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The Beauty of Traditional Diets

Updated on April 9, 2009

United States citizens have taken a special interest in ethnic foods. Major and mid-sized cities around the nation are seeing a surge in restaurants offering Americanized versions of traditional diets from Cuba, Argentian, Peru, Ethiopia, various Polynesian islands, and any number of other cultures. Unfortunately, the variety of meats, vegetables, herbs, and spices offered in these restaurants is necessarily limited by availability.

Often owned by immigrants bringing their home cuisines with them, most restaurants offer an extremely starchy and grain-based variant of their traditional diet. Why not? Grains and starches are typically very cheap and US citizens gobble them up by the truckload. Besides, who would know any different? How many Americans have actually been to Ethiopia or Chile?

So let's take a brief overview of what people eat in the home country of some of the United States' favorite ethnic cuisines. Do Italians really eat huge plates of spaghetti? Do Mexicans line up to get burritos as big as their heads? And what about lesser-known countries such as Peru and Chile? What do they eat?

The goal of this Hub is to find a way to synthesize a whole-foods based diet, such as the Paleo Diet, with the delicious offerings of the various countries. While it's obviously not a truly "Mexican" meal to nix the rice and beans, we have the benefit of selecting those items that fit with our healthful diets and removing the parts that don't.

How can you go to an ethnic restaurant and avoid the grains? There are chips and salsa, tortillas, Injera bread, pasta, rice, and any number of other grain-based incarnations. It's a low-carber's nightmare! So what can we pull from each of these cuisines to put together a meal that is satisfying to both the lips and the hips?


Let's start with a brief overview of the real Mexican diet. It's not all tacos and burritos. In fact, you won't even find the hard-shelled tacos or huge burritos south of the border. These two are entirely Tex-Mex inventions. There are tacos and burritos in Mexico, but they are vastly different than served here. Tacos are always served on corn tortillas, typically two of them, while burritos are much smaller, usually filled only with rice, beans, and/or meat.

In Mexico, you're likely to find a few things you've never eaten before, like cow cheeks and udders. While Americans tend to be a bit squeamish about anything other than steaks and roasts, Mexicans eat the entire animal, a practice that is both economical and healthful. Some of the most nutritious meats are the organs, not the muscles.

You'll also find that it's not all refried beans and rice, though those two dishes do feature as daily staples. Mexico features lots of grilled and roasted meats, dishes known as barbacoa, carnitas, and cochinita pibil. Check out these meat-heavy dishes and you'll never look at a Taco Bell taco the same way again.

Fresh vegetables and meat are the real takeaway from Mexican cuisine. All meals feature a variety of fresh salsas made with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and herbs. Don't forget to add a nice healthfully fatty dollop of guacamole to your tacos either, featuring delicious avocado mixed with onions, cilantro, and lime juice.

Here are a few foods that you'll find in Mexican (and other Hispanic cuisines) that you'll not see in many American or Tex-Mex restaurants:

  • Jicama - a winter root with a crunchy texture
  • Achiote - used mainly as a flavorless food coloring
  • Epazote - a pungent herb described as "citrus, petroleum, savory, mint and putty." Toxic in large amounts
  • Nopales - The leaves of the cactus
  • Red Prickly Pears - The fruit of the cactus

In the end, what we eat in the United States is but a small portion of what's eaten in Mexico. Our meals would most appropriately be termed antojitos mexicanos, or "little whims," serving as the equivalent to a hot dog or hamburger here.

Here are a few recipes to whet your whistle:

  • Barbacoa - Slow-cooked meat (often cow cheeks) with spices. It doesn't get any simpler than this; Recipe
  • Carnitas - This one technically translates as "Little meats" and is braised or roasted pork; Recipe
  • Ceviche - It's fish and other seafood marinated in citrus juices to "cook" the meat; Recipe
  • Cochinita pibil - Pork slow-roasted in banana leaves; Recipe
  • Guacamole - Mashed avocado with other stuff; Recipe
  • Mole - Mole is an all-encompassing term, much like "salsa," but this recipe looks easy and tasty; Recipe


What about those pasta-loving Italians? With all of that pasta, how could they possibly find room to eat anything else? What if I told you that a real Italian meal isn't all pasta? Pasta is actually a relatively new addition to the Italian table and was historically eaten by the rich, not by everyone.

That's right...Pasta is but one small course of an Italian meal and it's not even the main one. The first course is typically meat, cheese, and olives, then a small course of pasta that is far smaller than our gargantuan plates. Next up is a meat or fish course with a side vegetable and a small salad. Finally, they close out with cheese and fruit, dessert, and coffee, with lots of socializing throughout.

Italian cuisine contributes lots of wonderful vegetable-laden side dishes. Loads of tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, onions, basil, and oregano, along with olives, artichokes, and leeks feature in the Italian diet. Check out recipes for ciambotta and ratatouille. While you're at it, also look at the peperonata recipe. Add some chicken or pork for a filling meal.

While on the topic of Italy, we should look at the so-called "Mediterranean DIet". This supposedly low-fat diet focuses on fish, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, olive oil, and red wine. Care to know the truth? There really is no single Mediterranean Diet and what there is is rarely the politically-correct thing that we're exposed to.

For instance, the Mediterranean Diet is touted as low-fat. There is a yearly festival in Italy called the Festival of Lard. There are numerous preserved sausages and meats that come from Italy and all are loaded with fat. Would either of those come from a low-fat culture? And we're also told that their health is due to the high intake of olive oil, but in Italy, lard is actually the preferred cooking fat.

So if you're a bit hungry now, why not check out some of these recipes from around the web? They represent the deliciousness of The Boot without the overload of processed carbohydrates that American-Italian fare is.

  • Swordfish with Capers - Simple to make and the name says it all, Recipe
  • Peperonata - Vegetables simmered in olive oil, add some chicken or pork for a delicious, filling dinner, Recipe
  • Fegatelli alla Guerrando - Pork livers wrapped in lace fat, Recipe
  • Ciambotta - A Southern Italy vegetable stew, perfect as a side dish, Recipe
  • Ratatouille - Another vegetable stew, perfect as a side dish, Recipe
  • Minestrone - A thick and hearty soup, with no official recipe Recipe
  • Insalata di Rinforzo - Califlower, Olive, and Caper Salad, Recipe


Cuban cuisine is one that few people are aware of, but that I find to be amazingly tasty. This cuisine features lots of slow-cooking with vegetable-heavy sauces such as sofrito (onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes). You'll also find delicious mojos made with the flavor of sour orange, a citurs fruit grown in Cuba. Unfortunately, for those of us that are a bit lower-carb, it's also a very starchy cuisine.

Most of the vegetables consumed in Cuba are root vegetables, heavy on the starch. These vegetables are potatoes, yucca, malanga, and boniato. And then there are the grains and beans which form another large part of the diet of this poor country. Bean soup with rice, rice and beans, corn soup, empanadas, and on and on. Other vegetables are in relatively short supply in Cuba, limited mostly to salads made of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and avocado.

By focusing on the slow-roasted meats, mojo criollo sauces, and sofrito-based meals, we can put together a healthful, high-protein meal. Check out the recipe for boliche and if you're feeling frisky, make a Lechon Asado, or pit roasted suckling pig.

  • Lechon Asado - Roast pork, typically made with the whole pig, but how many of us have enough eaters to cook a whole pig? This one uses a ham, Recipe
  • Picadillo - A ground beef dish, Recipe
  • Boliche - A chorizo stuffed roast, Recipe
  • Mariquitas - Not to be confused with margaritas, these are thinly sliced plantain chips. Probably shouldn't be included very often as it's fried starch, Recipe
  • Yuca con mojo - Yuca with garlic sauce, Recipe
  • Sofrito - The base of many Cuban dishes, Recipe
  • Mojo criollo - Traditional garlic sauce, Recipe
  • Alcaparrado - A mixture of olives, capers, and pimiento, Recipe's more than just cigars and rum.


Argentina is a meat-lovers paradise, featuring humongo steaks two or three times a day. And it's all grass-fed beef, eating the delicious pampas grass that grows there. Once again, we see a cuisine dominated by fresh, whole foods with vegetables and meat playing prominent roles. But it's not just steaks that Argentinians eat. While they are the number one consumers of beef per capita in the world, at 150lbs per person, per year, they also eat heartily from other animals sources like chicken, pork, and lamb. And don't forget organ meats and sausages.

There aren't many Argentinian restaurants in the United States, at least not in relation to restaurants featuring Mexican, Italian, French, Japanese, and Chinese cuisines. Given that, there aren't all that many rumors to dispel. The vast north-south range of the country lends itself well to growing nearly anything, from beef to soybeans.

Argentinians are major growers of wheat, so there is a good bit of white bread on the dinner table to be avoided, along with pasta and pizza from the Italian influence. Tomatoes, onions, lettuce, eggplants, squashes and zucchini also feature prominently.

Matambre sounds absolutely delicious, being the national dish of rolled flank steak stuffed with vegetables, eggs, and herbs and then roasted. There are stews of meat, fruit, and vegetables, such as carbonada criolla and the most perfect steak topping ever, chimichurri.

If you're anything like me, reading this part on Argentina has your taste buds raring to go. Try these recipes on for size:

  • Matambre - The national dish, "a rolled, flank steak filled with vegetables, eggs and herbs that is then boiled or oven-roasted," Recipe
  • Pollo Rio Negro - A simple marinated chicken recipe; Recipe
  • Calamari and Onions - A simple way to use up that calamari you've been eyeing; Recipe
  • Lamb Rolls - Swap the potatoes for sweet potatoes and you have a delicious meal; Recipe
  • Milanesas a Caballo estilo David - Swap out the bread crumbs for some almond flour and make a breaded steak; Recipe
  • Carbonada Criolla - A stew of meat, vegetables, and fruits. It has a few potatoes that could be swapped out for something else and some corn that you may wish to avoid; Recipe
  • Chimichurri - A sauce of various herbs and spices mixed with olive oil and used as a meat topping or marinade, Recipe
  • Basic Grill Marinade - This is a basic marinade for those cuts of meat that benefit from it; Recipe

The Key Takeaway

The main word that you should associate with the foods eaten around the world is "fresh". No matter what country we look at, people eating in traditional ways, we find that they are using local produce and naturally-raised meats, along with available starches like potatoes, manioc, squashes, rice, and beans to create hearty menus.

Unlike in the United States, highly processed packaged foods are eaten rarely, if at all. These foods are typically more expensive than the traditional foods consumed in these areas, especially in the more rural areas. And it's definitely to their benefit; Dr. Weston A. Price has pointed out that as cultures adopt the highly processed flours and sugars of Western culture, their health declines markedly.

Feel free to add some of your favorite recipes to the comments! And always remember that when you want to really explore the diversity and flavor of another nation's cuisine, you have to step outside of the major restaurants in your city. Small immigrant-owned places often serve a very close facsimile of their ethnic cuisine, but a Google search can also turn up many recipes with a more traditional flair.


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