“Can you hear that sound, like 'shhh'? I tell you, this is a sound that I like to hear when I'm at a taqueria waiting for my carnitas.”
Mexican chef Luis Valenzuela is chopping up a particularly fine-looking piece of cooked pork shoulder. After three hours in the oven, it’s super juicy and fall-apart tender, with a golden-brown crusted top that’s creating that mouth-watering “shh” as it is sliced, followed by a staccato bang, bang, bang – it’s like dancing with a knife –as he then swiftly chops the meat.
And then comes a satisfying sizzle, as all of that juicy pork gets crisped up in a frying pan, ready to be loaded into a tortilla, to make one of Mexico’s most-loved dishes, and a street food favourite: pork carnitas.
Valenzuela makes this feast for all the senses in SBS Food show The Latin Kitchen, and if we hadn’t already been dreaming of a trip to Mexico after watching him bring it all together in a warm tortilla, topped with his family recipe for guacamole, we were definitely ready to dig out the passport after chatting to the likeable restaurateur.
“The best Mexican food is street food. That involves the food of course, but also the smells and the sounds around you,” he tells us. “When you are standing in one of those little taco shops waiting patiently for your turn, your mouth will start salivating by the smell of fresh cilantro being chopped with crispy white onions. Or the sound of the pork being fried. Or the sound that the taquero does when chopping the cooked meat. Or when he is cooking the fresh tortilla – oh, the smell of corn masa, nothing compares to that.”
Gerardo Lopez, the co-founder of Melbourne’s popular Mexican eatery La Tortilleria, who describes himself as “a proud Mexican native”, also has fond memories of eating pork carnitas.
“There is this late-night street cart in Oaxaca called Tacos de Lechon. It has one of the best carnitas tacos I have had and their habanero salsa is to die for,” he says, sharing one of the most recent. “Lechon means suckling pig, so that’s what they make their carnitas out of. The best memory is enjoying these tacos with our friends from Chica Bonita [a popular Sydney Mexican restaurant] when we were in Oaxaca with them last year, after a night of sampling a few local mezcales.”
Lopez says the carnitas on the menu at La Tortilleria is made very much as it is in Mexico.
“It’s a bit of a mix between Mexico City and Michoacán style. We even use the traditional manteca, free range pork lard, to cook the pork in, instead of just oil, which has become a cheaper modern alternative to the manteca but doesn’t taste nearly as good,” he explains.
“We don’t, however, cook it in the big copper pots, cazos de cobre, over an open fire like they do in Michoacán - we wish we could, but it’s a bit tricky in a commercial kitchen in Australia! Other than that, everything is traditional.
“Michoacán,” he explains, “is the state most famous for carnitas, and where they originated. Although now it’s common all over central Mexico with a slightly different style in each region.”
The carnitas at La Tortilleria has a lot of elements in common with Valenzuela’s recipe – including a not-so-secret special ingredient.
“I have a special ingredient: cola,” says Valenzuela, who says it adds sweetness, makes the pork caramelise more and helps with tenderising. Other key elements: orange slices in the lard (“definitely a bonus” to use lard if you can, he tells us, although you can use canola oil instead) when cooking the meat; a good salsa; and fresh tortillas.
At La Torilleria, “Our recipe includes cola and whole orange slices, which is a very common way to make them in Michoacan. This helps caramelise the pork and create that beautiful crispy dark skin,” says Lopez. “It’s all cooked in its juices - while the meat is whole and again after it’s been chopped up - so this gives it amazing flavour. We’ve tinkered with and perfected the recipe over the years, although always staying true to one version or another of the traditional recipe, and found the one we have now is spot on and our favourite.”
“We serve it with pico de gallo on top. Fresh tomato goes great with carnitas and is one of the most popular ways to serve it. We also have the house-made salsas on the tables if customers want to add a bit more on top, usually chipotle and/or chile de arbol salsa.
“In Mexico, garnishes are super simple, usually just coriander and onion, or just fresh salsa and nothing else. Tacos generally have three basic ingredients: a nixtamal corn tortilla, good quality meat, and fresh salsa on top.
Unsurprisingly, given La Tortilleria is also a bakery known for the excellent quality of its authentic tortillas, which it supplies to restaurants, cafes and food trucks around Australia, Lopez says you can’t make a good taco without a good tortilla.
“If you screw the tortilla up, it doesn’t matter how good your fillings are, it’s just not going to work. Tortillas in Mexico are like bread is for Europeans, it is the base of everything. Just like decent cafes here don’t use crappy white sliced bread, good taquerias in Mexico don’t get cheap tortillas made from instant tortilla flour – they go to a tortilleria that soaks [nixtamalises] and stone grinds their corn on-site, or at the molino [corn mill] down the road. The tortillas we use for our carnitas are all made from scratch and nixtamalised, and stoneground on-site just minutes before being pressed into tortillas. The process takes over 24 hours and is a lot more intricate hard work, but the difference in flavour and texture is so worth it.”
And for those who really love their tortillas, and falling-apart pork, carnitas is a great excuse to double up: “In Mexico, carnitas are often served not in one tortilla but two, and the reason for it is you want to really load it up,” says Valenzuela.
Born in Guadalajara, after growing up in Mexico, where his passion for cooking was ignited by his mother and grandmother, Valenzuela has followed his passion for cooking to Italy, Spain and Canada, where he now lives.
And while he hasn’t been to Australia, he says he’d love to visit one day.
You’re welcome anytime, Luis. Maybe we can invite you over to cook carnitas for us, while we save our pennies for a trip to Mexico?
Join Luis Valenzeula as he shares stories, memories and great recipes in The Latin Kitchen, now streaming on SBS On Demand.
Everywhere in Mexico City there are food stands selling tacos and enchiladas. But my personal favourite are the ones that sell corn, including equites, or corn in a cup. It's juicy, sweet and salty.
A great way to use up leftover refried beans! The beans, spicy tomatillo sauce and melted cheese are a great combination. I like my sauce spicy but you can dial down the heat by leaving out the chilli seeds.
This traditional street food is a great combination of creamy beans, salty cheese and egg.