Sampling cuisine beyond avocados and tortilla chips
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
Whether it’s depth of flavour or lightness of touch you’re after, Mexico has a dish for you.