Maricel Presilla is an acclaimed chef, cookbook writer, and chocolate expert. She's won a James Beard Foundation best chef award for Cucharamama, one of her two excellent Hoboken restaurants. And Norton has just published her new cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina, a comprehensive and mouth-watering survey of Latin American food from Mexico to the southern tip of Chile. Yet neither her restaurants nor her cookbook would be the same without the Hudson County community in which she lives. This patchwork of little cities has drawn immigrants from all over Latin America, including Cubans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and so on. To feed themselves, these immigrants have built a network of food business, from tiny panaderias to massive supermarkets. It's those supermarkets in particular that have inspired both Maricel's restaurants and her writing.
"Whatever is called for in my cookbook," she says, "can be found in these supermarkets." Her recipes are based on years of travel across Latin America and years of haunting the supermarket aisles in Union City and West New York. One day, she says, "I bought $300 worth of food I didn't recognize and taught myself how to cook it." She still regularly drives up from Hoboken to make a quick dash through the aisles to buy whatever's needed for her restaurants.
The first of Hudson County's pan-Latin-American supermarkets was Union City's Mi Bandera ("My Flag"), now called simply Bandera, which was opened back in 1992 by a Cuban immigrant. Its radical concept was to divide the store not by food type but by Latin American nationality, so you had the Mexican aisle, the Cuban aisle, the Colombian aisle, and so on. Bandera once had an amazing produce section, but Maricel finds this has become too Americanized. For her, Bandera's wonders are found in the nationality aisles, where you can find, say, dried Peruvian purple corn kernels to make chicha morada, the refreshing purple drink. She also likes the frozen section, where you can buy frozen fruit pulps for making quick batidos and all kinds of pre-cooked frozen tubers. And in the dairy section, you can find a few dozen varieties of queso fresco, and similar cheeses, each catering to a different national or provincial taste.
Lately, however, Maricel has found herself passing by Bandera and heading 20 blocks north to West New York's Food Bazaar. From the roof of this busy, crammed supermarket fly the flags of the United States, Cuba, and Korea--the owners are Korean. As Maricel says, this market shows the "mimetic qualities" of the region's Korean shopkeepers. There may Korean food somewhere here, but it's lost in the staggering array of fresh, canned, and frozen foodstuffs from all over Latin America.
The produce section is the place to start, beginning with the big display of Florida avocadoes. I've long snooted at Caribbean avocadoes, but Maricel swears that I'll change my mind if try her cookbook's recipe for Cuban avocado salad with watercress and grilled pineapple. Beyond that, there's a wall of tiny bananas and big plantains—yellow, green, and burro—leading to the Northeast's best selection of tubers, from massive African yams to tiny knobs. Maricel's favorite here is arracacha, also called apio, a happy marriage of coconut, parsnip, and sweet potato flavors. Here you also find the spiky chayote, cactus paddles, and an array of herbs, including epazote and papalo (stuffed into cemitas as flavoring).
From the produce, you wander into Food Bazaar's meat section—check out the enormous cow's feet—and then into regular aisles. Here the owners are copying the success of Bandera, with densely-packed sections devoted Ecuadorean food, Salvadoran food, Guatemalan food, and so on. You can easily get lost in wonder here—or build a career on what you find. Before you leave, Maricel recommends that you visit the big votive candle section. "Be sure to buy some, because they're perfect for hurricanes." (Now reopened, both her restaurants suffered Sandy damage.)
On Tuesday, December 11th, Maricel Presilla will be speaking about the area's Latin American food scene at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The event will include a tasting of delicacies from her cookbook and a cooking demo.
518 Hackensack Plank Road, Union City, NJ 07087 (map) 201-348-2828