South of the border: Why Mexican food is now hot stuff

Nachos may be a fast-food favourite, but the subtler joys of real Mexican food have been harder to come by – until now.

Code red: my southern-fried-chicken wrap is disintegrating. Skulking guiltily behind the table of a Tex-Mex restaurant in central London, I hold the aforementioned foodstuff together with two fingers and shovel it quickly into my mouth. But it is already shedding passengers; whoops, there goes some yellow pepper; another piece of chicken dipped in mayonnaise has plummeted to my plate.

The experience of gobbling this bastardised fusion of Texan and Mexican cuisine can sometimes be an unsophisticated affair, but there is no doubting its continued popularity. With such tasty, populist, well-marketed products, those looking for more authentic Mexican alternatives have always had trouble tearing themselves away from the tortillas and tequila. We've eschewed classier alternatives.

Thankfully Thomasina Miers, former MasterChef champ and restaurant founder, is bringing a large slice of genuine Mexico to the mainstream. A world away from Tex-Mex sizzling fajitas with cheesy nachos, her chain of "Mexican market eating" restaurants Wahaca (named after the pronunciation of Oaxaca, a Mexican province), fuses Mexican with British ingredients. It's a Hispaniccall to arms: why not try their fresh, sustainable fish with a fiery green tomatillo sauce, or their free-range chicken, served in either a taquito, a quesadilla, or an enchilada?

"One thing I love about Mexican food is that it's very akin to British tastes," says Miers, a svelte businesswoman in her early 30s, who discusses her brand above the packed lunchtime cacophony of her Covent Garden restaurant. "We have this tremendous tradition of eating Indian food – the spices, you know, but there are all the English spices which we take for granted – cloves, cinnamon – that pervade Mexican food. They have these amazing flavours of chillies. They are not just hot, but smoky, sweet and tobacco flavours: a whole world of flavours from chillies alone."

Despite being in competition with Wahaca, fellow restaurateur Huw Gott, co-owner of the Shoreditch cantina Green & Red, also recommends it. Gott's restaurant favours the cooking styles found in Mexico's main tequila-producing region, Jalisco, and he says the key to authenticity lies in an incredible range of fresh, bright and healthy ingredients. When Green & Red first opened four years ago, Gott says he enjoyed challenging common perceptions of what authentic Mexican dishes and drinks really are. "A lot of people would come in thinking they didn't like tequila. We like to show people that there's a huge selection of different flavours, and many walk out loving the stuff."

Gott believes more and more people are beginning to realise the depth of Mexican cooking, beyond the "Americanised Tex-Mex approach, where everything seems to be deep-fried with luminous yellow cheese". For example, one of Green & Red's specialities is lamb birria, a spicy meat stew often made with goat or mutton. "People are becoming more knowledgeable, and genuine Mexican food is becoming more popular," says Gott. "I've noticed more authentic Mexicans opening recently, especially better-quality takeaways."

The historical reasons for the lack of spread of "proper" Mexican cuisine to these green isles are reasonably clear cut, at least according to Jane Milton, the author of The Practical Encyclopaedia of Mexican Cooking and director of the food consultancy notjustfood.co.uk. "Mexican cuisine was not brought to the UK via Mexican people," she says, "but via American chains and the Old El Paso retail brand. Now people believe that Tex Mex is authentic Mexican cooking and they are disappointed if restaurants which bill themselves as 'authentically Mexican' don't offer enchiladas, fajitas and nachos."

Milton describes the process by which food-types are typically colonised. "The first step is that people from a certain country would settle in the UK and congregate in communities. Restaurants then set up to cater for the ethnic population within the community; other people begin to eat there too." Sometimes, Milton explains, people will go to the country in question on their hols, sample the local nosh and seek out their new favourite thing shortly after landing back at Heathrow. Then they may try to cook it at home; they look for cookbooks and specialist ingredients. After which, hey, presto! – the methods are adopted by the mainstream.

But while Chinese and Indian food have followed this route, Mexican food has not. As a result, the most commercial ends of Mexican cuisine have been adapted into our culture. Wraps are used in the British sandwich market; though not with the healthy contents you would find in Mexico. "For many people Mexican food is high-fat party food, which is a shame as there are so many fantastic, healthy dishes," continues Milton. "Mexican cooking can often be linked to tequila shooters and getting drunk, which again, is just so reductive."

In fact, traditional Mexican cuisine is much healthier, though varies dramatically between regions. In the state of Puebla, for example, you will encounter the herb-rich savoury chocolate sauce of "mole", variations of which are found across the country. The tacos and tamales in the coastal area of Veracruz typically have a lot of seafood in them; what all these dishes share is a flavoursome, cheap production ethic and reliance on corn and rice-based ingredients.

Alongside Milton, Miers is propagating her own, transcontinental colonisation programme – with some conditions. "It's amazing how many people bring up the whole 'authenticity' thing when they're talking about food," she says. "And to start with, I'd say, 'What is authentic food?' And people say to us, 'Well how can you be authentic?' We don't really believe in shipping things across the world just so we can say 'These are 100 per cent Mexican ingredients.' We look at how we can do things on our terms." This might include Devon crab, or crumbled Lancashire cheese mixed with chilli; the emphasis is on sustainable ways of cooking rather than sizzling-by-numbers.

Authenticity is important to Dodie Miller, co-owner of the London taco café Taqueria, which is a favourite among Mexican embassy staff. So important is it to her that her team recently imported a tortilla-making machine from Mexico. "A taco is the plate, napkin and spoon of Mexican street food. And, to make a good taco, you need good tortillas. Otherwise it's like running a sandwich shop without good bread," she says. "I've seen Mexicans bite into a tortilla and burst into tears – food is very emotive for them; it reminds them of their mother, grandmothers – of home. So trying to get our food to taste as authentic as possible is still very important to us."

But, like Miers, Miller isn't slavish about importing all of her ingredients. Instead, she is keen to develop Mexican food "from a British perspective" in an attempt to move away from the Americanised Tex-Mex version. In America, many of the ingredients used in Mexican cooking are easy to come by, she explains. "But here, we have to find substitutes or learn to grow ingredients ourselves – it's like a quest of discovery."

Looking around Wahaca you can see why it is so popular; it is set in a light, roomy, basement at the bottom of one of London's most popular eating-out areas; the design (by Softroom, a youthful practice at the vanguard of London's architecture scene) boasts exposed concrete and a citrus colour scheme. The cocktails and tequila are even worth getting drunk on. It's all a lot very fast for 32-year-old Miers: born in Cheltenham, she pursued any number of different jobs before finally summoning the courage to enter the BBC's MasterChef, which she won in 2005 with a Catalan fish stew. She presented a couple of series for the BBC, travelled to Mexico, "fell in love with it", (as a certain breed of entrepreneur is wont to do) and Wahaca Covent Garden opened shortly afterwards, in August 2007, with a second opening at the Westfield shopping centre in west London in October last year. A further outlet is planned for Canary Wharf in east London, and the chef has expressed a desire to open a more "upmarket" version in another central London location, possibly Mayfair.

She still has the odd (very human) crisis of confidence, however. "Actually it's really scary; it's like, 'I'm not Mexican, am I doing this right? Why am I doing this? Am I in the right position to be doing this?' But then you realise," she adds, "that, just like Italian food, everyone's got a different way of making the same dish. So in one village they might make a dish one way, and in another village they make it another way. I've actually travelled a lot through Mexico now, so I've seen food cooked in different ways. So now I can say, 'That's cool, it's not how you do it in this village. But I cooked it for someone in another village, you know, and I was taught it this way, and I think it tastes quite nice.' In Britain, people think that good food is for people who've got money. Bollocks. The whole great thing about street food is that in Italy, Spain, France or Vietnam, it's for everyone. Good food should be for everyone. So that's what we wanted to do."

The real thing: Authentic Mexican treats

Escabeche

A classic dish that the Mexicans inherited from the Spanish, escabeche is often confused with ceviche, which consists of marinated raw fish. In escabeche, the raw fish is initially marinated in lime juice, but is then cooked before being pickled.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

900g whole fish fillets
Juice of 2 limes
300ml olive oil
6 peppercorns
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Half a teaspoon ground cumin
Half a teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
50g pickled jalapeño chilli slices, chopped
1 onion, thinly sliced
250ml white wine vinegar
150g cups green olives stuffed with pimiento, to garnish

Place the fish fillets in a single layer in a shallow non-metallic dish. Pour the lime juice over, turn the fillets over once to ensure that they are completely coated, then cover the dish and leave to marinate for 15 minutes.

Drain the fish in a colander, then pat the fillets dry with kitchen paper. Heat four tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan, add the fish fillets and sauté for five to six minutes, turning once, until they are golden brown. Use a fish slice or spatula to transfer them to a shallow dish that will hold them in a single layer.

Heat two tablespoons of the remaining oil in a frying pan. Add the peppercorns, garlic, ground cumin, oregano, bay leaves and jalapeños, and cook over a low heat for two minutes, then increase the heat, add the onion slices and vinegar and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for four minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and then carefully add all the remaining oil. Stir the mixture well, then pour it over the fish.

Leave to cool, then cover the dish and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

When you are ready to serve, drain off the liquid and garnish the pickled fish with the stuffed olives. Salad leaves would make a good accompaniment.

Cook's tip: Use the largest frying pan you have when cooking the fish. If your pan is too small, it may be necessary to cook the fish in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan as they will cook unevenly

Black bean salsa

This salsa has a very striking appearance. It is rare to find a black sauce and it provides a wonderful contrast to the more common reds and greens on the plate. The pasado chillies add a subtle citrus flavour. Leave the salsa for a day or two after making to allow the flavours to develop fully.

Serves 4 as an accompaniment

Ingredients:

130g black beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
1 pasado chilli
2 fresh red fresno chillies
1 red onion
Grated rind and juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoon Mexican beer (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Small bunch of fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
Salt

Drain the beans and put them in a large pan. Pour in enough water to cover and place the lid on the pan.

Bring to the boil, lower the heat slightly and simmer the beans for about 40 minutes or until they are tender. They should still have a little bite and should not have begun to disintegrate. Drain, rinse under cold water, then drain again and leave the beans until cold.

Soak the pasado chilli in hot water for about 10 minutes until softened. Drain, remove the stalk, then slit the chilli and scrape out the seeds with a small sharp knife. Chop the flesh finely.

Spear the fresno chillies on a long-handled metal skewer and roast them over the flame of a gas burner until the skins blister and darken.

Do not let the flesh burn. Alternatively, you can dry-fry them in a griddle pan until the skins are scorched. Then place the roasted chillies in a strong plastic bag and tie the top to keep the steam in. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the red onion finely. Remove the chillies from the bag and peel off the skins. Slit them, remove the seeds and chop the flesh finely.

Tip the beans into a bowl and add the onion and both types of chilli. Stir in the lime rind and juice, beer, oil and coriander. Season with salt and mix well. Chill before serving.

Cook's tip: Mexican beer is widely exported nowadays, but if you can't find it, any light beer, can be substituted.

From 'The Chili-Hot Mexican Cookbook' by Jane Milton (Southwater £9.99)

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