Mexico food fans savor boost for cuisine

Mexico's cuisine has long been overshadowed by the greasy Tex-Mex burritos and nachos sold around the world, but efforts to refine its image are now beginning to pay off.

Five months after Mexican gastronomy joined the ranks of pre-Hispanic monuments winning special recognition from the UN cultural body, UNESCO, a restaurant serving up Mexican dishes has for the first time been named among the world's top 50 eateries.

The Pujol joins another restaurant also in an upscale district of Mexico City, which serves up Basque fusion cuisine, which made it onto the list last year.

Since pre-Hispanic times, Mexican dishes have drawn on a wealth of ingredients, including many varieties of corn, beans and chili peppers, as well as native tomatoes, avocados or cocoa.

But top chefs are increasingly mixing up traditional recipes to give them a modern twist.

"People think that Mexican food is heavy, that you have to go on a diet of lettuce three days before you eat it," said Enrique Olvera, owner of Pujol which made the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list in April.

"We're looking for a new experience," Olvera said, using tweezers to assemble a starter of bean dip, roast tomato skin, zucchini, cheese, oil from the Pipicha herb - similar to cilantro - and tiny toasted Jumiles bugs.

The 35-year-old has inspired a generation of Mexican chefs and won widespread acclaim in the 11 years since Pujol opened.

The minimalist restaurant is located in the capital's Polanco district, also home to Biko, a Basque restaurant and the only other one in Mexico ever to make the top 50 best restaurant list compiled by more than 800 industry experts.

Pujol recently received a visit from Irish rocker and U2 frontman Bono, who choose to celebrate his birthday there.

"The fact that there's a Mexican restaurant in the top 50 means that the world is changing," said Olvera, who is at the forefront of a movement of chefs, professors and foodies altering perceptions of Mexican food and drink.

A new gastronomy festival in Morelia, Michoacan, in western Mexico, at the end of May, aims to give their efforts a further boost.

Smart restaurants and cooking schools here have long favored foreign cooking, particularly from France, but Mexican cooking classes have increased in recent decades.

- 'A question of self-esteem' -


Attitudes to Mexican food "have changed a little, but it's a question of self-esteem," said Yuri de Gotari, who opened the small School of Mexican Gastronomy in Mexico City in 2007.

"People are slowly realizing that they have valuable ingredients," de Gortari said, as he demonstrated a molcajete - a Mexican stone version of the mortar and pestle - to a class of students.

Key to Mexican cooking, fresh ingredients are still sold in markets across the center and south of the country, where traditional dishes are also found.

Prickly pear cacti, yellow zucchini flowers, dark red hibiscus flowers and tropical fruit including the endemic mamey sit alongside delicacies such as grasshoppers on market stalls.

But, as elsewhere, a proliferation of junk food is threatening culinary traditions.

Many hope UNESCO's special recognition of Mexico's entire national cuisine in November, along with French gastronomy and the Mediterranean diet, will help raise awareness of threatened culinary traditions.

In its decision, UNESCO said Mexican "knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds, and build stronger local, regional and national identities."

And local producers are starting to fight back.

"One thing you're seeing is more restaurants promoting local ingredients, which you didn't even see when I got here two years ago," said Lesley Tellez, a joint founder of Eat Mexico, a company offering street food and market tours.

The company has grown since it started less than a year ago, and now runs 10 to 15 tours per month.

Argentine Estanislao Carenzo, a tourist and chef, said he was impressed with the diversity of ingredients and dishes on offer in a recent Mexico City market tour.

"I wanted to see if it was the same as in South East Asia and it seems it is," Carenzo said. "They export bad quality food, like China or Italy do."

Janneth Lopez, a Mexican trainee food guide, savored a spoonful of paste for a savory, cocoa-based sauce known as mole.

She agreed Mexico's diverse ingredients should be promoted and protected, but said they should be served in copious dishes, like any good home cooking.

"It's great that there's contemporary cuisine, but there are limits," Lopez said. "There's no food like market food."