Following a Canadian chef on a Mexican gastrotour, Dick Snyder gets the menu and discovers a culinary culture beyond the taco.
I’m staring down at a plate of Mexican food. And I’m perplexed.
It’s the second course of lunch at the acclaimed Sud 777 in south Mexico City, lauded for its fresh ingredients and new-style contemporary cooking. Being Canadian, I’ve never had real Mexican food, as far as I know. Just greasy-cheesy-spicy things and overly sweetened Margaritas. Perhaps the occasional overdose of tequila.
So here I am faced with a plate that has no green sauce, no chilies, not even a crumbling of queso fresco. Nor a tortilla. Not a stitch of guacamole, nary an avocado in sight. And certainly nothing deep-fried.
There’s just a carrot. A single orange spear on a white plate, scattered with some pine nuts and herbs and a smear of something creamy. It’s beautiful and delicious. But perplexing.
As I ponder this carrot’s place in the lexicon of Mexican cuisine as I know it, I reach for my wine glass. But it’s not wine. Chef Edgar Nuñez doesn’t drink alcohol. Never had a taste for it, he says. He’s paired this carrot with a juice of beet and rose. It’s sweet and sour, earthy and vibrant – just like the carrot. Later, he rants against the evils of Coca-Cola, sugar, high-carb Mexican junk food and the poor dietary habits that have been transferred to his people via the United States. He’s clearly a man on a mission.
“I don’t do traditional Mexican food,” he says. “But I am a Mexican cook and chef. I use local ingredients and I do older styles, too.”
So that carrot begins to make sense. But it’s unlikely you’ll see it at your local Chipotle or Quesada chain. Chef Nuñez cooked it sous vide – sealed in plastic and immersed in warm water – with a finish on the grill. The essence of carrot, concentrated and transformed. And yet, still, just a carrot – albeit insanely delicious.
My gastro-journey to Mexico was full of surprises.
My first visit to the country took me to Mexico City, Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta – three significant centres of gastronomy that busted all my notions of Mexican food (carrots notwithstanding). The cuisine here is in transformation – or maybe the correct word is celebration. Several chefs talked to me about the dark period for Mexican cuisine in the 1980s. They say that’s when the food became a fatty, unhealthy caricature of itself – call it the Taco Bell-ization of Mexican food – and young chefs became disconnected from their roots. Times have changed, and all eyes are on the future.
In 2010, UNESCO recognized the significance of Mexican cuisine as part of the world’s global heritage, citing Mexico’s contributions to agriculture, cooking techniques and community. We can thank Mexico for the tomato (pace, Italy) and the avocado, among other delights. But the notion of community is especially important, as Mexican cooking is a family affair, from field to kitchen.
Chefs and foodies around the world took note – and the food scene there is now a flurry of creativity, with chefs delving into the meaning of authenticity and pushing the boundaries of contemporary cooking, often at the same time. This is a great time to visit Mexico – just bring an appetite.
I certainly did. And so did Canada’s Iron Chef Rob Feenie of Vancouver’s upscale Cactus Club chain, who was there on a fact-finding mission. I tagged along with him for part of my trip as he visited chefs, restaurants and markets looking for insight and inspiration to inform his menus back in Canada.
In Mexico City, at Corazón de Maguey, we ate chapulines, a.k.a. grasshoppers. These are commonly served alongside snacks of guacamole and chips or stuffed into a large folded tortilla along with meat, cheese and beans. These crunchy beasts get their distinctive sour-salty taste from a mix of garlic, lime juice and salt with which they are toasted on a dry clay pan called a comal. Oh, and the salt usually also has some ground-up worms in it for good measure. Yes, bug culture runs deep in authentic Mexican.
“Hmmm,” Feenie says, popping a few in his mouth. “Salty, tangy, crunchy. Good.” But not likely to make it onto the menu at the Cactus Club any time soon.
That night we eat at Pujol, a sleek restaurant helmed by chef Enrique Olvera. Pujol made history in 2011 as the first Mexican restaurant with a Mexican chef to be named to the globally influential San Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Olvera likes his bugs, too. Larvae, crickets, ants, worms – all fodder for the contemporary takes on traditional cooking that he has been spearheading since opening in 2000.
Arguably, he’s helped make Mexican cuisine hip, an achievement that has attracted food-frenzied rockers from Metallica and U2. Bono celebrated his 51st birthday in Pujol’s private 12-seat Champagne Room – and likely indulged in an insect or two.
Chef Olvera is a “Chilango” – Mexican slang for a citizen of Mexico City – but he trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He’s taken one of Mexico’s culinary treasures – the sauce known as mole – and reinvented it as a post-modern delicacy. Moles (moh-lays) are created in almost endless variations, and different regions are known for their own specialites.
Oaxaca, for instance, lays claim to seven very different and particular moles of varied colours, such as negro (black), amarillo (yellow) and coloradito (red). A mole commonly accompanies a meat dish and can have as few as three or as many as dozens of ingredients. Chief among these are chili peppers, chocolate, nuts, herbs and spices.
Olvera’s approach was, firstly, to eliminate the protein. He serves his mole solo on the plate, scattered with sesame seeds. He approaches his mole as a living thing, adding new, usually seasonal ingredients to it every day, always retaining some of the original batch, much like bakers treat the yeast starter for sourdough bread.
He calls it the “300-day” or “never-ending” mole. We tasted it during a multi-course dinner – and it’s something that requires some contemplation. Dark, earthy, rich and supple in the mouth. You can discern some of the individual elements – it’s nutty, piquant, savoury – but really it’s a symphony of flavours, a sum of many, many parts. Quite unlike any food I’ve ever had.
My taste buds were constantly challenged like this. Familiar flavours were executed so stunningly that I had to take pause. I tasted the best guacamole of my life at Nico’s, a low-key diner in the Azcapotzalco neighbourhood. Chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo doesn’t use garlic in his; mind you, few Mexican chefs do.
But I was surprised that he also leaves out lime. Authentic guacamole is just fresh avocado, lots of diced tomato, chopped cilantro, and some minced onion and generous salt. Serrano chili is necessary but not a lot – it’s not about heat. Mix everything together but don’t mash. Chunkiness is desired.
Chef Lugo’s parents opened Nico’s in 1957, and he’s been running it for the last eight years. Early advocate of Mexico’s Slow Food movement, he reaches way back for his recipes, studying colonial-era texts and generations of family recipes passed along by his mama. (Mamas are key to Mexican cuisine; it’s that sense of community and family. But more on this later.)
He makes a dry soup (sopa seca), a traditional pasta and tomato “soup” that he renders as a layered lasagna-style dish, Sopa Azteca de Natas. It’s simple perfection.
As our meal concludes, we meet local celebrity, Margarita Carrillo, host of a popular cooking show. “You’ve come to the correct restaurant,” she tells us. In 2010 she worked on the UNESCO application to recognize the historical importance of Mexican cuisine and is keenly involved in modernizing the cooking by updating traditional recipes.
“We’ve removed a lot of the fat and heat so it’s easier for people. But it’s still authentic. We still use traditional techniques, but we’re also open to new techniques like sous vide.”
NEXT: Journey to Oaxaca
On an afternoon walk through the centre of historical Mexico City, approaching the Cathedral Metropolitana and the government square, we stopped at Azul Histórico for lunch. This semi-open-air space with soaring ceilings and lots of vegetation is one of several Azul restaurants run by Richard Munoz Zurita, a chef and scholar with 11 culinary tomes to his name.
In the 1980s, he began work on a text that codifies every ingredient and technique of Mexican cooking across the entire country – a monumental task that took more than 20 years to complete. The venerable French imprint Larousse has just released its edition of Zurita’s Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronimica Mexicana, and the University of Texas at Austin is working on an English translation.
Chef Feenie leafed through the book during lunch. “I want to discover more about the chilis,” he says, “and see what I can learn.” Depending on who’s talking, you’ll hear that Mexico is home to between 100 and 300 varieties of chilis. Larousse Gastronomique puts the number closer to 100 and cites their widespread use as the most characteristic feature of Mexican cooking.
And so we set off for the state of Oaxaca, about an hour’s flight southeast of Mexico City, near the Guatemala border. Of Mexico’s 31 states, Oaxaca is particularly known for its populations of indigenous peoples, of which 16 groups are officially recognized. It’s an isolated and rugged land, which has been a good thing for the preservation of culture and traditional ways.
This is the “land of the seven moles” and many other foodstuffs, such as chocolate, chapulines, tamales, Oaxacan cheese and a variety of corn-based dishes.
Over a couple of days, we visited several family eateries, where the women of the household are resolutely in charge of the kitchen. Chef Feenie was put to the test to keep up with them as he learned how to prepare a variety of labour-intensive dishes. At La Azucena Zapoteca Restaurant, we enjoyed a traditional campirano (country rustic) breakfast with Maria del Carmen Mendoza, who cooks a variety of exquisite egg dishes over a wood-fired clay comal.
While we watched, we drank café de olla, rich and silky traditional coffee brewed with chocolate and warm spices. (Here’s hoping Starbucks doesn’t get wind of this.) The eggs are cracked directly onto the comal and are cooked with no fat. They slide easily off the pan when done.
Later, we visit Tlamanalli Restaurant, a restaurant considered a local monument, and judging by the numerous international press clippings displayed proudly on the walls, much renowned by foodies in the know. Another family of Mendozas – three sisters with chef Abigail at the helm – run a restaurant and craft studio that produces traditionally woven rugs, shawls and blankets. Abigail demonstrated an intensive process of tortilla-making, toasting the corn until it just begins to pop and then grinding it by hand on a massive anvil-like stone. Chef Feenie gave it a whirl and seemed surprised by the intensive core workout he received.
“This is really hard,” he said after just a few back-breaking minutes.
The Saturday market in Oaxaca is like nothing I’ve ever seen, with stalls displaying everything from firecrackers and wrestling masks to live chickens, dozens of varieties of chili peppers and massive mounds of mole paste. Chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca toured us around, along with several other chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants, while hawkers called out to come sample their wares. We tasted highly prized corn fungus, a silky and lightly earthy mushroom that grows inside the husks. Served on its own inside a folded tortilla, it’s a remarkably unique sensation.
For lunch, dishes both old and new reminded me that, even in the epicentre of Mexico’s most traditional culinary region, young chefs are pushing their indigenous cuisine forward. At La Pitiona, more bugs – this time in the form of a mole made with ants. That was followed by the most incredible shrimp ceviche I’ve ever tasted, incorporating pumpkin seeds, corn nuts, watermelon and a gel made with Serrano chili. It was a dish of intricate simplicity – a dichotomy perhaps but an accurate description of the new Mexican cuisine perfectly poised to be the next big culinary thing. I’m certainly ready for it.