Sam­pling cui­sine be­yond av­o­ca­dos and tor­tilla chips

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - DRINK - By DIANA HENRY

The Aeromex­ico plane is be­ing buf­feted as if it were a toy, the win­dows il­lu­mi­nated ev­ery so of­ten by light­ning. “Padre nue­stro que es­tás en los cie­los,” the woman be­hind me prays in whis­pers. I feel guilty that my dom­i­nant emo­tion is ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

Thirty min­utes later we’re run­ning across the tar­mac as our clothes get drenched by rain. My carry-on lug­gage — a card­board box that houses a gaudy papier-mâché can­de­labrum picked up at the start of the trip (it’s in the shape of a tree, ten­drils of mad flow­ers clutch­ing its trunk) — is so wet that it’s fall­ing apart.

At 1am I swing through the doors of my ho­tel in Mérida to find a band play­ing La Bamba and a bar serv­ing an­to­ji­tos (lit­tle snacks) of prawn frit­ters, chilli peanuts and pick­led broad beans. There’s a mescal menu taped to the wall. Mex­ico: it’s a hip­swing­ing, toe-tap­ping head rush.

That was my first visit to the coun­try, de­fi­antly un­der­taken af­ter be­ing dumped. It’s a good place to mend a bro­ken heart. I knew noth­ing about Mex­i­can cook­ing — though I ex­pected gua­camole — and wasn’t pre­pared for the ex­tremes or the in­tri­ca­cies of the food. Some plates were cit­rus-fresh and sim­ple: there was ce­viche — sliv­ers of pearles­cent fish, their edges opaque from be­ing ‘cooked’ in lime juice, served with raw onion, chilli and av­o­cado.

Other dishes were deep and lay­ered: moles, the sauces for which Mex­ico is fa­mous, slow braises, meat cooked in pits. You could see the colours — and the emo­tion — of the coun­try’s most fa­mous painters, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, on your ta­ble.

To me, the great com­plex cuisines had been French and Chi­nese, but now I thought you couldn’t call your­self a cook if you hadn’t mas­tered Mex­i­can sauces, their flavours built bit by bit.

Chill­ies weren’t about heat but tone. The dried ones have a mas­culin­ity — they make you think of wood, to­bacco, ripe au­tum­nal fruit, choco­late, leather — and pro­vide a vast ar­ray of notes. I came to crave the sweet vanilla smell of corn, the scent I most as­so­ciate with Mex­ico.

For years af­ter this trip, ev­ery time I had a beer I would si­mul­ta­ne­ously smell the blis­tered cobs sold on street carts and the corn boiled with lime and ground to make masa ha­rina (the body and soul of tor­tillas).

Mex­i­cans are mod­est. They’ve never shouted about their food, but high-pro­file Mex­i­can chefs — such as En­rique Olvera — have smashed the idea that theirs is a diet of av­oca- dos and tor­tilla chips. It’s also about crim­son hi­bis­cus flow­ers, Mex­i­can oregano, roses, cin­na­mon and all­spice.

And the corn and beer, the lime and smoky chipo­tles that patched my heart that sum­mer.

4 chipo­tle chill­ies 1½ tbsp oil (ground­nut or olive, which­ever you pre­fer) 12 chicken thighs, skin on or off, as you like 2 onions, sliced 1kg toma­toes, skinned and chopped ½ tbsp soft dark-brown sugar 2 tsp ground cumin 6 gar­lic cloves, finely chopped 250g chorizo, chopped 1 tsp dried oregano (prefer­ably Mex­i­can) 3 bay leaves 150ml chicken stock To serve fresh co­rian­der leaves 200ml sour cream 100g cheese such as Lan­cashire, Wens­ley­dale or feta (a bit saltier), grated or crum­bled 2 ripe av­o­ca­dos, chopped lime wedges

Tinga poblana de pollo

I’ve­been­mak­ingthisstew-styledish with­pork­for­manyyears.Achicken ver­sion­cooksmuch­more­quicklyand feel­sright­forasmoky­sum­mer-evening­sup­per.InMex­i­can­cook­ing,the chick­enistakenoffthe­bone­and shred­ded­sothatit­can­goin­to­ta­cos, butIprefer­it­likethis.

METHOD Pour just enough boil­ing wa­ter over the chipo­tle chill­ies to cover them, and leave to soak for an hour. Heat the oil in a large casse­role and brown the chicken thighs on both sides. Do this in batches so that you don’t crowd the pan, and sea­son as you go. Trans­fer the browned thighs to a dish. Add the onion to the fat in the pan and sauté it over a medium heat, un­til it be­comes soft. Add the tomato and fry, stir­ring fre­quently, un­til it is re­ally soft and be­com­ing a lit­tle scorched. Add the sugar, cumin and gar­lic with sea­son­ing. Keep stir­ring and cook­ing un­til the mix­ture is com­pletely soft. Drain the chipo­tles. Re­move the stems, chop the chill­ies finely and add them to the tomato mix­ture.

SERVES 6 IN­GRE­DI­ENTS

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Whether it’s depth of flavour or light­ness of touch you’re af­ter, Mex­ico has a dish for you.

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