Step away fom the sour cream and wa­tered- down sea­son­ings. Lo­cal chefs are putting the X-fac­tor into the Mex­i­can of­fer­ing in Aus­tralia in all the cui­sine’s re­gion­ally di­verse glory, writes SHAN­NON HAR­LEY.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - On Sunday - See page 32 and head to de­li­ for mod­ern takes on Mex­i­can sta­ples.

Ihad my first real taste of Mex­i­can food back in my univer­sity days. I was dat­ing a Mex­i­can guy, who in­tro­duced me to his mum’s home­made fri­joles, tamales and tor­tillas. They were in stark con­trast to the so-called Mex­i­can food I’d grown up with, wa­tered- down Tex-mex clichés for grin­gos. It wasn’t un­til those Sun­day morn­ings mop­ping up a pud­dle of black beans with a chewy hand­made tor­tilla that I re­alised what I’d been been miss­ing. Beef mince flavoured with a du­bi­ous sa­chet of ‘Mex­i­can sea­son­ing’, tasty cheese, sliced let­tuce, sour cream and taco shells fresh out of the packet couldn’t com­pete with the nu­anced flavours I had now dis­cov­ered.

Mex­ico’s culi­nary her­itage is a melt­ing pot of Me­soamer­i­can tra­di­tions and post-con­quest in­flu­ence. UN­ESCO de­scribes it as ‘elab­o­rate and sym­bol­laden’ on the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage 2010 list. Head chef of Fred’s in Syd­ney, Danielle Al­varez, who has Cuban her­itage, says de­spite this recog­ni­tion, Mex­i­can food is of­ten mis­un­der­stood or un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. “Mex­i­can food in the US is the Thai food of Aus­tralia,” she says. “At the same time, it’s in­cred­i­bly com­plex cook­ing at heart, and we’re now start­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the depth, sub­tlety and el­e­gance of re­gional cook­ing.”

While a hand­ful of chefs in Mex­ico and the US are dish­ing it up on the world stage, Al­varez says in Aus­tralia we’re only at the be­gin­ning of this Mex­i­can revo­lu­tion. “We need to show peo­ple that bur­rito bowls, stale tor­tillas and beans from a can are not what it’s about.”

Mex­i­can food is rich in re­gional di­ver­sity. Dishes from the Baja Cal­i­for­nia re­gion brim with fresh seafood, of­ten served raw as aguachile or ce­viche. Ver­sions of bar­ba­coa, the tech­nique of slow-cook­ing meat, of­ten lamb, are made through­out cen­tral Mex­ico, though chef Cristina Martinez, who ap­peared in the lat­est sea­son of Chef’s Ta­ble and gained fame for the lamb ta­cos she serves at her Philadel­phia eateries, claims her home­town, Ca­pul­huac, is the cap­i­tal of bar­ba­coa. The wheat from Sonora is one of the old­est sur­viv­ing va­ri­eties in North Amer­ica, and the pale Sono­ran tor­tillas are made from this in­stead of corn. The state of Chi­a­pas is famed for its tamales made with in­dige­nous corn va­ri­eties. In Oax­aca, mean­while, lo­cal chil­hua­cle and smoky pasilla chill­ies star in the re­gion’s sig­na­ture mole sauces, which have been taken to the heights of haute cui­sine by chef En­rique Olvera. He’s cred­ited with rais­ing the stand­ing of Mex­i­can cui­sine and his fine-din­ing restau­rant in Mex­ico City, Pu­jol, cur­rently ranks 13th on the World’s 50 Best Res­tau­rants list.

René Redzepi’s pop-up in Tu­lum on the Yu­catán penin­sula last year has also helped put Mex­ico on the culi­nary map. The Noma team worked with a lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion that sup­ports Mayan food­ways to source tra­di­tional sta­ples. Noma Mex­ico served Mex­i­can cui­sine’s ‘three sis­ters’, corn, beans and squash (so-called be­cause they’re planted as com­pan­ion crops across the coun­try), along with the likes of shell­fish, bee lar­vae and Melipona honey among other lo­cal spe­cial­ties.

Redzepi cited the mas­tery of spice as the “most amaz­ing” dis­cov­ery dur­ing his time there. “I am blown away by it, by how chilli can round off and add depth to al­most any­thing if you know how to use it well.”

While here in Aus­tralia we have a dearth of na­tive chefs and Mex­i­can in­gre­di­ents can be tricky to ac­cess, some lo­cal chefs, in­clud­ing Neil Perry, are nav­i­gat­ing these ob­sta­cles. In March, Perry opened Bar Pa­trón by Rock­pool, a so­phis­ti­cated te­quila bar and Mex­i­can restau­rant helmed by Pamela Valdes Pardo, a chef from Xalapa in Ver­acruz.

North­ern New South Wales, mean­while, is be­com­ing some­thing of a Mex­i­can hub. “I have high hopes for La Ca­sita in Brunswick Heads,” says Al­varez of the restau­rant that has been taken over by the Fleet team. Also in the By­ron Bay hin­ter­land, you’ll find chef Evan White rolling out Yu­catán-style ta­cos and ce­viche at Chu­pacabra in

restau­rant in Syd­ney’s Cir­cu­lar Quay.

Suffolk Park. White, who trained in Mex­ico, says con­di­tions on the east coast repli­cate Mex­ico’s Gulf Stream, mak­ing it an ideal set­ting for the fresh seafood and trop­i­cal pro­duce of Yu­catán dishes. If you’re look­ing for a bean and melted cheese ex­trav­a­ganza, the clos­est you’ll get is his chi­laquiles, a dish that comes topped with house-made Oax­a­castyle cheese. The lat­est project from the Three Blue Ducks, mean­while, is a takeover of the La La Land night­club in By­ron, which they plan to re­launch as a late-night eatery with a Mex­i­can bent after a re­search trip through Mex­ico City, Oax­aca and Tu­lum.

In Mel­bourne, Ma­m­a­sita, which opened on Collins Street in 2010, is recog­nised as the first ‘proper’ ta­que­ria in the city, but Mex­ico City na­tives Ce­sar Du­ran and Javier Calzada, co-own­ers of El Sa­bor restau­rant, a tor­tilla fac­tory and an on­line Mex­i­can-pro­duce shop, El Cielo, brought the art of the tor­tilla to the Vic­to­rian cap­i­tal. “We’re proud to be the first Mel­bourne tor­tille­ria to of­fer fresh nix­ta­mal corn tor­tillas,” says Du­ran. These are made with corn grown in NSW which un­der­goes a tra­di­tional al­ka­lis­ing process that soft­ens the masa (corn dough), un­locks a sweet, roasted flavour and rids it of tox­ins.

You’ll find Du­ran’s tor­tillas on the menu at Hot Lips Ha­cienda in Highett, which spe­cialises in Mex­ico City street food and has three Mex­i­can chefs in the kitchen to keep things on track.

It’s clear that au­then­tic Mex­i­can food is fi­nally hav­ing its mo­ment. Get it while it’s hot.

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