Map of Central American countries, each colored by its flag.



It is said that you are what you eat.  Central Americans have taken this aphorism to heart and are making it a reality as each of its countries works to assert themselves in the postcolonial, globalized atmosphere.  From the beginnings of agriculture to global trade and export in the region, Central American food has taken on different cultural and economic meanings, as each meal eaten nourishes and defines its people, who in turn control it through farming and preparation.  Culinary character has become a matter of national importance as the Central American people cook and eat to explore national identity.  In an era of globalization, diaspora and consumption define Central American cuisine.


Foodways have helped track and shape Central America’s transition from the colonial to a global era.  In colonial Central America, food played a major role in creating the social hierarchy, as one’s diet was believed to physically shape one’s body into the appearance and role of colonizer and colonized (Earle 712).  The exchange of cultural capital helped maintain the social hierarchy, which often depreciated local culture in myriad ways.  


Now that the process of globalization has replaced colonialism as a major force of global change, this ideology persists in a different form.  Though the colonial regime has formally ended in Central America, foreign influence has been maintained through tourism, culture exchange, and global mass-market capitalism (Wilk 244, 250).  The Central American people still fashion their national cultures under a Western gaze.  This pressures Central American countries to create a standard set of unique national dishes that reinforce the nation’s cohesion and allow it to participate in the global market.  


Landscape of Mayan ruins in Belize.Mayan ruins in Belize.









In contrast, Central America’s geographical context has changed with the diaspora of people leaving and entering the region’s physical boundaries; food and cooking have thus become important ways of creating and interacting with nationality.  Immigrants to the region change ethnic dynamics within national boundaries, and communities of Central Americans living in other places stretch and shape the idea of nationalism, making it even more metaphysical.  The writings of the EpicentroAmerican poetry collective—composed of Central American poets living in the United States—embody this idea.  Their descriptions of home take on transnational attributes and examine their nation’s formation through language.  They realize that nationalism is something invented and upheld mainly by the consumption of cultural capital; poet Marlon Morales writes that “Centroamérica is / fiction / fabricated in the mind… / of consumer propaganda” (Cárdenas 122).  


The food habits of Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States reveal even more about the effects of the diaspora on the collective sense of nationalism.  To them food is all cultural capital as they eat foods rich in calories and symbolism, not only for nourishment but also to cope with past experiences of food scarcity and current social marginality.  The act of recreating traditional Salvadoran dishes in the United States allows them to cook their Salvadoran identity, and make it as idealized as they might (Stowers 374-375).  The modern diaspora has increased food’s power in a variety of contexts to reinforce a sense of national identity.


Gateway to sugarcane plantation in Costa Rica.


A recent proliferation of restaurants has aided in developing Central American food’s national symbolism by compiling and standardizing a national body of culinary knowledge into a menu and preparing it for consumption purposes.  In order to build a national cuisine, a national identity must be developed to create a menu that reflects it, though this standardization process may exclude some groups and mechanisms from the country’s new, idealized whole (Kalentzidou 534).  Outside consumptive appetites complicate the idea of authenticity, however, as they are foreign desires that must be satisfied for the nation’s promotion, but the act of consumption can also help strengthen a nationalistic sentiment.  


The menu at Mar’s Caribbean Garden Restaurant in Los Angeles illustrates the result of nationalism for consumption in a foreign environment.  Its website proudly boasts “Authentic Belizean Cuisine!!” which it does serve in the form of conch soup, stewed chicken, and stewed beans and pig tail, but these dishes are listed right alongside the inevitable cheeseburger and chicken wings sure to appeal to the most traditional of American tastes (Mar’s Caribbean Gardens).  While the menu at restaurants like Mar’s may be complicated by extra entrees, it does provide a standard set of national dishes that can be consumed by anyone.


By packaging what is said to be the authentic flavor of a place, Central America controls the cultural capital of its consumption through sauces.  Central American cuisine derives extra flavor from myriad spice combinations that are tailored to the taste of foods from chicharrones to coleslaw.  Molcajetes, a flat and rounded stone duo that are traditionally used to grind down and combine different spices by hand into combinations like the recado rojo, a blend of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, and oregano, among other things available to the Mayans (McDonald 48).  Costa Rica’s omnipresent Salsa Lizano lends some bits of the recado flavor to perfectly season any gallo pinto with the spice of cumin and chili peppers, the softness of some sugar, and the savor of an onion.  Now a Unilever product, it is Costa Rica’s commercial culinary jewel, a commodity that is available not only at every supermarket and soda in Costa Rica but online and in the United States’ international food aisles as well.  In all these arenas, it represents Costa Rica’s taste and commands the flavor of all authentic Costa Rican dishes.


Similarly, the label on Marie Sharp’s hot sauce proudly proclaims its own power over Belize; all levels of hot are “Proud Products of Belize.”  It too, is present in every restaurant, bar, and souvenir shop in the country, a bottled relic of every tourist’s taste of Belize.  Yet by standardizing this taste and making it commercially popular, everyone who eats Belizean food topped in Marie Sharp’s hot sauce tastes what Belize wants to taste like and be remembered as.  This kind of nationalism is created commercially.  To properly consume Costa Rican or Belizean food, you must first consume their respective sauces, two acts of consumption that define these countries’ national identities.


Two shelves full of different flavors of Marie Sharp's hot sauce in Belize.


Like the rest of the world, the region of Central America has weathered myriad political, economic, and environmental changes over the past few centuries.  In the current globalized era, diaspora and consumption of cultural capital are the primary forces that help develop the idea of Central American cuisine into something that symbolizes a nation’s character.  Within this context, cooking and eating can become profound acts of being, making lunchtime a little more meaningful.






Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 3-24.

Cárdenas, Maritza. “From Epicentros to Fault Lines: Rewriting Central America from the Diaspora.” Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, 2013, pp. 111-130.

Earle, Rebecca. “’If You Eat Their Food…’: Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America.” American Historical Review, vol. 115, no. 3, 2010, pp. 688-713.

Kalentzidou, Olga. “Not my grandmother’s cooking. (Re-)inventing national cuisine in modern Greece.” In Appetite, vol. 56, no. 2, pp. 534.

Mar’s Caribbean Gardens. Mar’s Caribbean Gardens Restaurant and Entertainment. AIMS Interactive, Accessed 2 December 2017.

McDonald, Michael R. Food Culture in Central America. Food Culture around the World, edited by Ken Albala, Greenwood Press, 2009.

Stowers, Sharon L. “Gastronomic Nostalgia: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Cravings for Their Ideal Meal.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition, vol. 51, no. 5, 2012, pp. 374-393.

Wilk, Richard R. “’Real Belizean Food’: Building Identity in the Transnational Caribbean.” American Anthropologist, vol. 101, no. 2, 1999, pp. 244-255.