Mexican favourite to add a little spice
MY travels on the many merchant navy ships my father captained exposed me to international cuisines from an early age. My mother prepared every meal, and today I can never think of a life without home-cooked food on the table, no matter how simple the meals themselves might have been. So knowing how to cook comes naturally to me. But if you grow up in an area with little access to good food, or with parents who have little passion for cooking, where do you find your initial inspiration to cook?
Sometimes it simply arises from a desire to eat well: Nigel Slater’s mother’s burnt toast, for example, led him to become the cook and food writer he is today.
If there is one cuisine that I enjoy as much as Pakistani food, it is Mexican. The heat and carbheavy accompaniments, all speak comfort and spice. Recently, the brightly coloured facade of Lupe Pintos – a shop boasting Mexican and Hispanic food in Glasgow’s west end – caught my eye, so I decided to seek out the man who set it up. Raised in the shipbuilding town of Greenock, Dougie Bell was drawn to his great aunt’s Edinburgh kitchen where she inspired him to cook. Suddenly, creating simple food such as pies, soups and bread, seemed magical. Eventually he left home to travel and earn money and found himself in Spain and America from his late teens through to his early 20s. He became fascinated by what others ate, their food cultures and approach to life.
On his travels, Mexican food really stood out, with its explosion of flavours and freshness. When he went to Spain he couldn’t work out why British people on holiday would want British food there and not Spanish, when it was so exciting. It was at this stage that Dougie’s mission to educate people about local flavours, and supply specialist ingredients to likeminded food lovers, was born.
Dougie began his career in food by running Scotland’s first Mexican restaurant, Pachuko Cantina, following a trip to Los Angeles where he tasted Mexican street food for the first time. He left his job and decided to run this restaurant for three years until the travel bug bit him again and he handed over the business to a customer and went on a year-long voyage across America and Mexico. Upon his return his passion to supply Scotland with all the ingredients and flavours he had discovered on travels, led to him opening Lupe Pintos in 1991.
“Lupe Pinto is the name of lady in Mexico,” Dougie tells me. “The mother of friends, she took on the role of our Mexican mother. Lupe made sure we behaved ourselves and helped us in times of need. She was fantastic and we named the shop in honour of her.
Asked to explain the success of such a niche store, he says: “Food culture in the UK was changing and is still changing. When people travel and get a taste of other cultures, they try and get a taste of what they experienced back home.” Customer demand for the store’s produce is boosted by the production of recipe sheets and Dougie’s three cook books, which are available in store.
The books have intriguing titles: Two Cooks And A Suitcase, Half Canned Cooks and The Mexican Wrestlers Cook Book. This last contains up-to-date Mexican street food recipes by Dougie and fellow sauce producer Rolando Cardenas, both of whom are wrestling fans and enthusiastic foodies. Dougie has self-published as he feels no-one would publish “such odd books or I would have to change them to suit the masses”.
Intrigued by his shop’s wellknown yearly “chilli cook-off” I ask where the idea came from. “The chilli cook-off started in Glasgow because locals kept saying, ‘You are on the wrong side of Kelvin Bridge’,” says Dougie. “I thought, it’s only a bridge. Glasgow is famous for these self-inflicted boundaries. I thought I would create an event that would have people flocking across the bridge and show them that the short walk is worthwhile. The cook-off has turned into a Glasgow and Edinburgh institution and together with other events is an essential marketing tool. It’s also good fun and allows me the rare privilege to socialise with my customer base.”
I think I will be taking part next year, Dougie, as I make a mean chilli!