While writing a review for The Otherside Magazine, my mind headed back to a glorious trip I took to Mexico City a few years back.

 This mole was one major undertaking, toasting chile seeds, hand grinding them with avocado leaves, adding marjoram, thyme and cloves, forming a spice based structure to create a mean broody sauce. Tortillas, bread, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds; a seemingly endless list of ingredients were building this dish into what must only be a labour of love. Five hours of mostly standing there stirring and stirring as the sauce became darker, bitter, the surface developing a velvety sheen. There was a whole meal packed into the sauce even before the chicken was bathed in the viscous liquid and left to sit pretty in the oven and acknowledge the heat and accept the mole.

Mexican food is never fast and easy to make. Popping a jar and throwing it in with some meat is not cooking it is only surviving. The dish was not an average after-work meal that I just whipped up, but a dish made for the family, something for special occasions. A wonderfully rich intense dish with its many flavour layers, made by one dedicated maybe slightly deluded chef whose faithful following of Mexican cuisine had now reached a pinnacle.

Years of preparing Mexican meals and I was never sure if everything was truly correct.  Faithfully following a library of cookbooks , hunting down traditional equipment:  tortillas presses , tamale steamers, molcajetes and even the neatest little lime squeezer. I was becoming more and more involved in a cuisine that I had not really tasted at the source, one that I could only blindly follow in cookbooks that could in theory be completely wrong. How would these dishes taste compared to the real deal? True knowledge needed to be obtained. Do the sauces match up? Was my salsa roja their salsa roja? Did the altitude of southern England mess up my tortillas to the extent that they would be unrecognisable to their Mexican cousins? I had to go.

Mexico City, the D.F., a meeting point for trying all the culinary treats from the 31 states that make up the country. A city where you could gorge yourself on the local taco ‘Al Pastor’ a pineapple pork combo that is infused with arabic spices, or you could go further afield and eat at a Yucatan place that will blow your mouth off with a habanero salsa.There is no better place to sample a wide variety of the countries cuisine in one short trip.  Here I could explore dishes that would be hard to obtain or even to be aware of, like Chicharones en Salsa Verde. Pork scratchings to you and me, but consider this a more substantial meal of twice cooked meaty bubblegum. Another treat, soft shell crab tacos wrapped in flour tortillas. A dish that proves the worth of using flour over corn tortillas for your delicate maritime meal.

Not only could new dishes be tasted but a variety of dishes that I had previously made could be confirmed as taste bud true, or shot down as lame versions of the glorious originals. There were little things that could be adapted, like switching feta with wensleydale as a useful alternative for the crumbly cheese used in Mexico, or  to never substitute anything else for  lard when making a batch of refried beans. As much as dishes that I made at home could be made to represent something traditional or authentic, there were other factors that now contributed to the flavours; atmosphere. Wether sitting for a brunch of chilaquiles in a old department store or sampling cuisine from Veracruz in their cultural centre, it was clear that technique could be learned and traditions observed but atmosphere can never be replicated. How could you capture the energy and dedication that each individual food vendor displayed in their creations, all out there on the street for you to indulge in? In the restaurant or on the street the same passion shone through, all based on generations of gastronomic cultural development.

It is a tough to acknowledge that many a venture is tied intrinsically to everything that is around you, the sight , the sounds, the smells, the tastes. They only last as long as your plane ride home. You re-create the experiences, cooking things you ate will away. Or you bring back the local plonk, but it never tastes the same. The sensation is lost  somewhere in the bottom of that bottle you smuggled back. Through the observance and  critiquing  of certain dishes I had forced  myself to learn from everything that was engaged. The understanding that everyone does things slightly differently, not to say from country to country, but even state to state. This left a comfortable gap in which there is room to experiment and interchange methods and relate them to your own origins or passions. The trip made me conclude that  I was on the right path and that straying from the guidelines was not something to fear, but something to be engaged. Gooseberry Tamales with Cornish clotted cream, shortbread and prickly pear jam, bringing the Mexican home to the English kitchen. Now time to get those rosemary tortillas just right and pull the lamb out of the oven.

Remember always toast you chiles.



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Categories: General, Mexican


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