Mexican cuisine is immensely diverse and rich, so much so that it qualified as one of the few countries that I split into two different regions as part of my project: the north and south. While the south is rich in corn-based products, the drier climate and number of grassy plains of the north particularly lends itself to ranch culture and the production of wheat, beef and dairy, especially cheeses. The major influences of general Mexican cuisine are first from the native ingredients and Mesoamerican groups, many of whose original words for food items last as etymological origins of the Spanish and English versions today. After Spanish colonisation in the 1500s came the introduction of domesticated animals and their dairy products, as well as wheat and rice and the development of modern Mexican food. The food from the north was the major influence upon the Mexican cuisine now hugely popular in the United States, which has now taken on a culinary identity of its very own: Tex Mex. I adore Mexican food for its diversity, colour and liberal use of bright fresh vegetables, herbs and spices. Mexicans themselves take food incredibly seriously, the mere idea of eating deeply integrated in social interaction, with food eaten together with lots of people in social celebrations considered far tastier due solely to the context. The ability to cook well (“sazón”), although traditionally attributed as women’s work, is hugely respected, and closely associated with the cook’s regard for their diners. Better said, a delicious Mexican meal represents love from the cook to all of those who eat it, an expression that I fully support – I feel the deepest love from my friends and family when they cook for me!
Pork pozole verde
Pozole is a popular and delicious dish that has something of a dark past. It can be traced back to the Aztecs, who cooked the dish combining hominy (large white corn kernels that give rise to the word “pozole” in the Nahuatl language), an ingredient that was considered especially significant due to the belief that humans were comprised of cornmeal. The other major ingredient in the dish was meat, which, some sources say, took the form of human flesh from sacrificial victims, and was eaten by the community as part of the religious ritual. Spanish colonisation eventually led to the cessation of cannibalism, but the dish of pozole persisted, especially enjoyed at celebratory events all over Mexico in different forms, with pork substituted as the closest facsimile of human flesh. I must admit, this knowledge somewhat diminished my appetite for pozole initially, although the wonderful aroma of the soup cooking and my notoriously iron-clad stomach won out in the end. In some ways I can’t believe it took 70 cuisines to bring up the subject of cannibalism – I can’t have been researching deeply enough! There are three main varieties of pozole named after their final colourations: blanco, rojo and verde (white, red and green). Where the white variety is relatively plain, made of the white corn and meat, the red is coloured by various chilles and the green can be flavoured with jalapeños, cilantros or tomatillos. I made pozole verde, the green variety, by food processing a combination of tomatillos (green tomatoes), oregano, garlic, onion, cumin and jalapeños. To this I added the hominy and shredded cooked pork shoulder, garnishing with fresh radish, avocado and cilantro.
Beef barbacoa burrito
Burrito, meaning “little donkey” in Spanish, perhaps refers to the surprising ability of the tortilla to carry an enormous amount of cargo, much like the sturdy little beast of burden. This ability of the tortilla to remain integral in the face of a hefty wet filling is crucial to its Northern Mexican origin, as it could only be achieved by the use of wheat flour, as opposed to the traditional corn that ancient taco tortillas have been made from since the time of the Aztecs. The climate of Northern Mexico is much better suited to the farming of wheat than the south, and so this dish is thought to have originated there. It is also sometimes said that the name burrito actually refers to the tightly rolled bedrolls commonly carried by donkeys, or even the shape of their long curved ears, so perhaps the integrity of the tortilla is merely a coincidence. There are numerous legends regarding the origin of the burrito, from a handy dish made by the vaqueros (cowboys) of the north, to being created by Juan Méndez from the state of Chihuahua, a street vendor who started wrapping food in large wheat tortillas to keep it warm while riding around on his donkey (another potential origin for the name). In my burrito I included barbacoa beef, which is thought to be the origin of the English term “barbecue”, referring to heavily spiced meat cooked on an open fire, or, more recently steamed/stewed. To this I added refried beans, tomato and some jalapeño, keeping the fillings relatively minimalist (for my standards), as is traditional in Mexico, compared to the more gluttonous Tex Mex burritos.
Baja California fish tacos, almejas brujas, grilled prawns and Caesar salad
Baja California is a state in the very north west of Mexico, bordering the state of California in the USA, known for its bright cuisine that takes advantage of the prolific local seafood that can be found in the Pacific Ocean to the west of the peninsula, or the Gulf of California to the east. Fish tacos are a famous modern export of the region, and have exploded in popularity all over the world in recent times. They are commonly formed by pieces of grilled or fried fish with lettuce or cabbage, various salsas and mayonnaise. The cuisine of this region has been labelled “Baja Mediterranean” or “Baja Med” for short, and is unafraid to combine international influences from recent waves of migration out of Asia and Europe with the unique local ingredients to create new and delicious flavours. One of the most recognised of these inventions is the Caesar salad, which I must admit I was surprised to learn originated in Mexico, always assuming the name referred to the Ancient Roman Emperor Caesar, just like the Caesarian section. However, Caesar is a common name in some Latin circles, and the inventor is said to be Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who made the salad in his restaurant in 1924 when an unexpected influx of customers depleted his other salad supplied. This original version is said to be simpler than the anchovy-laden recipe popular today, containing simply cos lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese and a dressing with a basis of home-made mayonnaise or oil, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and garlic. There is also debate over whether raw or coddled egg was included in the original version. Along with my salad I made use of some fresh seafood, first in the form of almejas brujas, stuffed clams. Clams are abundant in this region and can be turned into many preparations. I made my stuffed clams by frying some garlic, onion and finely chopped tomato together with the diced clam meat, then scooping the mixture back into the shells and grilling them with some cheese and fresh coriander. I also grilled some whole prawns with garlic and lime juice, a recipe that I can imagine enjoying under a parasol on the beautiful sunny beaches of Baja California, perhaps accompanied by a margarita?
Chile colorado describes a beef stew flavoured with various chillies, of which there are countless varieties in Mexico, all of which make use of tough cuts of beef by slow cooking in a flavourful gravy. One of the major chillies utilised in this dish is actually called chile colorado, or New Mexico chile in other parts of the world. “Colorado” can mean “red” in Spanish, perhaps referring to the deep red colour that the chillies impart. Often these sort of stews involve boiling dried chillies, such as the aforementioned chile colorado, ancho/poblano chillies, or guajillo/anaheim chillies etc. I felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of chilli varieties during my preparation for this week! After steeping whatever variety of dried chillies you’ve been able to capture in boiling water, they are blended into a sauce, strained and combined with aromatics and spices such as onion, garlic, cumin, oregano and lime. The smooth sauce is then mixed with chunks of floured and seared beef, and simmered together for hours until the meat is tender and the sauce is thick. The dish is thought to come from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, and can be eaten by itself, with rice, or even as the filling of tacos or burritos. I served mine with stewed pinto beans, salad, tortillas and Mexican rice, which is white rice cooked with tomatoes, garlic, onions etc, taking on a lovely yellow-red colour and deliciously savoury flavour.