, along with influence from global cuisines and modern adaptations of the traditional, is responsible for the current trend.”
This sentiment is echoed by some other notable Latin American chefs, such as Virgilio Martínez Véliz and Jaime Pesaque — both of whom have restaurants in Dubai — who have said as much in earlier conversations with me. According to Peruvian chef Pesaque, “our restaurants are like small embassies of our culture.”
Fellow Peruvian Martinez, whose restaurants hold Michelin stars and are rated among the world’s best, agrees. “When you go to a Latin American restaurant, you find a whole new world,” he said. “People want to catch a piece of that knowledge and culture. Just take Peru for example — people may know the ingredients, but even we don’t know how many different cultures we have within the country. Every community has a different recipe for life.”
But despite all this regional diversity, the over-arching commonality in Latin American cuisines is a focus on ingredients, global influences that date back centuries and, of course, deliciousness.
“Latin American flavors are simple and rely on the quality of ingredients,” Farias explained. “Key elements have been gained from experiencing different cuisines. For instance, Argentinean cuisine has a big Mediterranean influence — from the ingredients to the social eating habits.”
Given the social style of eating that is intrinsic to Arab culture, combined with the evolving tastes of diners, the Latin American trend may well be here to stay.
“Jeddah seems to be becoming more cosmopolitan with food choice, I think this is due to tourist influence as well as the locals trying different cuisines,” Farias opined. “The Saudi traveler has experienced food from all over the world and we need to ensure that they are getting the same quality in their home country too.”
And speaking of home countries, one restaurant that Lucas would love to see opening in Saudi is upscale international Argentinian steakhouse chain, Gaucho — there is a popular outpost in Dubai — which does an excellent job of translating Argentinian culture on to the plate.
“I would like to see Gaucho in Saudi Arabia as it has a special place in my career and it is globally renowned,” he said.
His Argentinian roots are also evident in his personal dining preferences as his favorite restaurant in Jeddah is Turkish — another cuisine known for celebrating meat. Speaking like a true chef, he said, “I like Saraya Latif because I appreciate the freshness of the food and it is an example of good quality Turkish cuisine.”
As a chef who has encountered many cuisines and culinary styles throughout his career, his ethos is probably what sums up not only the essence of Argentinian cuisine best, but also the secret to successfully introducing new cuisines to diners: “I’m a chef who respects the quality of a product, mixed with traditional cooking skills and techniques.” So with that in mind, why not try some Latin American food?
Popular treats to try
Popular dishes across this large and diverse part of the world vary, but here are some of the top dishes from Latin America to try.
Argentina’s go-to dish is a meat lover’s paradise. Also known as parrillada, it consists of a variety of meats grilled over an open fire. Expect to savor succulent beef and lamb topped with chimichurri, a green salsa made of parsley, oregano, onion, pepper flakes, garlic and a spritz of lemon.
Thought to have been passed on by the Moors to the Spanish and then to the Argentineans, this satisfying snack is popular across Latin America. Empanadas are deep-fried, moon-shaped pastries filled with savory or sweet stuffing.
These shortbread-like biscuits are filled with a layer of jam or mousse and come courtesy of the Moors from the Arab world who introduced the sweet treats to Spain during their rule. The snacks were brought over to Latin American during Spain’s conquests.
Dulce de leche
A sweet treat like no other, dulce de leche loosely translates as “milk jam.” The thick caramel is made of condensed milk, reduced and sweetened until it is gloriously thick and sticky.