Once upon a time in Mexico
Whether it’s depth of flavour or lightness of touch you’re after, the country has a dish for you
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 hip-swinging, 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 avocados 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