I AM THE MOST popular person in Oaxaca, Mexico, and all it took was a fistful of green onions.
I’m standing in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, this southern city’s central market, being buffeted by catcalls and charcoal smoke. “Oye guapo, ven aqui.” “¿Vas a comer? ¡Come con nosotros!” To the dozens of people selling fresh meat and tending live fires, the onions in my market basket mean just one thing: I’m here to eat.Now it’s just a matter of where.
Everyone has an opinion. A man in a Def Leppard shirt flexes his biceps. A young girl grabs my hand. A woman my mother’s age whistles seductively. I go with the musclehead, who puts away his guns and uses a giant cleaver to chop off a few pieces of air-dried beef called tasajo, plus a chunk of chilli-rubbed pork. He tosses both onto a wood-fired barbecue and then buries my onions and a few chillies directly in the embers before fanning the flames.
While the meat sizzles, a tiny old woman with skin like a sun-dried tomato sells me a stack of warm tortillas from a wicker basket. Then she snatches the fan from the brawny butcher and takes over the cooking. She calls out to a crew of young girls in aprons, and a cascade of condiments materialises before my eyes: a pile of fresh radishes; a bowl of thin, burgundy-coloured salsa; a scoop of guacamole from a mortar the size of a bathtub. “Listo,” she finally declares when she sees a nice char on the beef. It’s lunchtime.
All of this costs less than 12 bucks for two people (cervezas [beer] included) and tastes as good as anything I’ve eaten in months. This is how real Mexican food comes together: quickly and fiercely. Each ingredient is simple, fresh and assertively flavoured. And the aftermarket upgrades are left to me. Want more heat? Take more green salsa. Want to cool it down? Try a slather of guac and a squirt of lime juice. More texture? That’s what the raw onion is for, señor.
There are no taco kits here, no enchiladas gasping under a layer of yellow cheese. There is fire, there is meat and there are vegetables. If an 80-year-old woman with arthritic fingers can prep my meal with a butter knife and cook it on a makeshift grill, then what’s my excuse for not enjoying this kind of cooking in my own kitchen?
I have none, and if it means eating this well, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. What follows is a four-pronged attack for turning my dinner (and yours) into a fine Mexican feast. Vamanos! (let’s go!).
Learn from the localsMexico, beyond anything else – the sugar-white sands, the tequila-soaked nightclubs, the political dissent – is a place to eat. During my first 36 hours after landing in Mexico City, I ate seven pork tacos, three grilled-beef tacos, two chorizo quesadillas, and two fluffy Mexican sandwiches (called tortas) stuffed with avocado, salsa and crispy shards of pork. I also had a bowl of tortilla soup, a bowl of spicy black-bean soup with poached eggs, and a scoop of fresh corn ice-cream. And I washed all that down with seven Bohemia beers and three shots of Cazadores 100% agave tequila. ¡Salud!
And I never once looked at a menu. I didn’t even eat at a restaurant until day three. It was all going according to plan.
I’ve always been one of the millions of men who rank Mexican among their favourite cuisines. Over the years, I’ve caught fleeting tastes of the real thing: a rich, steamy bowl of posole in the Yucatan; a memorable mole in the central market in Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka); a perfect carnitas taco on a street in Rosarito. These specialties have ruined the bastardised Mexican food I once cherished. Even my own mother’s hard-shell tacos are a fading remnant of my innocent and less-discerning past.
That’s why I’m in Mexico, eating six meals a day from carts and market stands. Minutes after my arrival, my cabbie, a wiry, excitable man who talks about organ-meat tacos with a savage look of want in his then anointed with a translucent slice of pineapple and a sprinkling of raw onions and coriander, and served with a battery of different salsas – from mild and smoky to incendiary. Tacos in Mexico are small – four bites, max – so on my first night, by the time I’ve consumed several of these sweet-spicy treasures at a dimly lit stand in the Zona Rosa, the capital’s hippest borough, I have salsa and meat juices running down my forearms.
Layer the flavoursMexican is the original fusion cuisine. Hernan Cortes arrived from Spain in 1519 to savage the Aztecs, who at the time presided over one of the New World’s greatest civilisations. They enjoyed a diet of corn, tomatoes, chillies and chocolate. Their conquerors fuelled their invasion with meat, onions, garlic and nuts. Five hundred years later, the Mexicans have one of the planet’s most diverse and harmonious food cultures.I’m sampling the fruits of that ancient culture clash and eventual melding in Puebla, a city of 1.5 million located 150 kilometres southeast of Mexico City. Spilled before me on large plastic cutting boards in the kitchen of Mesones Sacristía, a hotel in the heart of downtown, are dried and fresh chillies, tomatoes, a variety of nuts and chunks of dark chocolate laced with cinnamon.
With the help of Chef Alonso Hernandez, I’m about to make Puebla’s most important contribution to the Mexican table: mole poblano.
We start by burning our entire market basket of ingredients – the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic and the multitude of dried chillies. Mexican cooks love a live fire. The high heat of an open flame concentrates flavours, caramelising the natural sugars in vegetables and releasing the heat and fruitiness of chillies, which makes a 10-minute sauce or salsa taste like a full-day project.
We peel off and discard the burnt skins and then add the onions, tomatoes and garlic, along with the chillies, to a pot of simmering water. After a few minutes, we puree the entire soupy mass in a blender, strain it, and simmer it awhile. To the sauce we add a second puree, this one made from a single sautéed plantain (a type of banana) and a charred corn tortilla. (“That’s exactly what you want,” Alonso reassures me as the tortilla catches fire between my tongs.) Next we stir in shaved chocolate tinged with cinnamon; it melts and turns the mole thick and dark. These are the complicated, slow tastes of Mexico, which are every bit as important to its culinary tapestry as a 60-second taco or an ear of barbecued corn.
Later, the mole arrives at our table poured over a barbecued chicken breast and topped with a scattering of sesame seeds. The most complicated moles contain as many as 40 ingredients and take an entire day to cook. But ours has just 11 ingredients, took 45 minutes, and tastes so rich and nuanced that it could turn Spanish leather into a meal fit for a conquistador.
Master the market“I once took my grandma to a supermarket,” says Pilar Cabrera as she shuffles through a mass of forest-green poblano peppers. “She said, ‘Why would anyone buy this stuff? They have no idea how long it’s been here.’ At a real market, you can look a fish in the eye and see how long it’s been out of the water.”
Judging by the pearly-eyed snappers laid out here, I’d say this qualifies as a real market. We are in the Mercado de la Merced in Oaxaca, home to a quarter million people who simply can’t wait for lunchtime. Cabrera, a native Oaxacan, runs a cooking school, La Casa de los Sabores. She’s also the owner of La Olla, one of the best restaurants in the city, so cruising the market with her is like sitting courtside with Roger Federer.
The most shocking aspect of a Mexican market (besides, perhaps, the edible oddities) is the produce: thickets of dark, thorny cactus petals called nopales, mountains of tropical fruits unfamiliar to me, dunes of dried legumes and freshly ground chilli powder. “Most people have no idea about the sheer quantity of produce used in Mexican cuisine,” says Rick Bayless, chef at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, two Chicago institutions that serve as rare beacons of authenticity in the United States. Bayless has spent countless mornings perusing Oaxaca markets in search of exotic fruits and locally grown vegetables to inform his menus. “You want to cook more like a Mexican? Start by shopping better.”
Luckily, I’m shopping with Cabrera. Not a single sight or smell escapes her expertise: the expansive collection of dried chillies (“Over 190 types in the country, each with its own heat level and function”); the beautiful bushes of rosemary and basil (“We don’t use them for cooking, we use them for good luck”); the piles of fried grasshoppers (“Eat only the small ones – the big ones are from last season and they’ll scratch your throat”). She can talk like that forever.
Back in her kitchen, we start with a sacred Mexican rite: making a fresh tortilla. “Nothing is more important than the tortilla,” says Cabrera. The citizenry agrees. Spikes in the price of corn, along with genetically modified corn imported from the US, have roused Mexicans to violent protest.
Cabrera rolls small chunks of moist dough into golf-ball-size globes and places each one carefully into a tortilla press lined with cling wrap. A bit of pressure flattens the tortilla, which then goes directly into a comal, the traditional heavy-bottomed griddle used in kitchens across Mexico, for a quick toasting. (Pilar assures me that I can re-create these tortillas at home by pressing the dough between two dinner plates and cooking them in a cast-iron pan.) In the centre of each cooked tortilla, she scatters a small handful of Oaxacan string cheese, which is similar to mozzarella but has a stronger bite. Then she adds two or three zucchini flowers and a few sprigs of epazote, a Mexican herb with a floral accent. We fill another tortilla with sautéed huitlacoche, an edible corn fungus that is earthy and delicious enough to earn the nickname “Mexican truffle”. Roasted capsicums, sautéed mushrooms or a scoop of caramelised onions all work brilliantly squeezed into a hot tortilla.
While the cheese melts and the tortillas crisp, Cabrera reveals another critical tool in the Mexican kitchen: the molcajete, a mortar and pestle crafted from volcanic stone. She starts by pounding a clove of garlic against the edges of the mortar until it melts into a fragrant, translucent paste. She does the same with onions, roasted and peeled tomatoes, and a charred, pale-green chile de agua. With four fresh ingredients and three minutes of work, we have the best salsa I’ve tasted this whole trip; it’s sweet and smoky with a nose-clearing heat. When I taste it moments later, spread across our crispy quesadillas, I vow never to buy another jar of salsa or oversize flour tortilla again.
Invite a few (thousand) friends overAwash in a few beers and a taco too many, I stand to give a toast to the table of six in front of me, but my words are drowned out by a sudden trumpet blast that fills the massive hall like a sonic boom. An eight-man mariachi band enters the room and heads for the stage as wild applause erupts from the cerveza-swilling crowd.
It’s Sunday at Restaurante Arroyo, Mexico City’s largest eatery, and that means 2500 people have gathered to raise their glasses, listen to traditional Mexican music and eat. I give up on my toast and retreat to the plates of smoked lamb, stewed pork and crispy chicharron – fried pork skin – making their way around the table. Fresh tortillas are stacked high, and the table is cluttered with containers of fresh produce and condiments. Pulque, a pre-Columbian liquor fermented from agave, flows freely; our pitcher is accented with fresh mango puree. An old man with pulque running thick in his veins grabs a young lady and dances her to the front of the hall.
In Mexico, food is a reason to gather. Food is festive and communal, meant to be shared and celebrated. No wedding is sanctified without the family mole, no Christmas is merry without handmade tamales, and no lazy Sunday, like this one, is complete without a table full of taco fixings.
You’ll rarely find a people more enraptured by their own food. In what other country will a cab driver spend 30 minutes talking longingly about his wife’s goat stew? Where ancient women, with every excuse to be winding down, spend 10 hours a day preparing jaw-droppingly good enchiladas and do it every day of the year? Where the police may be corrupt, but can always be trusted to point you to a fine taquería?
When I talk to the chef later and compliment him on the spectacular feast, he shrugs his shoulders. “We’re not doing anything new here. We’re cooking the way the Aztecs did.”I ate my first meal in the capital seated alone on a kerb and shared my last in the company of a few thousand people at a restaurant the size of a high school. And there was no difference in quality: fresh food, cooked urgently, and offered to the diner to customise to his or her own tastes and tolerances.
On the drive to Restaurante Arroyo, I noticed a dozen or so fast-food-chain outlets scattered across the commercial strips. The city streets swelled with Domino’s delivery boys on scooters. Rumours have been drifting in from the north that Taco Bell is coming to town. So at dinner, I asked my driver, Arturo, if the invasion from the north threatens Mexican cuisine. Many would use this type of question as an excuse to rant about the culture-corrupting forces America exports.
But Arturo isn’t worried. “Mexican cuisine is fast food,” he enthuses. “Look at this meal here. How long did it take for them to bring it to us? Ten minutes? This is our version of fast food, complete with meat, vegetables, fresh salsa and handmade tortillas. What else do you want?”
TUCK INTO SOME REAL TACOSMole poblano: A ridiculously delicious dish
Chilaquiles: How’s this for a bacon ‘n’ eggs substitute?
Squash-blossom quesadillas: Pilar Cabrera makes her quesadillas with squash blossoms, but any fresh seasonal vegetable will doYou’ll never go back to those minced-beef tacos again