• Blue corn quesadillas with mushrooms (Benito Martin)Source: Benito Martin
Chilli lover and El Publico head chef Tommy Payne shares the must-have ingredients, spices and kitchen utensils to cook mighty Mexican at home.
Tommy Payne

26 Jun 2017 - 10:21 AM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2017 - 7:42 PM

+ Want to try out these blue corn quesadillas? Get the recipe here. +


Essential ingredients

“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:

  1. Aancho chilli
  2. Guajillo chili
  3. Chipotle chilli

Spice story

“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).”

This chocolate cake gets a chilli kicker. Get this recipe here.


Feeling herbaceous

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!”

Kitchen utensils

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.

Burning up

“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.” 


Have we got your attention and your tastebuds?  It's Mexican week on The Chefs' Line 6pm, weeknights on SBS. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

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