It is commonly thought that burritos, nachos and fajitas are not really Mexican; that they are the American bastardisation of an ancient cuisine. But that’s not entirely true. In fact, ‘traditional’ Mexican cuisine, which was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, is a tradition, actually, of multiple veins – from Indigenous farming practices to Spanish invasion, influences from Asia across the Pacific, and from their neighbours – the Americans. It is not one, static type of food. It is, literally, a melting pot.
“Mexico is a large country with a really diverse cuisine,” says head chef of Perth restaurant, El Publico, Tommy Payne, who spent a month in Mexico researching the food to take on the role. His venue manager – and sometime-sous-chef – Gianni Monti, who is from Mexico, explains how dismissing Tex-Mex from the oeuvre of Mexican cuisine is remiss, “We eat nachos and burritos in Mexico,” he says, “Mexico is very Americanised. We eat them mostly in the north and in Mexico City; it’s a collaboration between the two cultures.”
Cesar Duran, who co-owns El Sabor restaurant in Melbourne, as well as the online Mexican-produce site, El Cielo, is from Mexico City. As he describes, there is no one Mexican cuisine, “We have the Indigenous part which is the corn, the beans and the chillies,” he says, “Then we have this massive Spanish influence, which itself has a Middle Eastern influence. Then we had a French migration, so we have the French influence in some of our sauces and pastries. We have an Asian migration as well, bringing in Chinese and Japanese influences. We even have English pasties in Mexico. It’s really a merging from all over the world.”
This international diversity is what has formed contemporary Mexican cuisine, but there are major regional contrasts as well. At El Sabor, the black mole is inspired by Oaxaca, “where mole is from,” Duran says. Their pollo pibil (marinated chicken) is inspired by the “citrusy type of spice” of the Yucatán. And he hopes to have a dish from Veracruz – where the food boasts a “big, Spanish-Indigenous fusion,” – and where his wife and business partner, Paola, are from, on the menu soon. Over at El Publico, the soft, pliable tacos filled with buttery roast pumpkin and tangy pepita sauce are the best we’ve had in Australia, and the esquites – a common street food reminiscent of a cheesy, corn risotto – is the only thing you need beside you on the sofa on a Saturday night; it’s pure comfort.
If you’re not in Perth or Melbourne any time soon though, Duran has some tips for finding ‘authentic’ Mexican food here in Australia. Firstly, examine the menu, “If the base of the menu is minced meat, then that is not authentic Mexican. We like good meat as much as Australians do, and minced meat is not good meat.” Another hot tip is the smell of the restaurant. “If you walk into a restaurant and it gives you a memory of Indian spices, like cumin, it’s because it is Indian spice,” says Duran, “Mexican spices are chillies. Yes, we round our flavours with Asian spices that we have adopted, but that’s only a little bit; our core is really about working with chillies, roasting chillies – you can make ten different flavours out of the same chilli, depending on how you cook it. If it smells like cumin, you are in the wrong place.”
For Payne, it’s about looking for a Mexican joint that makes everything from scratch. “We make everything here: the cheese, the tortillas, every salsa, we ferment our own cream to make sour cream,” he says, “You want to find somewhere that does as much as they possibly can.” Pointers of bad quality, he says, are things like “iceberg lettuce that’s been sitting in iced water,” he says, “and beans out of a tin.”
If you are cooking Mexican food from home though, there are a number of authentic tortillas available to buy online. For his, Duran grows Mexican white corn in New South Wales and nixtamalizes it in-house (an alkalising process that rids the corn of mycotoxins, and allows it to be made into a soft dough). Also check out Mexican-run, Melbourne-based restaurant and website La Tortillería for their version of the fabled bread – it’s soft, chewy and nothing like the dry, brittle corn tacos you might have had before.
Prefer wheat tortillas? Don’t sweat it. Wheat tortillas are made and sold in Mexico’s north. They may be Tex-Mex, but that’s really just another stitch in Mexico’s complex culinary tapestry, so enough with the stigma already.
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This is a twist on pastel de tres leches, or three milks cake, one of the most - if not the most popular - cakes throughout Mexico.
Young pig marinated in a cacophony of delicious spices including annatto, then wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked until meltingly tender. If you’ve never tried it, now’s the time.