Red Hot Chili Peppers

“I can’t believe you went to Tulum, it’s like the Williamsburg of Mexico,” said a fellow Mexican culture enthusiast I met in Oaxaca.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when I thought of the fancy women right out of fashion blogs lining the beach street at night, the ridiculously inflated prices for everything, and what I felt was a pervasive dumbing down of Mexican food, substance and style. And I was pretty much pissed there was a Quizno’s right at the ruins. Would you like a roasted chicken sandwich post all that Mayan enrichment you didn’t really just have?

Octopus sopes by Chef Roberto Alcocer of Malva Restaurante. That's what I'm talkin' about!

Octopus sopes by Chef Roberto Alcocer of Malva Restaurante in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.  That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

I was geographically in the Yucatan Peninsula, and all I wanted was some Cochinita Pibil! Seems like a reasonable request. And then my heart sank a little when the cabbie told me it was hard to find and not usually available for dinner, as “tourists don’t really like it.” (Best bets are street vendors during the day, and he recommended Taqueria Don Beto on the way to the ruins, as did Wall Street Journal)

I’m probably spoiled from living in San Diego and being so close to Mexico, as both in my city and a jump over the border, I have access to about every style of Mexican cuisine one could imagine. I’ve also been lucky to work with Baja California tourism and several chefs, and one of the most fascinating interviews I ever did was with Javier González Vizcaíno, director of the Culinary Art School in Tijuana. This really took my appreciation to the next level, and though my transcription misses much of the intriguing history and anecdotes he shared, I hope it will inspire you too to appreciate the nuances and historical significance of this heritage cuisine (and if you don’t believe me or Javier, take UNESCO’s word for it).

What exactly is Mexican cuisine? Does it borrow from other countries/have other influences? What types of ingredients are used?

Mexican cuisine is like a collage of our ancient products, our ancient recipes, and all of the different cultures in Mexico, and was a wonderful addition by the Spanish conquistadors. When they came here, they ate a lot of meats, and brought their own recipes and ingredients – for example, they brought grapes – through the missionaries. There are also influences such as Asian, for example in Mexicali, there is a big Chinese influence and the best Chinese restaurants. This influence goes all over Mexico, as well as some Japanese, French (Veracruz, Michoacán) and Italian (Michoacán). In the South, the Mexican and French had very unique influences on the original cuisine. Nowadays, we are all a part of it, this mix that combines from different cultures like a big pot. As for ingredients, it was chocolate, corn, squash, tomato and turkey in colonial times. Now, the big main ingredients are chiles, garlic, onion, spices, salt and vanilla (which originated in Papantla, Veracruz).

What makes Mexican food unique, and how does Mexico stand out from gastronomic offerings in other countries?

The variety – every single state has a different type of recipes and cuisines. You can go from one state to another and have a completely different taste. For me, the most fascinating cuisines are the ones in Mérida (Yucatan) there is a lot of Spanish influence with infusion of chiles and other Mexican cuisines. We also have very good wines and beer. That’s one of the reasons Baja is growing all over Mexico. We produce 90 percent of Mexico’s wines and there are nearly 80 craft beer brands from Baja. Then on top of that, we have very unique ingredients in Baja, including seafood, fish, eel, vegetables, dates, figs, olive oil, sea urchin, clam and lobster, just like how each state has its unique ingredients incorporated into the local cuisine.

What are some one of a kind unique Mexican dishes?

Mole is one of the most acclaimed Mexican plates there is. Other unique dishes include Chiles en nogada with its nut crème sauce, and Pozole. Sauces are also very unique in Mexican cuisine. The very first lesson in my Mexican cuisine class is all about sauce. We challenge the students to make 9 different sauces out of just jalapeno, onion and tomato.

How are the chefs in Mexico different from other chefs? What would you say they bring to the culinary world that perhaps other chefs do not?

The main attraction is they want to work with the fresh produce, the produce from the region, no more than 50 km or so away. They have the passion and the information in their DNA. They have the capacity in their palates to match perfectly the different flavors and acidity and mix of flavors from their childhood. In every single house in Mexico, it’s not just the girls in the kitchen. Boys and girls are raised to cook with our father and our mother. There’s almost no one in Mexico who doesn’t know the basics, so everyone in Mexico is a potential chef. It’s quite interesting, there are a lot of people who say what about the macho men? We care about cooking and ironing and washing the clothes, we divide the housework.

And there you have it. Cooking as part of the family, cultivated from a young age. A dedication to local and indigenous ingredients, and cultural preservation. And you can taste it! Though I’ve only experienced Baja California, Oaxaca and Quintana Roo, I’m always hungry for more – and from Javier’s insights, am particularly intrigued to dine in Mexico City, Mérida, Michoacán and Veracruz.

And I’m not some sort of authenticity police. I see the difference in what I want versus what I get in disappointing experiences as ignoring these traditions. Farm to table and organic don’t need to be branded or certified, as that’s just what they do in authentic Mexican restaurants. Dishes are simple and focus on the ingredients and flavor, and it’s oh so good.

I’ll admit to eating a fair share of crunchy tacos and even chimichangas on occasion, and I get that some people want to show up to a resort in Cancun or Cabo or Puerto Vallarta, and just not have to worry about where they’re going to eat. I was once the kid who ate most of meals as strawberry waffles at Denny’s during my first real trip (to Hawaii), because that’s what I knew, and I was 11. But when a destination pushes away its culture in favor of commercialized crap it thinks that Americans want, it makes me sad.

An omelet stuffed with huitlacoche, topped with quesillo. Corn fungus, mmmm.

An omelet stuffed with huitlacoche, topped with quesillo. Corn fungus, mmmm.

All I want to do is advocate for destinations to preserve their cultural heritage, and for visitors to get over reservations they might have about trying something they think might be weird.

HOWEVER, this advocacy does not come without caution. Pretty much every guidebook says don’t eat street food in Mexico and Latin America. I tread carefully, as it can be like Russian Roulette with your stomach, and everybody’s sensitivity is different. I’ve had an allergic reaction to Chipulines at 2 a.m. in Tijuana (warning to those allergic to shellfish, crickets are in the same family, along with the mezcal worms!), and picked up a nasty parasite on my last trip. But it was probably from a radish, and not the amazing moles or Tlayudas, or other delicious treats I ate in Mexico, and as my doctor kindly reminded me, “You could eat a bad hamburger and be in the same place.” So my no-pun-intended advice in this regard, is go with your gut, err on the side of caution and buy the vegetable wash (peel everything too, including radishes and cucumbers!). You usually have a good sense what you can handle, and what looks sanitary.

So I guess my point is, life is short. Eat corn fungus or crickets or rabbit in mole.

As the Romans do.

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