“You’re going to need some masa flour, which is a flour made from corn,” begins Tommy Payne, head chef of Perth-based restaurant El Publico. “You’re also going to need tortilla press. From there you’ve got to start looking at all the dried chillies. There are many different types. At the moment I’m using about eight different types at El Publico – all imported from Mexico. Really expensive [being] in Perth, but if you’re serious about it you need to invest in some chillies.”
Tommy's top three are:
- Aancho chilli
- Guajillo chili
- Chipotle chilli
“The Mexican pantry is really big,” Tommy tells us. “There’s an endless supply of chillies and spices, a lot of nuts, seeds and dried fruit.”
“Allspice is a big component, and bitter chocolate is also as a seasoning. It’s ground up and put in moles (sauces).”
Forget the standard basil, coriander and parsley combo, Mexican cuisine calls upon a few lesser known herbs.
“There’s Mexican oregano,” says Tommy. “It’s a different kind of plant. Similar flavour but a bit more intense. The dried herb is more textured – not like a big bag of bloody powder.”
Epazote, a native to Mexico, is another herb used in cooking and as a tea.
Avocado leaves are also common in cooking. “They’re used as a soft seasoning, similar to a bay leaf,” explains Tommy. “Put in beans when boiling; or used with raisins.”
“You can’t use any avocado leaf,” he warns, adding many are toxic. “It’s a Mexican variety – I don’t want to poison the SBS public!”
Aside from a tortilla press, Tommy recommends investing in a few key pieces of equipment, including a comal, “a big flat pan used to cook tortillas, toast spices or burn tomatoes and onions for salsa”. He also recommends finding a molcajete, a big flat stone that’s Mexico’s answer to the mortar and pestle, traditionally used to grind spices and ingredients.
“A lot of cultures really started off on open coals and I guess the tradition has stayed strong in Mexico,” Tommy says. “A lot of vegetables are chucked on open fire. The outside burns but inside cooks within its own skin and creates a smoky, almost sweet flavour. You burn the outside of skins tomatoes, onions, chillies, then process that with some lime and salt. It creates a unique flavour and is kind of the ancient way of cooking.”
I lived in Texas for three years and my first son, Alan, was born in Texas. So here I'm pumping up the Mex in Tex-Mex. Alan loves bacon, and cheddar cheese, so I've started adding that to our cornbread. This is one of those things that you can make and eat right out of the oven, warm, but then as it cools it’s delicious and then the next day for breakfast, even cold, it's delicious too.
Served on a stick or held by its stalk, the grilled corn is slathered in crema (Mexican sour cream) and then sprinkled with a range of toppings, including chilli, lime, mayonnaise and cheese. For a less messy affair, the kernels are removed and tossed with the condiments in a cup, which is known as esquites.
This much-loved móle (Mexican chilli-peanut sauce) is somewhat simpler than the more famous móle Poblano, yet still has a wonderful complexity that comes from the balance of chillies, spices, raisins, peanuts and chocolate. It can be served over poached or grilled meats, such as chicken or pork, ladled over steamed vegetables or used to stuff tamales.