What the Mexicans haven't told you yet

Don’t order a ‘Burrito’ when in Mexico.You might get a little donkey to ride on instead of the tortilla you expect! There’s a lot about Mexican cuisine that we don’t know. Let’s find out.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay | Print Edition: June 29, 2008

The Americans popularised Mexican cuisine around the world. But they also ensured that what we consume as Mexican isn’t really authentic. Mention Mexican food in India today and to most it will mean items with a generous dose of chillies or snacks like nachos.

“Such ideas couldn’t be farther from the truth,” say Mexican master chefs Sergio Snyder and Roberto Treves. The two, who own a chain of restaurants in Mexico, have worked in over a dozen countries (including India), Michelin Star hotels and luxury cruise liners, as master chefs.

“Mexican food is so much more about lemon, white wine, cream, butter and herbs. Chillies are just a small part of our cuisine and are central only to a few dishes. The so-called Tex-Mex food that’s served in the US has given our food a bad image,” says the 76-year-old Snyder as we chat over a Mexican dinner at Delhi’s Shangri-La Hotel, where the two are taking part in a food festival.

Fish: Mexico is surrounded by water— the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California. No wonder, seafood forms a large part of Mexican cuisine. Have you ever ordered one, though?

“From hot water fish like Sea Bass, Red Snapper and squid to others, we can fill up any menu with just our seafood dishes. And most of these dishes have little or no chillies,” says Snyder. Perhaps dishes like Ceviche— fresh white fish marinated in lime with onions—are somewhat known to gourmets. But, what about Grilled Shrimp in Saffron or Red Snapper and Nopalitos in Cilantro Sauce?

“Mexico has over a 100 ‘registered’ seafood dishes—dishes listed with the food department as authentic,” reveals Snyder.

The taste of cocoa: Cocoa and coffee powder are two of the popular ingredients used in many Mexican dishes. “No, not the sweet chocolate bars but the slightly bitter, authentic cocoa powder,” explains Snyder.

And why is cocoa and coffee used to make food? “Why do you have coffee? To stay alert, isn’t it? So, when we make a dish with coffee powder, you become more alert about the taste and enjoy your food more,” he says.

The discoverers: Mexican cuisine is one of the oldest in the world, with some dishes (that are still in vogue) dating back to 1200 BC. The first of the Mexican dishes originated during the Olmec civilization, which flourished in the Tabasco region (now you know where the sauce got its name from).

Chef Snyder (L) and Chef Treves
Chef Snyder (L) and Chef Treves
The Mayans discovered tomato, beans and corn along with cocoa powder. The Toltecs came later and introduced chillies. Today, Mexico has 144 registered varieties of chillies.

But hang on before you say, “Told you so. Mexican dishes are about chillies.” There are 795 dishes registered in Mexico as authentic Mexican cuisine and less than 20 per cent of them have chillies listed as an ingredient.
The corn makers: Mexicans claim to make the best dough from corn kernels. Period. So, what do they do different? “We follow the Nixtamal method discovered by the Mayans to cook corn. For a kg of dry corn kernel, we use 5 litres of water and one tablespoon yeso (lime). After boiling the kernels in the mix, we leave it overnight before washing it. This way, the skin comes off completely. It’s only then that we grind it to prepare masa or the dough that you use to make tortillas. In India, you keep the skin on. This makes the dough come apart and also makes it hard to digest,” says Snyder.

Three kind of Corn Tortillas
Three kind of Corn Tortillas
The Burrito story: Of course, there are some Mexican dishes we all know about. Like Burrito. Tex-Mex or Texan-Mexican food has made the Burrito (a kind of tortilla) extremely popular. But Mexicans don’t even consider it a dish.

“Actually in Spanish, Burrito means ‘little donkey’. The story goes that a young boy riding a donkey was selling tortillas on the streets and an American bought a few from him. He loved the taste and so asked the boy, “What are these?” The boy thought he was asking if he had more and so he said he would get more from his ‘Burrito’. The American thought he had got his answer and thus was born Burrito—America’s most popular Mexican dish,” laughs Treves.

Accidental kahlua: The most famous liqueur to come out of Mexico in the last 100 years is the coffee-flavoured Kahlua. And the story of its birth is fascinating. The Mendendez family, which created this liqueur, did so by accident.

Apparently, they once forgot to pluck some beans, which matured too much and as a result had to be thrown away. Not knowing what to do, the family poured the beans into a jar containing some alcohol and promptly forgot about it. Months later when they discovered it, the flavour had them amazed. They decided to sell a few bottles and Kahlua was born. “The daughter who discovered it along with her mother is still alive and has become a national hero,” reveals Treves.

Keen to learn more about food from Mexico? Plan a trip to Acapulco soon!

 A taste of Mexico

Here’s one of the most popular seafood dishes from Mexico. Sounds tempting?

Fish Veracruzana

Basic ingredients

6 fish (salmon) fillets, 6 tomatoes, 3 dry chillies, 1 chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, chopped coriander, 1 tsp sugar, salt to taste. For the flavour 1 tsp black peppercorns, 4 cloves, 2 tbsp cinnamon powder, 1 cup stuffed green olives, ½ cup capers, 3 tbsp jalapeno chopped chillies and 2 red bell peppers sliced and soaked in salted water.

The method

The sauce: In a frying pan, dry roast the tomatoes until the skin turns black. Peel. In a blender, puree the tomato. In a frying pan, roast the chillies. Soak for 5 minutes in hot water. Then blend them. Pour olive oil in a pan and sauté the onion and garlic. Add the tomato puree, and bring it to a boil. Add chilli paste and cook for 10 minutes. Add the coriander. Add sugar and salt to taste. Leave to cool off. In a blender, blend this sauce with black pepper corns, cloves, cinnamon powder, half the green olives and jalapenos. Cook for 5 minutes.

The fish

Marinate the fish with lime juice, salt and pepper for 30 minutes. Grill it. Put the fish on a large plate. Cover it with the sauce. Garnish with sliced onions, bell peppers and the olives. Serve.

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