The word “mezcal” comes from the ancient Nahuatl words for “oven-cooked agave”. It is made from the maguey plant, a sister of the blue agave, which is used in tequila. These agave take between 7–15 years to reach maturity and develop a “piña” or “heart” in the centre. Legend has it that a lightning bolt struck the earth into the piña of a maguey agave, allowing the cooked liquid to spill from its centre and creating what Oaxacans will tell you is “the elixir of the Gods”. It also proved to be the welcome drink of choice everywhere we went, and resulted in more than a few days of throbbing heads and dark sunglasses.
I hear bars are beginning to use mezcal in cocktails due to its less-refined smoky flavour and complex texture. In Oaxaca they drink it straight, but drinks are just as much about creativity as cooking is, so give it a try; be creative and see what magic you may make of mezcal. After all, as they say in Oaxaca, “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también!” (“for everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same!”)
Mexi-OH! fact: Oaxaca’s history dates back to 11,000 BC, and it is recognised by UNESCO as the place with the earliest known domestication of plants in the country. By 2000 BC, agriculture was established and Oaxaca was steadily producing corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chillies, squash and gourds.
Behind the Scenes: Listen closely and see if you can pick out the cooking segment where you can hear a tinkling sound in the background. It’s a trick I learned from the locals – put a few coins in the bottom of the pot so you can tell how full it is by the pitch of the tinkling, and hear that the contents are still boiling.
Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita airs Thursdays 7.30pm on SBS ONE.