OF ALL THE LATIN-American styles of cooking known in Europe, the most familiar is Mexican. Nachos, fajitas, tacos, chimi-changa, chilli con carne and burritos, have all passed into our vocabulary.
"But these are not Mexican dishes at all," protests Susanna Palazuelos, one of Mexico's leading cookery writers. I am visiting her in Acapulco, where she runs one of Mexico's most successful catering businesses. Acapulco has been home from home for innumerable Hollywood stars ever since Ol' Blue Eyes dropped anchor 30 years ago; Hillary and Bill spent their honeymoon here.
"Chilli con carne is a Tex-Mex dish. They all are. We don't know these dishes in Mexico. I get so mad at these cliches. It's like the idea of the Mexican bandit in his poncho dozing in the sun under a wide-brimmed sombrero."
This was my first visit to Mexico, but I had already worked out that the bland food served in "Mexican" theme restaurants in the UK might not be typical. And as Susanna pointed out, this is not the food of present- day Mexico, but that of the former Mexican state of Texas (which along with Arizona and California were part of the Mexican republic until annexed by the US in the 19th century.)
The distinction between Tex-Mex and Mexican is total. A friend, who lectures at the university in Mexico City, once invited me to a meal at his London home to be cooked by a Mexican friend, Jorge, who hoped to set up an authentic Mexican restaurant in London. Jorge would cook one of the national dishes, mole poblana. Mulli in the Nahuatl dialect is sauce, and poblana states the origin of the dish, the ancient colonial town of Puebla, where it was supposedly invented by the nuns of a convent in the 16th century.
In order to help Jorge make his way in London, his grandmother had given him a 2kg sack of some 60 different spices, herbs and shredded dried chillies, plus the family's secret recipe for the mole.
There were, for a start, 20 different kinds of dried chilli - mulato and ancho, pasilla, guajillo, de arbol, serrano, and chipotle. Each of them contributed its own character, from fiery piquancy through to ripe, tropical fruitiness. Jorge's sack included herbs not even known in Europe, such as the weed-like epazote, with its agreeably sour flavour.
So Jorge worked his alchemy, cooking onions and tomatoes in lard, adding his spices and stock, then the raisins, prunes and broken tortilla pieces. He thickened the mixture with crushed almonds, roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, and when he judged it ready, he stirred in a tablet of bitter chocolate to give a silky finish.
The aroma in the house was unique. Our taste-buds trembled. And as we tried the mole, a magic carpet of flavours flowed across our palates. We groaned with delight and the ovation for Jorge was tremendous. And what a loss - he never did open his restaurant.
Susanna Palazuelos, horrified by my misconceptions of Mexican cooking, took me under her wing. She transported me directly to Beto Godoy, where the cooking of the state of Guerrero is found.
An outdoor restaurant, with wooden tables accommodating 300, was set on the sand. On an oceanside site among coconut palms (marked out, but as yet untouched by developers) you take your seat under the cool shade of grass roofs, overlooking the shrimp-netters.
Susanna introduced me to the owner, a former chief of police, and to the cooks, who were making tortillas. Tortillas are the foundation of all Mexican cooking. Maize is to these people what rice is to the Far East and grain to the Middle East, and is based on agriculture just as ancient, dating back 7,000 years. The tortilla - a cross between a pancake and a chapati - is the only bread to be made with cooked flour. Dry corn is soaked in lime and boiled to soften the skins which are then rubbed off. The grains are ground and made into a soft dough, masa harina.
The girls peel off a lump of dough the size of an egg, flatten it in their palms and bake it on a convex griddle. Freshly-made, the tortillas are wonderfully earthy and appetising, and are eaten either as bread, or rolled around a filling. Furthermore, the tortilla is the mother to a vast extended family of Mexican foods. In taquerias, they are served as the universal snack tacos, tortillas wrapped around a savoury filling, pegged with a toothpick and fried till golden. Quesadillas are tortillas stuffed and folded into turnovers, pressed shut, and fried or toasted. Sopes are small rolled tortillas shaped like little boats. Tostadas are tortillas which have been fried and spread with a savoury filling. Enchiladas, the aristocrats of the family, are tortillas dipped in a sauce and fried, then stuffed and rolled and oven-baked in a dish covered with a spicy sauce.
Chilaquiles, a popular and filling breakfast dish, is made from leftover tortillas cut into strips, fried, then heated with a sauce, often sprinkled with crumbled white cheese and chopped onion.
Beneath the coconut palms we start with little tortillas called piquitos, served with crumbled white cheese and the two freshly-made sauces found on almost every table in Mexico; green chilli, lime and avocado sauce, and a sloppy bean sauce (made from cooked beans, pounded and then fried with onions).
Then a bowl of shrimp soup. We have been watching the girls in the kitchen trimming several kilos of 2in-long scarlet chillies - the explosive charges which detonated in our soup.
From the ice-box we chose a freshly-caught snapper and watched the cook sever its backbone with a single blow, then smear the cut sides with a brick-red paste made from four kinds of chilli (ancho, pasilla, morita and de arbol) and with achiote (a spice made from ground annatto seeds). It was barbecued over a talla, a fisherman's iron grill.
So it was that the meal caught the essential quality of Mexico's cooking; the simplicity of earthy tortillas, the fresh shrimps and snapper, the searing but subtle heat of the chillies. And sharp, sour limes, smooth, cool avocados, and filling, satisfying beans. Over my week in Mexico, these were themes that kept recurring (my immunity to the heat of the chillies got stronger by the day).
Mexico City, inevitably, offered the greatest extremes - its population of 20 million makes it the largest city in the world. Mexico entertains 15 million visitors from the US every year so in the smarter hotel restaurants you can expect a certain dumbing-down of its cuisine.
As a tourist, you will be offered such gimmicks as gusanos - grubs from the maguey cactus, fried in oil - and ants' eggs, escamillos in garlic. Resist them, they taste of nothing. But there are agreeable surprises - nopales, for example, flat hand-sized pieces of a young cactus plant, strips of thorns cooked like a vegetable or char-grilled. But the best advice is stick to the classics - there are certainly enough of them.
Here are some examples: the tortillas are from Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz's The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking (Grub Street, pounds 18.99, a revised version of her classic). The other recipes are from Susanna Palazuelos's Mexico, the Beautiful Cookbook (Merehurst, pounds 25). You can buy books at a discount through the IoS - see page 46 for our special offer.
Tortillas can be made easily with the help of packaged masa harina (often available at supermarkets) and a press (sold at cookware shops).
Makes about 14-16
275g/10oz masa harina
12 teaspoon salt (optional)
300ml/12 pint lukewarm water
a small plastic bag, cut open and halved crossways
In a bowl combine the masa harina, the salt, and 250ml (8fl oz) of the water to form a soft dough. Line the tortilla press with the plastic and test the dough. Put a small ball on the plastic and press it out using the handle to bring down the top circle onto the dough. If it is too moist it will stick to the plastic, if it is too dry it will crumble. Scrape off and return to the bowl. If too moist add more masa, if too dry add the rest of the water (it is not possible to be absolutely precise about these amounts as less water is needed if the masa harina is very fresh).
Form the dough into small balls about 2.5cm to 4cm across (1-112in). Do a few at a time or all at once. Put a ball of dough on the bottom circle of the press and flatten with the top circle of the size wanted, 10cm to 13cm (4-5in). Peel off the top piece of plastic, flip the tortilla, paper side up, onto the palm of your left hand. Peel off the plastic then flip the tortilla gently onto the ungreased comal or griddle. Cook over a moderate heat until the edges begin to curl. It should be lightly flecked with brown and the top is the first side cooked.
Stack the cooked tortillas in a cloth napkin then wrap in foil, napkin and all. Eat immediately or place in a warm oven where they will keep for hours. To reheat when cold, pat them between damp palms then put over very low direct heat, turning constantly for about 30 seconds.
Tacos are the most popular of all the autijitos and there are even places, taquerias, devoted to selling tacos with a variety of fillings. There are two types. The soft taco is a stuffed fresh tortilla, loosely rolled and eaten by hand. The hard taco is more tightly rolled, stuffed, secured with a cocktail stick and lightly fried in lard or oil. The cocktail stick is removed halfway through so that the taco can be turned. They should not be fried crisp, just lightly golden (about a minute on each side) and eaten as soon as possible.
Traditional fillings for tacos range from leftovers from meat or poultry dishes to seafood and vegetables, which can be used with imagination, as can sauces, chillies, cheese or guacamole.
For a party, set out bowls of various sauces (salsas), chillies (ideally pickled), chopped and fried chorizo, shredded cooked chicken and pork, guacamole, chopped shredded lettuce, and cheese. Serve with batches of freshly made tortillas to be made into soft tacos.
225g/8oz boiled ham, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
75g/3oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature
225g/8oz tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
pickled serrano or jalapeno chillies, chopped
12 fresh warm tortillas
In a bowl combine the ham, onion, cheese, tomatoes and chillies and mix thoroughly. Season with salt, if necessary, and use to stuff the tortillas. Fold over lightly and eat by hand, or secure with a cocktail stick and fry lightly in oil. Serve with guacamole.
Tostadas are tortillas that have been fried in hot oil or lard until golden brown and then covered with layers of meats, poultry, fish, sauces, chillies, etc in various combinations. They are meant to be eaten by hand so should not be fried so crisp that they crumble when bitten. Like all tortillas that are to be fried, they should not be too fresh as they will absorb too much oil; day-old is ideal. The most useful size of tortilla for tostadas is 13cm (5in) across, but they can be larger or smaller according to taste.
1 tablespoon corn or peanut oil
1 onion, finely chopped
225g/8oz tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
450g/1lb cooked prawns, chopped
12 (13cm/5in) tortillas, lightly fried
3 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
shredded lettuce, preferably cos or iceberg
strips of pickled jalapeno chillies
Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the onion until it is soft. Add the tomato and cook over a moderate heat until well blended and thick. Add the prawns, stirring to mix, season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.
Spread a layer of the mixture on to the fried tortillas, followed by grated cheese and the lettuce sprinkled with a little vinaigrette. Serve with jalapenos.
corn or peanut oil or lard
18 tortillas (10cm/4in across), cut into 5mm/14in strips
275g/10oz Mexican green tomatoes (tomatillos), chopped
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 sprig epazote
1 tablespoon fresh coriander
3 fresh serrano chillies, seeded and chopped
115g/4oz grated Cheddar cheese
120ml/4fl oz beef or chicken stock
In a frying pan heat three tablespoons of oil or lard and fry the tortilla strips, a few at a time, lightly on both sides. They should not be fried long enough to brown. Drain on paper towels. Add more oil or lard to the pan if needed during cooking. Set aside.
In a processor combine the tomatoes, onion, chillies, epazote and coriander. Reduce to a puree. Cook the puree in the fat in the frying pan, adding more if necessary, for about three minutes, stirring constantly. Salt to taste.
Grease an ovenproof casserole and make a layer of sauce, followed by a layer of the tortilla strips, and some of the cheese. Repeat using up all the ingredients except the cheese. Mix the stock into any remaining sauce and pour it over the casserole then top with the remaining cheese. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 350F/180C/Gas 4 for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the casserole heated through.
ANCHO CHILLIES STUFFED WITH CHEESE
It is not just fresh green chillies that are stuffed in Mexican cooking but also the dried. For ease in stuffing, select chiles that are fat and not too twisted or brittle.
6 ancho chillies
1 tablespoon oil
315g/10oz Mexican green tomatoes, quartered
12 large onion, cut into chunks
2 large tomatoes, each cut into eighths
250ml/8fl oz thick cream (creme fraiche)
185g/6oz grated medium-sharp Cheddar cheese
60g/2oz plain flour
3 eggs, separated
oil for frying
Make a lengthwise slit in each chile and remove the seeds and membranes. Toast the chillies, then soak them in warm water for five minutes. Drain and set aside. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the green tomatoes and cook for three minutes. Add the onion, cook for three minutes, then the tomatoes and cook for another three minutes. Stir in the salt and the cream, then cover and cook until the sauce begins to bubble. Remove from heat, set aside.
Stuff the chillies with cheese. Spread the flour on a plate. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then stir in the yolks one at a time. Turn the chillies in the flour, shaking off the excess. Dip each chilli in the beaten egg, so that it is well coated. Heat 1cm (12in) oil in a frying pan. When hot add the chillies one or two at a time and fry on each side until lightly browned. Drain in a colander.
Before serving, heat the sauce. Add the chillies to it, cover and cook over low heat for three minutes, just until the chillies are hot. Serve immediately.
MELTED CHEESE WITH MUSHROOMS AND POBLANO CHILLI
1 poblano chilli, roasted, peeled and cut into strips
2 tablespoons butter
60g/8oz mushrooms, sliced
250g/8oz grated mild Cheddar
10-12 flour tortillas
Saute the chilli strips in one tablespoon of butter, season lightly and set aside. Saute the mushrooms in the remaining butter until they begin to release their juices. Season and set aside. Lightly grease two small flameproof casseroles. In one, place half the cheese and half the chilli strips. In the other, place the remaining cheese and half the mushrooms. Cover each with foil and set over low heat until the cheese begins to melt (three minutes). Uncover and cook for two minutes or until the cheese is completely melted. Add remaining mushrooms and chilli strips to their respective casseroles. Serve hot with tortillas.
CHICKEN IN A CLAY POT
The traditional way to prepare this is in a clay casserole covered with a sealing layer of masa. Bits of the corn mixture break off, thickening the sauce. This version is much simpler to prepare.
1 whole chicken, about 1.5kg/3lb, cut into serving pieces
11 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon coarse salt and 2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
20 small new potatoes, peeled
180ml/6fl oz red wine vinegar
80ml/3fl oz olive oil
2 tablespoons each dried thyme and marjoram
2 serrano chillies (optional)
Rub chicken with garlic, salt and pepper and refrigerate for two to four hours.
In a large frying pan, heat the oil, saute the chicken briefly and transfer to a large pot. In the same oil, lightly brown the potatoes, remove and set aside. Add the vinegar to the frying pan, bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the frying pan. Pour the vinegar through a strainer over the chicken.
Add the olive oil, salt, bayleaves, thyme and marjoram to the chicken in the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover and lower the heat. Every 10 minutes, uncover and stir. After 35 minutes, uncover, correct the seasonings and add the chillies and potatoes. Cover and cook over low heat until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
TURKEY MOLE PUEBLA-STYLE
6 ancho chillies and 4 each pasilla and mulato chillies
3.6kg/8lb turkey, cut into serving pieces
2 onions and 4 cloves garlic, chopped
12 teaspoon anise
2 tablespoons each sesame seeds and chopped coriander sprigs
1 stale tortilla or 1 slice white bread toast, cut up
450g/1lb tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
115g/4oz flaked, blanched almonds
50g/2oz seedless raisins
12 teaspoon each of ground cloves, ground cinnamon, ground coriander seeds, ground black peppercorns
40g/112oz tablet Mexican or unsweetened chocolate
Toast chillies in a dry frying pan, tear off stems and shake out seeds. Tear them into pieces and put into a bowl with hot water to cover and soak for 30 minutes. Put the turkey pieces into a large, heavy pan, cover with cold, salted water and simmer, covered for one hour. Drain, reserving the stock. Pat turkey pieces dry with paper towels. Heat lard in a large frying pan and saute the turkey pieces, a few at a time, until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer to a large flameproof casserole, reserving the lard.
In a food processor, combine the garlic, onions, half of the sesame seeds, the fresh coriander, tortilla, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander seeds and chillies and process to a coarse puree (if necessary do this in batches). Heat the remaining lard in the frying pan, adding another tablespoon if necessary and cook the puree, stirring, for five minutes. Add 475ml (16fl oz) of the reserved turkey broth, the chocolate broken into pieces, and salt. Cook, stirring, over a very low heat until the chocolate has melted and the sauce is quite thick.
Pour the sauce over the turkey in the casserole and cook over the lowest possible heat for 30 minutes. Just before serving sprinkle with the remaining sesame seeds. Serve with or with hot tortillas, and guacamole.
PORK WITH CHILLI SAUCE
Thickening the chilli sauce with flour is a technique unique to northern Mexico.
2 tablespoons lard
1kg/2lb boneless pork, cut into large cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced and 2 ancho chillies
24fl oz/750ml hot water
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon white vinegar
12 teaspoon ground cumin
Melt the lard in a frying pan over medium heat. When it is hot add the pork, a little salt and the garlic. Saute until the pork is cooked, which will take about 20 minutes. Toast the chillies and remove the seeds and membranes. Soak in the water for five minutes, then transfer the chillies and water to a blender and puree with the flour, but not too smooth. Pour the sauce over the meat and add the oregano, vinegar, cumin and 112 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring, over low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with hot flour tortillas.
CHILLIES YOU SHOULD MAKE FRIENDS WITH
The essence of Mexican cooking is its spicing. And the backbone of its spicing is its chillies, from large (the size of a bell pepper) to tiny (the size of a thumbnail), from mild to punishingly hot, both fresh and dried. Most recipe books suggest soaking dried chillies in water before use, but in Mexico it is more usual to bring them to life by heating them in a dry frying pan (toasting them) before crumbling and adding them to stocks. Sometimes they are fried in a little fat first (in Mexico this usually means lard).
Increasingly, health food stores sell dried chillies, and supermarkets have increased their range of fresh ones. The Cool Chile Company (0870 902 1145) offers the most extensive service by mail, and provides descriptions of each chilli. You can also find dried chillies at Sainsbury's Special Selection counters. Peppers by Post 01308 897 892 also specialises in supplying fresh chillies by mail order.
ANCHO Up to five inches long, flat and wide, a wrinkled, shiny deep brown. Powerful, pungent and fruity. Bearably hot.
PASILLA Slightly smaller and thinner, similarly wrinkled and brown. Rich flavour, medium hot. Known as Chilaca when fresh.
MULATO Crinkly reddish brown, hint of licorice. Similar to the ancho.
GUAJILLO Narrow, pointed, smooth and glossy skin, about four inches long. Tastes of green tea, mild.
CHILE DE ARBOL Red, thin, pointed chillies about three inches long. Very fiery and fresh-tasting.
CHIPOTLE Dried, smoked japaleno pepper. Full of flavour.
POBLANO Large chilli, the size of a bell pepper, with a hot bite: served with nut sauce to make the national dish Chiles en Nogada.
JALPENO Stumpy, fat little green chillies, with a keen, sharp, not too hot flavour. Can be bought pickled.
ANNAHEIM Mild green chillies, four to six inches long, often stuffed with cheese before cooking. Grill and skin them first.
HABANERO Roundish, lantern-shaped chillies, yellow, orange and red. Extremely hot, with fruity, tropical flavours.
SERRANO Short rounded chillies, both red and green; the most common chilli, chopped uncooked into salsas and guacamole.
SIERRA Small fiery green and red chillies.