Stink bugs and street food
Unexpected delights on a culinary tour of Mexico
THERE is no armadillo on the menu at Deyanira Aquino’s house tonight and I am grateful for that. Since arriving in Mexico I have consumed grasshoppers, ants, corn fungus and — in an extreme case of paddock-to-plate dining — toasted stink bugs. I have tasted herbs I’d never heard of, fruits I’d never dreamed of, and an entire taxonomy of chillies. But I am not inclined to eat armadillo.
The deep and diverse culinary roots of the United Mexican States were recognised officially last year by the UN, which inscribed the country’s cuisine on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. But after grazing my way across the republic I have to say that sometimes Mexican food can feel less like a cuisine than a survival tactic. Equally, at other times it can be quite the revelation.
Senora Aquino hails from the fabulously named Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the slim continental waist cinched between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The eclectic istmeno community is known for its strong women, the muxe transvestite class, endless partying and remarkable food.
That last virtue is no surprise, given the isthmus lies within Oaxaca, a state renowned for its refined sense of gastronomy. Istmeno cuisine is something else again and involves a zoo of ingredients including armadillo and iguana. Thankfully, tonight we’re getting the more userfriendly tourist menu.
There are just six squeezy tables at La Teca, Aquino’s little restaurant in the Reforma neighbourhood of Oaxaca City, but she ushers us past these and into her home. A relative reads on the sofa as we take our seats at the family dining table. ‘‘You will have two courses,’’ our hostess announces, before ducking into the kitchen to prepare at least five.
She presents a trio of tamales, Mexico’s answer to the burger, including a deliciously pale version made with elote tierno, or young corn. The sweet mash is teamed with a mild, feta-like fresh cheese and plenty of cream. On paper it looks wrong but in the mouth it tastes completely right. Tender, subtle, sinful.
There are garnachas, a staple Tehuantepec street snack of handmade tortillas topped with a compelling medley of minced beef, fried onion, salsa, tomato, chipotle and queso seco, a dry cheese that pongs like parmesan.
Next, Aquino serves a special festive stew prepared for the constant parties, or velas, of the laidback istmeno lifestyle. It is a reasonably momentous undertaking requiring beef, plantains, apple, pineapple, bread, various chillies, cinnamon and onion, and a breezy 16 hours in the kitchen. ‘ ‘ This is the dish that takes the most time,’’ she acknowledges, ‘‘and there’s a lot of love that goes into making this stew too.
‘‘You must be very patient and do it from the heart.’’
La Teca is one of many standout food experiences during a fourweek stint in Mexico researching its cuisines and culture. From Chihuahua in the north (fabulous steaks straight from the ranch) to Yucatan in the south (fiery moles to cleanse the soul), this motley nation’s diet never stops surprising. Home cooks such as Aquino form the backbone of its kitchens but a new guard of locally grown chefs is redefining the heights of Mexican alta cocina.
At the boutique Rosas & Xocolate hotel in the Yucatan capital, Merida, David Segovia serves a chicharron of octopus in a littoral twist to the fried pork-skin chunks that Mexicans devour like happy pills. He combines the octopus with garlic chips, cherry tomatoes, habanero chilli, red onion and lemon vinaigrette. It is outrageously good.
Nearby in the leafy neighbourhood of Diaz Ordaz, young gun Roberto Solis Azarcoya wows the elite with his modernist creations at Nectar. Solis, young and engagingly confident, has trained in such celebrity kitchens as Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, England.
On the evening we visit, he decides to freewheel the menu, a lengthy degustation where every dish will be made for the first time.
My pick of the night’s hits is Solis’s take on surf and turf: a chicken leg stuffed with ensenada abalone, chicken livers, onions, garlic, parsley and cockles, and then drizzled with an emulsion of epazote, a herb that smells like diesel and reduces wind, and the minty hierbabuena. Utterly scrumptious.
Not every great eating experience in Mexico needs to be expensive. Street food sustains this nation of 110 million, so the quality of takeaway can be outstanding.
In Mexico City I indulge the local craving for carnitas at Los Panchos with a combinado, a decadent tumble of juicy roasted pork and crackling swaddled in a soft taco and spiked with punchy salsa. In the cradle of Mexican independence, San Miguel de Allende, pop-up kiosks colonise street corners and dole out fast food to ravenous workers.
I brave the throngs and order a gringa, a man-sized taco filled with homemade longaniza sausage, spit-roasted beef and melted Oaxacan cheese. Burritos (wheat tortillas) are almost as irresistible, especially when filled with strips of poblano chilli, cream cheese, rice and beans.
The brave (but not me) might be tempted by a cabeza, a corn tortilla stuffed with chopped cow’s head and salsa.
In Guadalajara I line up on the street for a table at one of the city’s favourite restaurants, the 70-yearold La Chata.
Waiters distribute ice-cold Coronitas ( mini Coronas) to patrons queueing in the wilting lunchtime heat. La Chata serves traditional food from Jalisco state, including a daunting dish known as torta ahogada, a drowned sandwich of pork, radish, onion and avocado in a crusty roll, smothered in tomato and then submerged in a sauce packed with arbol chillies.
The best antidote to that much heat in a sandwich is a draught of the fermented corn drink tejuino, sweetened with molasses sugar and served with ice and fresh lime.
The standout experience of this movable Mexican feast is lunch at Pujol, which this year cracked the S. Pellegrino World’s Top 50 list at No 49. Chef Enrique Olvera has seriously amped up his aims since I last ate here four years ago.
Back then he was reinterpreting street food and family favourites into haute cuisine. Now he is forging an exciting, dramatic cuisine based entirely on endemic ingredients. ‘‘It’s not deconstructing any more,’’ Olvera explains of his approach. ‘‘It’s reinventing. It’s a mezcla [mix] of different ideas of typical Mexican dishes.’’
During a 10-course degustation lunch he unveils a parade of exceptional creations, including a hollowed, gourd-like lek containing three baby corn cobs on smoking totomozle, dried corn leaves. The cobs are coated in a dark mayonnaise laced with espresso and a paste of chicatanas, the black flying ants that arrive each year with the first summer rains. The dish is extraordinary on every measure — visually, conceptually, edibly.
Pujol is a culinary climax, an overwhelming experience rooted in the current craze for the local, seasonal and obscure, but also proudly and painstakingly Mexican. It feels so highly evolved, it’s surprising to hear Olvera say he thinks his country’s culinary wave has far from peaked.
‘‘I think we have just started and the big boom is going to happen here,’’ he says. ‘ ‘ It’s like Spain perhaps 30 years ago.’’
The 70-year-old La Chata, which serves traditional cuisine from Jalisco state, is one of Guadalajara’s most popular restaurants
A tamale, Mexico’s answer to the burger, at La Teca in Oaxaca
A vendor prepares a