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MARKETS : Packed With Pupusas, Chock Full of Chuco : Liborio covers the Latino food spectrum from Mexico to the Andes

At Ninth and Vermont, where Koreatown’s barbecue joints and acupuncture studios begin to mingle with clusters of pupuseriias and panaderiias , the first Liborio Market has flourished for nearly 30 years. You can detect remnants of a former Thai enclave here in authentic Thai restaurants like Vim and Alisa, although today these places make most of their money selling fried rice and chow mein to customers from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Tapping into this ever-changing neighborhood mix are Liborio’s owners, the Alejo family. “We’re still really a mom-and-pop business,” says John Alejo III, the founder’s son. “And we’ve always talked to customers about what’s available in their markets at home.”

When Enrique Alejo Jr. and his father opened the small store in the late ‘60s, the shelves looked like something straight out of a Miami neighborhood carniceriia --not surprising, because that’s exactly where Alejo Jr. worked as a meat cutter after abandoning his engineering studies to flee Cuba when Castro took over.

It took only three years for Liborio to double in size. Cubans shopped there, and the market also began to draw a clientele from the Yucatan and Campeche in southern Mexico, where ingredients are comparable to those in the Caribbean.

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Good cooks heard about the store through the grapevine, and it became a sort of neighborhood comfort stop where people knew that the banana leaves were fresh and the perfectly seasoned chorizos in the butcher shop were homemade. The produce section, though small, was carefully groomed. Bunches of the really ripe thin-skinned manzano bananas and squishy-sweet ripe plantains would be hung on round wooden posts to keep them from bruising. It gave the place a slightly exotic tropical atmosphere.

Although the family added warehouse space and bought more adjoining property, the store could barely keep pace with the growing Latin community around it. And despite expansion, shopping there remains a rather claustrophobic experience; the aisles are always crammed with the widest assortment of Latin ingredients in town.

In the late ‘70s, customer requests began to grow beyond the basic Caribbean ingredients like yuca and achiote . The Alejos found themselves filling orders for Brazilian manioc meal, dried Peruvian potatoes, Guatemalan mashed black beans and the Salvadoran coffee cake called quesadilla .

Today, they’re able to fill customer demand for good prepared products like the ready-to-use pupusa fillings that Liborio makes in its butcher section or the roasted turkey and lechoon asado (whole roasted pig) for parties. They’ve also installed a Central American/Cuban-style bakery.

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Liborio has opened a second and larger supermarket in the Mid-Cities, which has become one of the county’s newest Latino bedroom communities. Wedged between Vernon and City of Commerce, vintage ‘40s California tract homes on tree-lined streets are hidden from the throbbing commercialism along Atlantic Boulevard and Gage Avenue. When their customers began to discover the area, the Alejos were watching and listening.

SHOPPING LIST

* Pupusa Supplies: Monterey Jack cheese blended with chopped loroco , a delicate-tasting flower bud that comes frozen from El Salvador, makes up the cheese pupusa filling sold at Liborio’s butcher counter. To make these stuffed, grilled corn cakes, you need cornmeal masa , and Liborio’s butchers have that ready-made too. They also deep-fry pork and use it to blend with minced tomato, bell pepper and onion for a chicharroon pupusa filling.

Even with all the elements at hand, it takes practice to pat the corn dough thin into its flying-saucer shape, then to slather on the filling before you enclose it by patting more dough over the top. But it’s still easier to use the prepared elements than to start from scratch. And Liborio’s blend of fresh ingredients will make your pupusas taste thoroughly homemade.

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* Chun~os Blancos and Chun~os Negros: The Incas found that they could preserve their potato crop if they left the tubers exposed to the sun in the dry, freezing air of the Andes, where the potatoes would alternately freeze and thaw until they became bone-dry and bone-hard. Originally this was strictly a survival tactic, but Peruvians grew to love the meaty texture and unique flavor of these dried potatoes.

Today, says importer Willie Veliez of Amazonas Natural Foods in Sun Valley, chun~nos are prepared by boiling them and then freezing them for 21 to 30 days before canning for export.

Chun~os are small golden potatoes with a slightly sweet nutty taste. Some flavor is lost in drying, but chun~os can absorb the nuances of sauces and broths in a way that intensifies them.

Lighter-colored chun~os are packed as chun~os blancos, darker ones as chun~os negros . Each has its own uses. Chun~os blancos add their robust character to guiso de chun~o , a stew in which they are simmered with tomato sauce, green beans and enough beef to give a richly meaty effect. For soups ( sopas de chun~os ) , anything goes -- chicken stock, beef stock or even llama broth, plus any vegetables the cook chooses and, of course, plenty of chun~os .

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* Tamale Spices: Below the plantains in the produce section are packets of tamale seasonings made in Guatemalan and Salvadoran styles. Both combine sesame seeds, green pumpkin seeds, dried chile and spices; the Salvadoran version includes bay leaves.

Cooks have told me they season more than their tamale fillings with these blends. Some use the spices for flavoring Central American-style roast turkey stuffed with fresh steamed vegetables. First they roast the seeds and puree them with a little water and the rest of the packet’s ingredients and perhaps a few cloves of garlic. This paste gets smeared over the bird, inside and out. Piercing the turkey in several places helps draw the seasoning into the meat, suffusing it with luscious flavor.

* Sausages: Liborio’s butchers prepare six styles of sausages. The longaniza, a sort of pan-Latin-style pork link the size of a sweet Italian sausage, is well seasoned with, among other things, yerba buena , cilantro and serrano chile. But the sausage isn’t really spicy; its chile heat is banked down to a low glow.

Similar seasonings go into the chorizo de res, my favorite chorizo. It’s made of beef and seasoned with yerba buena, chile and achiote seeds, which impart its characteristic orange color. This and the pork version, chorizo de puerco, are hung to cure, giving them a nice, slightly dry sausage quality.

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There is also longaniza en estilo centroamericano, the pork sausages preferred by many Central Americans. These are quite a bit leaner and more mildly seasoned than the chorizos but still juicy. The two versions--one orange because it’s seasoned with achiote --have the same basic flavor.

TRADITIONAL CEREAL DRINKS (BEBIDAS TIPICAS)

Perhaps because they’ve been ignored by the likes of Taco Bell and El Pollo Loco, Latin America’s popular grain-based drinks remain a mystery to almost all but those who grew up drinking them. Yet these are the comfort foods consumed almost daily all over Latin America.

Until recent times, drinks like champurrado , the rich hot chocolate thickened with corn, were made at home by cooking ground grain in a liquid. If cooled and blended with ice, the drinks become refrescos . Now many food companies make instant no-cook versions of these refrescos and warm bebidas.

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The origins of theses drinks go back to the ancient Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations. The Aztecs called them atolli , from which comes the Mexican name atole . Corn was the usual grain. Food historians say that nixtamal , the basis of masa and everything made from it (tortillas, tamales and so forth), was invented by accident when lime was added to the cooking water as the corn hulls were softened in making atolli .

Travelers took balls of the ground corn dough with them on trips. By adding water to small chunks of the dough, they could have an instant meal. Other grains came into use, including oats, wheat and barley from the Old World.

Traditionally, in every marketplace there would be scores of women atole vendors, each of whom made a special variety flavored with everything from chocolate to pineapple and even chiles. Liborio’s cereal drink section also carries many styles, often several brands of each. They come in bags or jars, in instant and other versions, ready to be sprinkled into liquids and heated or simply whirled with ice in a licuadora (blender).

* Fresco de Pinol: To escape the monotony of the same old corn flavor, the Aztecs and Mayas would occasionally toast the corn for their atoles . The result was a drink that dissolved without cooking. Travelers often kept a little bag of pinol with them to assure that they had nourishment along their way.

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Nowadays, pinol comes as instant drinks flavored with sugar and cinnamon or other seasonings. Liborio carries several brands, which may be served hot or with ice as a refresco. * Pinolillo: Simply flavored pinol , these drinks are seasoned differently--ground peanuts, cocoa or cinnamon--and may be made either hot or cold.

* Fresco de Avena: Although not native to the New World, oats have been turned into a favorite refresco (or batido, depending on the country). In some, for reasons every American child knows, they simply call the milk shake-like drink a “Quaker.” As with pinol , this mixture of pulverized rolled oat powder, sugar and cinnamon is blended with milk and ice.

* Cebada Rosada: Barley, too, was brought from Europe, so it is safe to say that this barley-based drink--which is often tinted a beautiful rosy pink and sometimes flavored strawberry--is a relatively modern atole .

The many brands include Super Sabrosa, Proinca and Indaca. Most make the instant cebada rosada , but several require cooking the barley flour with liquid until it thickens. When cooled and blended with sugar, ice and milk, it’s like a delicious milk shake. Cebada also comes without any strawberry flavoring.

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* Chuco (also Shuco): This Salvadoran-style atole is simply ground black corn. When cooked with water, it turns a beautiful purple color. At the end of the cooking, a sprinkling of diluted alhuaishte , a powder of ground pumpkin seeds, is added. Many brands of chuco include a packet of it for this purpose. Chuco is served hot, usually in a bowl. It’s brightened up with a little salt and hot chile sauce and accompanied with a dollop of cooked red beans.

* Chilate: This Salvadoran-style atole of ground corn is served as dessert or a hearty snack. Its formal name is atole de chilate , but everyone calls it chilate . To enhance its bland taste, chilate almost always is served warm with a sweet like fried plantains or nuggets of yuca simmered in a sweet syrup. It comes with a small bag of allspice berries for flavoring as it simmers (some cooks prefer ginger).

* Horchata Mix and Rice Flour: Liborio carries several styles and brands of horchata , the rice-based drink that in Mexico is flavored with cinnamon. Most Central American horchatas include ground nuts or seeds with the rice.

One company makes three horchata styles: horchata de moro , horchata vitaminada (vitamin-enriched) and horchata fiesta . The horchata de moro , made with rice flour, ground peanuts and cocoa, gets a coffee-like flavor from the ground seeds of the moro tree. ( Moro seeds are also sold at Liborio.)

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The vitamin variety blends pumpkin and squash seeds, sesame seeds and peanuts with powdered milk, sugar and spices. Horchata fiesta , a similar blend, is lightly scented with coriander. To make horchata , blend your chosen mix with milk or water and sweeten to taste.

* Rice Flour (Harina de Arroz): For as cooks who want to make their own rice horchata or atole , plain rice flour is available. More convenient than grinding a bowl of soaked rice, the flour also allows a cook to flavor horchata to his or her liking. For the novice, the package includes good instructions in English and Spanish.


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