This week is number 40 in my quest to cook 80 world cuisines, and therefore halfway through the journey! There are good reasons for Mexico’s excellent international reputation for fine cuisine – the colours and flavours are exotic yet comforting, fresh yet hearty and undeniably appetising. The climate in the north of Mexico is more suited to growing wheat, producing foods such as the burrito, which needs a wheat (rather than corn) tortilla because it needs to be big and strong enough to hold a lot of wet filling, a feat that can only be achieved with gluten. The south, on the other hand, produces a lot of corn, and much of its cuisine is centred on that, including corn tortillas, drinks, as well as fermented, fresh or ground corn, and many other ingenious products. Mexican food can be traced back to 7000 BC, when Mesoamerican groups such as the Mayans domesticated corn, as well as harnessing other native ingredients including tomatoes, squash, beans, avocados, chilli and chocolate. An important advent in culinary history was the development of nixtamalization by the indigenous Mexican people, which involves treating corn in lye, improving its nutritional value and softening it for grinding. It also removes toxins from corn contaminated with mycotoxin, which is produced by fungi. The Spanish colonisation of Mexico brought other ingredients now considered integral to Mexican cuisine, including rice, meat from domesticated animals, and cheeses. Prior to this, the main sources of meat in Mexico were native turkey, seafood and insects. Indeed, grasshopper tacos can still be found at street stalls across many parts of Mexico. One of the most important aspects of Mexican cuisine is the chilli pepper, which is indigenous to Mexico and comes in hundreds of varieties that each have unique colours, flavours and degrees of heat. It has even been recorded that indigenous Mexicans in the 16th century did not consider themselves to be eating unless chilli was involved. Food in Mexico is an extremely important aspect of culture, and is central to many festivals and celebrations. Street food is also a part of this, with a long history of stalls and vendors selling a delightful variety of snacks and meals.
Chilaquiles come from the Aztec word chīlāquilitl, which literally means “chilli water, edible plant”. They consist of corn tortillas cut into wedges and lightly fried until crispy. These are then covered in mole, green salsa or red salsa (I used red), and simmered in a pan until the tortilla pieces start to soften again. On top of this can be added anything you happen to have in the fridge, including what I selected: radishes, avocado, coriander, red onion, queso fresco (white cheese) and a fried egg. Chilaquiles are commonly eaten as a breakfast food in Mexico, and can make use of stale tortillas and meat or vegetable leftovers from the night before. I suspect that chilaquiles may have been the inspiration for the more internationally-renowned nachos, which are actually not popular in Mexico, and were invented relatively recently to appease US soldiers travelling to Mexico, becoming hugely popular in the US afterwards. I ate this meal for brunch and agree that it’s just the sort of food that I crave in the mornings. I appreciate the Mexican love of hearty breakfasts, especially the inclusion of chilli at that time of the morning – it may not be for everyone, but it definitely kick-starts my day!
OK, let’s get something straight from the beginning. There is no such thing as hard-shelled tacos in Mexico. They are a gringo Tex-mex invention alongside the chimichanga and nachos, now sold in supermarkets all over the world in boxed kits. So when discussing options for tacos, there is only soft shell, and subsequent to that there is a choice between corn and wheat tortillas. I chose corn tortillas, given that they are more common in the south and centre where tacos are thought to have originated. The etymology of the word “taco” is unclear, with many theories about where it might have originated (Aztec, Spanish, French or English) or what it might mean, including “plug/wad”, “nail”, “half” or “in the middle”. Whatever the etymological origin, it’s clear that the dish is incredibly old, as pre-Columbian Mexicans ate similar dishes, including the tlaxcalli, which is a corn tortilla often filled with small fish. Tacos these days can be filled with whatever you fancy, but some famous varieties are tacos al pastor (shepherd style, with rotisserie pork, pineapple, white onion, coriander and salsa), tacos de asador (tacos containing grilled meat), tacos de cabeza (containing meat from the head of the cow), tacos de camarones (shrimp tacos), tacos de tripita/cazo/lengua (tripe/tongue tacos) and tacos de pescado (fish tacos). Authentic Mexican tacos are hallmarked by their delicious simplicity, which is problematic for me, as you may have already noticed that simplicity and moderation in food is a concept that I struggle with. I compromised by filling each taco with only a couple of ingredients, but making lots of different sorts, preparing protein bases such as black beans and corn, grilled veggies, shrimp, slow cooked beef, grilled steak, grilled chorizo and carnitas (fried Mexican pulled pork). I served these with accompaniments of jalapeños, radishes, green and purple cabbage, coriander, avocado, pineapple, queso fresco (white cheese), pomegranate, tomato salsa, white onion, lime, and red and green chilli sauces. The central chilli sauce is a wonderful home made recipe that my Colombian friend brought to lunch and which I adore more than any store bought sauce (that reminds me, I must get the recipe…). I’ve tried to make several varieties of pulled pork in my life, but have found all of them disappointing with the exception of Mexican carnitas. The secret ingredient is orange juice, which I put into a slow cooker with the pork shoulder, as well as spices such as cumin, ground coriander and chilli. Once the pork is wonderfully soft, it is then flash fried in a skillet until the edges get a little browned and crispy. I usually then reduce the remainder of the marinade into a thick sauce and pour it on at the end. It’s a very easy dish to make and a sure-fire show-stopper, but please don’t be tempted to let barbecue sauce anywhere near this pulled pork, it never ends well! I also love the addition of fruits to tacos, which gives a great contrasting sweet freshness to the meaty flavours – pork and pineapple go particularly well together.
Chicken mole and chiles en nogada
Although mole (pronounced mo-lay) is not as well known outside of Mexico as other meals, it is a strong contender for the most important dish in the country. It’s made for festivals, religious holidays and personal family celebrations alike, and is commonly touted as Mexico’s national dish. Mole is a sauce that is hugely variable between cooks and regions, but is famous for its vast number of ingredients (sometimes over 30), complex flavour and time-consuming process. Although mole pre-dates Spanish colonisation, the modern version involves numerous Spanish ingredients, and indeed the word mole may come from mōlli, meaning “sauce” in the language of the Aztecs, and/or the Portuguese word molho, meaning sauce, and/or an ancient Spanish word for mix. Moles can be black, red, yellow, green or brown in colour, but share common ingredients of chilli, some sort of fruit and sweet spices (like cinnamon or cumin). Controversially, the states of Puebla and Oaxaca both claim invention of mole, and some of the more famous varieties come from these states, although it is made in many forms all across the country. One of the most persistent origin stories is that it was created by nuns in a convent upon hearing that an archbishop was going to visit, and threw together whatever they had into a sauce and served it with an old turkey. Other stories involve accidental spillage of spices while a more conventional sauce was cooking. Mole was traditionally only prepared for grand celebrations because of the time-intensive process of roasting and grinding all of the ingredients by hand; it’s made much more convenient these days with the advent of supermarkets and food processors. The most famous mole is mole poblano, which is what I made, and includes chocolate in its recipe (although this is not true for all moles), but still has a hugely variable ingredient list. I included a few types of chilli pepper, sesame seeds, cloves, ground coriander, pepper, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cinnamon, oil, chicken stock, almonds, peanuts, raisins, white bread (to thicken), onions, garlic, tomato, dark chocolate and a little sugar. I cooked everything together, then food-processed the lot, which is perhaps not strictly traditional, but very easy. I served the mole over pan-fried chicken breasts. I suppose I’d better get this admission over with: I really don’t like chocolate. It’s one of the few things I don’t like, and perhaps why I’ve never been a big fan of desserts. There’s something bitter about it that I just can’t find the appeal in. So, I liked the mole sauce, but I think I would have preferred it with less (or no) chocolate. However, if you are one of the 99.9% of the population that has an enduring love affair with chocolate, it will likely be up your alley. I will have to try the other varieties next time! I served my chicken mole with rice and Mexican chiles en nogada (literally meaning “chilli peppers with walnuts”), which is the most famous of many examples of Mexican stuffed chillies. Green poblano chillies (which are larger than a small hot chilli but smaller than a capsicum, and quite mild) are roasted and stuffed with a mixture of meat mince, onion, garlic, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, coriander and spices. A thick sauce is then made with walnuts, bread, milk and goats cheese, and poured over the stuffed peppers, which are adorned with pomegranate seeds. This combination results in a dish that shares the colours of the Mexican flag, and is therefore prepared for the national independence festivities, which are conveniently when pomegranates are seasonal.
Elotes, ensalada de noche buena, guacamole and ensalada Mexicana de frijoles.
Elotes are a fine example of Mexican street food, the name hailing from the Aztec word “ēlōtl”. Both words mean grilled corn on the cob, and the modern elote is often served on a stick, and with mayonnaise, chilli powder, butter, lime juice and fresh white cheese coating it. I have to say, I’ve always been a fan of corn on the cob, but the addition of chilli powder and mayonnaise was fantastic – the spiciness superbly complements the sweetness of the corn. I would certainly serve all of my corn on the cob in this way in the future. With the elotes, I served ensalada de noche buena, literally “salad of the good night”, the good night in question referring specifically to Christmas Eve in Spanish, when this salad has traditionally been served since the 1800s. It consists of lettuce, beetroot, pomegranate, peanuts and assorted fruits, such as apples, bananas, jicama or oranges, combined into a colourful and bejewelled dish. With this I served tortilla chips and guacamole, the latter of which arose from the Mexican Aztecs, perhaps more than 10,000 years ago when avocados were first cultivated, but is now famous and beloved the world over. The name comes from the Nahuatl word “āhuacamolli”, a composite of the words for avocado (āhuacatl) and sauce (molli). To make guacamole, ripe avocados are mashed, with possible additions of finely chopped vegetables (tomato, onion, garlic, chillies etc), or herbs (coriander), lime/lemon juice, and seasoning with spices, salt and pepper. I’ve learned that National Guacamole Day is September 16, the same day as Mexican Independence Day, so feel free to make a batch then, or on any day that takes your fancy! Finally I made ensalada Mexicana de frijoles (Mexican salad of beans) with black beans, corn, onion, tomatoes and capsicums seasoned with coriander and lime.