Stink bugs and street food

Un­ex­pected de­lights on a culi­nary tour of Mex­ico

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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.’’

PIC­TURES: GOURMET PIL­GRIM/RALPHVELASCO.COM

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

tejuino

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