• Taiwan's bao with a Mexican twist. (Supplied)
We explore why Mexican food plays so nicely with other cuisines... #teamplayer
By
Carla Grossetti

17 Sep 2018 - 1:20 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2018 - 8:52 AM

Not all mash-ups are created equal. And while the thought of fusing Mexican cuisine with any other style of cooking might sound like a complete affront to the senses, the way people live and eat in the North American country has a lot of cross-over appeal.

If you flick through your history books, you will find Mexican cuisine is a mash-up itself - the result of a marriage between native foods such as corn, beans, squash, chocolate, and chili, with the Spanish contribution of wheat, rice and meats.

Executive chef at Merivale's El Loco restaurant Dan Hong says Australia is so far away from Mexico that it makes sense to have a more liberating approach when designing Mexican menus.

Hong, who recently returned from Tulum where he dined at the much-talked-about Noma Mexico, credits the internet with educating Australians on what makes traditional Mexican street food. He adds that Australia is so multicultural and has so many influences from elsewhere, that it seems natural to fuse Mexican ingredients with other iconic street foods.

"Mexican food is so good because it's rustic. It's something you eat with your hands and that is how people like to eat. Mexican food fuses well with Asian cuisine because many of the flavours are so similar to Asian cooking," says Hong.

"Mexican food fuses well with Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Korean and it doesn't seem weird because the flavours are a natural fit," he says.

Hong, who stars in SBS Food's The Chef's Line, serves a menu of more than a dozen dishes based on Mexican cuisine at his Surry Hills cantina, El Loco. Hong spins his own threads of flavour memories and marries them with Mexican ingredients such as jalapenos, chipotle chillies and jalapenos in dishes such as the crispy corn chip chicken burger or the El Loco Hotdog with Fries. Hong says while he won't compromise on the use of a traditional corn tortilla but is happy to play with flavours that incorporate raw onion, cilantro and chillies, which are both key Mexican and Asian ingredients.

Dos Senoritas' chef Domingo Medina grew up in Guadalajara where he learnt to cook at his mother's side. He says while he tries to stay fairly true to traditional Mexican home cooking, his menu has dedicated specials aimed at 'gringoes', who prefer flour tortillas and a Tex Mex version of his beloved cuisine.

"While I was growing up my mum sold street food outside our house. Since moving to Australia, my family have all moved to the US and when I visit them, I understand Tex Mex. Good Tex Mex works because it is all about big flavours together paired with the earthy texture of corn and tortillas," says Medina.

Head chef of the Chicken Institute, Heaven Kim, agrees Mexican food is the perfect fuser with Asian flavours as it is also a simple street food that shouts out a hawker-sized racket with its crisp, spicy, sticky sweet flavours. Kim's menu often includes cameos by Mexican-inspired dishes such as the bulgogi taco with pickled red onion and herbs, fried kimchi rice burrito or fried chicken taco with fermented red cabbage and queso blanco.

"Mexican and Korean spices are very different but the one similarity is that they are both spicy. In my opinion, a taco is like an edible plate and can be filled with anything, as long as it tastes good," says Kim.

"If you look at the Mexican food in Mexico and the Korean street food in Korea, both countries have a strong street food culture. What we do at The Chicken Institute is combine food traditions from the two countries. Mexican food fuses well with many different street foods that are designed to be eaten with the hands because a taco is so versatile," she says.

Chef Sylvia Tran is head chef at Belly Bao, another Sydney eatery that looked to Mexico for inspiration when it transformed the humble Taiwanese bao into an edible plate, as per the taco, to accommodate slow-braised pork belly. Love Crepe, an artisanal gelateria and creperie in Pyrmont, also serves a take on the taco in the form of a savoury crepe called a Cabo, filled with beef mince, guacamole, sour cream and jalapenos. As they say in Mexico, buen provecho!

Beef bao Mexican-style.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @carlagrossetti, Facebook Carla Grossetti - Writer, Instagram @carlagrossettiPhotographs: Carla Grossetti and Supplied.

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs’ Line airs every weeknight at 6pm on SBS followed by an encore screening at 9.30pm on SBS Food Network. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #TheChefsLine on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBS_Food. Check out sbs.com.au/thechefsline for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!

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