Although Latin American cuisine is quite diverse, there is one basic element that apprears throughout the many regions and culinary traditions. South American cooks typically start off a dish by sautéing a few savory ingredients together (onions, garlic, tomatoes, etc) until fragrant and soft. The exact combination of ingredients in this sofrito (or refrito or aderezo) distinguishes the different South American cuisines from one another.
This culinary technique came to Latin America from Spain and Portugal, and is common in Mediterranean cuisine as well. In Spain, the classic sofrito mixture is garlic, onion and tomato. Cajun cooking has something similar - the "holy trinity" of onions, bell peppers, and celery which are the base of the many famous New Orleans dishes like jambalaya. Louisiana owes that trick to the French and their mirepoix (a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery).
Peruvians often credit aderezo as the secret to their famous cuisine. Many Peruvian dishes begin with aji amarillo, a spicy yet fruity chile pepper with a very recognizable flavor. Other common aderezo ingredients are herbs like oregano and cumin, and achiote (annato). Even basic white rice starts with a special aderezo of mashed garlic cooked in oil, and it makes all the difference.Colombian hogao, a popular condiment/salsa, is made with a flavorful base of tomatoes, scallions, and cilantro, which also perfectly seasons these traditional Colombian red beans. In Brazilian cooking, dende oil (palm oil) adds a distinctive flavor to many dishes (refogado is the word for sofrito in Portuguese), such as moqueca de peixe a fish stew made with coconut milk and tomatoes. Paella is an example of a dish that starts with a sofrito, typically one with saffron or achiote for color. In Central America and in the Caribbean, elaborate sofritos are often prepared ahead of time and jarred, ready for use as the base seasoning for many dishes.
If you're in a hurry, the little packets of South American seasonings from Goya, sold as "Sazón Goya", can make a quick aderezo. There are several flavors, although I mostly use the one with cilantro and annatto (culantro y achiote).
More About Sofritos...
The "Three Sisters": Corn, Beans, and Squash
Spanish Sofrito Recipe Colombian Aji Sauce
Gaston Acurio on Aji Amarillo
Latin Caribbean-style Sofrito
Dominican Sofrito - Sazón
Puerto Rican Sofrito - Recaito