Maya Feller chops her favorite heritage vegetables in her kitchenShare on Pinterest
Photo courtesy of Maya Feller

There’s been a lot of talk about cultural foods lately, but what does that really mean?

Cultural and heritage foods can refer to traditions based on region, ethnicity, and even particular families.

“Cultural foods are different based on the individual,” says Maya Feller, registered dietitian and author of “Eating from Our Roots: 80+ Healthy Home-Cooked Favorites From Cultures Around The World.”

She notes that heritage foods may look similar based on geography. However, they may have differences based on preferences and history.

These include:

  • likes and dislikes
  • food availability
  • preparation techniques
  • family tradition

“I identify as a Black American woman,” says Feller. “However, if you ask about my ethnicity, I would say that I am of Afro-Carribean origin as a first-generation, third-culture person.”

Feller notes that flavors and foods from Trinidad, Tobago, and Haiti are very much a part of her culture, as are foods and flavors of the Northeast of the U.S., where she was born and currently lives.

Below are some of her favorite foods, plus health benefits and prep tips.

Hibiscus is a flowering plant also known as roselle or sorrell. It contains a number of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants.

These include:

  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • potassium
  • vitamin C
  • B vitamins
  • flavonoids
  • phenolic acids
  • organic acids

Hibiscus is commonly prepared as a tea. However, not all of these nutrients transfer into the tea.

“When I was a kid, I LOVED drinking sorrell,” says Feller. “In Trinidad, it’s made from dried hibiscus flowers, ginger, and a sweetener. My love for sorrell persists, and now I drink it without sweetener year-round.”

Pro tip: Enjoy it iced or hot. Just be sure to steep for a long time so all of the flavors come out.

Tamarind is a tropical fruit that grows in pods and is often made into candy.

It offers several beneficial nutrients, with one cup providing:

  • Magnesium: 26% of the daily value (DV)
  • Potassium: 16% of the DV
  • Iron: 19% of the DV
  • Calcium: 7% of the DV
  • Phosphorus: 11% of the DV
  • Copper: 11% of the DV
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin): 43% of the DV
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): 14% of the DV
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): 15% of the DV

It also contains fiber, protein, and antioxidants.

“As a child, my maternal grandmother would make tamarind and mango chutney that I put on everything,” Feller shares.

Tamarind has endless uses in cooking. Some of these include:

  • a paste or spread
  • tamarind balls
  • chutney
  • candy
  • sauces
  • a sweet and sour drink

According to Feller, it has a sweet, tangy flavor that pairs well with vegetables and animal proteins.

Garlic is a common—even essential—ingredient in many types of cuisine as well as potent home remedy.

It also offers a host of benefits. For instance, garlic may reduce the recovery time of the common cold, though there’s limited clinical evidence. Garlic can also help reduce blood pressure.

“When I was younger, my mother would make garlic, ginger, and honey tea when I wasn’t feeling well,” says Feller. “It was a potent elixir.”

In addition, garlic contains antioxidants that protect against oxidative damage.

Ginger is another powerful ingredient that plays an important role in cooking and wellness. It contains the bioactive compound gingerol, have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Ginger’s many benefits include:

“The warm spice of ginger is something that I’ve enjoyed since I was a child,” says Feller.

She suggests roughly chopping and adding ginger to rice, hearty soups, or pelau, a one-pot Trinidadian pilaf-like dish of meat, rice, and peas.

It’s also delicious in curries, broths, stir-fry, and more.

Cumin, black pepper, and turmeric make a savory, spicy blend.

“I couldn’t choose just one and often cook with them together,” says Feller. “My love for these flavors originated in childhood, as they’re reminiscent of Trinidadian food.”

Black pepper and turmeric together are known to fight inflammation, aid digestion, and even potentially treat and prevent cancer.

Cumin is also known to support digestion, weight loss, and is a rich source of iron.

Try spicing up some greens and grains with a bit of cumin, or mix all three to make a dry rub for tofu or animal protein.

Technically a fruit, you might be surprised to learn that chili peppers offer health benefits too.

They contain:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin K1
  • Potassium
  • Copper
  • Vitamin A

“When I was a kid, I would eat green mango, salt, lime, and hot pepper together, something all of my aunties would chatter about,” says Feller. “No one understood my love of unbelievably hot foods, and it persists today.”

She’s been known to slice up a jalapeno and toss it into a salad or use black urfa chili on eggs.

Some of Feller’s other spicy favorites include:

  • scotch bonnet
  • habanero pepper
  • serrano pepper
  • any scorching hot pepper

Cultural foods can be different depending on the history, family, and preferences of the person eating them.

No matter where you come from, the foods that mean something to you can be celebrated and enjoyed in ways that are healthy and delicious.

Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.