I grew up watching Westerns on television so, for as long as I can remember, Mexico had been one of my ‘one-day’ countries; somewhere I was intrigued by and knew I wanted to visit.
When my one day came, thanks to my latest television project, I had two things on my must-do list. One, stay out of really obvious tourist places – your Cancúns and Acapulcos – and two, get down to the nitty gritty of what Mexican culture is all about. All up, I spent three-and-a-half months in Mexico, and in that time I think I managed to do both.
The first thing that hit me when I arrived was the language. I felt as if I’d jumped straight into one of the movies I’d loved as a kid. It made it seem so real. I was finally in Mexico and that was a big thing for me.
Of course, unlike those Westerns, no-one was getting around on a donkey, but I did spot my fair share of local cowboys, cacti jutting out from the dusty earth, and litres of handmade tequila. And that’s about where any preconceived ideas I might have had about Mexico ended. I’d heard so many stories about what to expect; that Mexico could be a scary, dangerous place, filled with people doing nothing much except touting drugs and guns. But the reality I discovered couldn’t have been more different.
The real Mexico is all about family and community. The locals work incredibly hard, have a fierce love of life and a deep respect for their culture’s history. One of the best examples I saw of this was in a little town called Batopilas. It’s a tiny old silver-mining town nestled at the bottom of the Copper Canyon, and the surrounding mountains are full of armed gangsters from drug cartels who come into town daily, attracting a fair amount of attention from the military and police. Even with all that as a constant back story, the local people have created this charmingly beautiful close-knit community. The families
I spent time with cooked, ate and lived together, and every evening they’d head out to ‘do their rounds’, visiting neighbours and gathering in the zócalo, the town square, to share music and stories.
When it comes to Mexico, I know one thing for sure; it isn’t short on amazing places. If Batopilas was my favourite town in the north, then San Cristóbal de las Casas stood out as I travelled further south. It’s the most touristy place I visited, but it’s stunning. The food market was incredible, with an array of fresh produce that rivals the best I’ve seen – there were even a few live turkeys running around.
Those two places, Batopilas and San Cristóbal de las Casas, couldn’t be more different, and that sums up Mexico to me. I learnt that, for a single country, it varies greatly as you travel through it, and I enjoyed everything in between the extremes.
Naturally, the food varies from place to place, too. Go north and it’s all about burritos and meat, but the further south you travel the food becomes more varied and intricate with a greater Spanish influence and more vegetables. No matter where you are in Mexico, the food is honest and it’s simple, and there’s not a piece of cheese or dollop of sour cream in sight. More often than not, it’s a humble piece of grilled meat or fish, usually wrapped up in a tortilla and always brought together with some sort of salsa.
To get into salsas properly would mean writing a whole separate story. First of all, you have to learn the name of every chilli, which is no mean feat. I came to grips with about 15 different types of salsa while I was there, from smoked and black salsas to ones made with hibiscus. Salsas are what makes real, authentic Mexican food sing.
Beans and corn do a pretty good job of that, too. They might not be as showy as a salsa, but they’re just as important because they’re a staple. I felt a bit assaulted by them a few days after I first hit Mexico, because they’re in every meal you eat. But, by the time I left, I was addicted, and I’m still craving both. That’s just how it works.
Despite being captivated by the land and the food, I did have a few hairy moments. In one place, an inebriated bloke thought it’d be funny to pull out his gun and fire a few shots into the air next to my head – that was interesting. But for every one of those moments, there was one memorable for the right reasons, such as driving into a one-street town we hadn’t planned on visiting, and being greeted by people who were dirt-poor but willing to give you the shirt off their back.
So, even after spending more than three months in Mexico, I’m not done with it yet. It’s the kind of place where, no matter how long you’re there for, you’ll never see and taste it all. And, besides, there are some more salsa recipes I need to nail. In Mexico, learning to make 15 salsas means you’re only just getting started.
Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita starts Thursday 13 February 7.30pm on SBS ONE.
This article is an extract from Feast magazine, Issue 28. Subscribe here.