World-class meals in street-side loncherias for under $10
Mexico is an exuberant country. “Somos muy festejosos,” said one man to me recently—we like to party…This levity is evident in the bright colours of their traditional clothing, but above all in the food.
The feature picture is from a dish that I recently ate at one of the same hole-in-the-wall restaurants I have been going to for decades. The food has been consistently excellent, as good as any Michelin star. Why? There are many reasons.
Did you know that there are only two cuisines in the world that have been given World Heritage status by UNESCO? What does it mean? It means that the culinary traditions are so complex, so rich and varied, and so in danger of disappearance, that they must be protected as part of the culture of humanity. Which two? Japanese and Mexican. If you have spent significant time in either, you will understand why. Consider the accolade is coming from a body that is located in France and filled with French people who love their cuisine! In other words, even great can recognise greater.
And time moves slower in Mexico from an ingredient standpoint. The dishes we eat are largely unchanged for millennia. Mexico’s contribution to the world of food ingredients is unrivalled. Imagine Italian food without the tomato. Tomatoes come from Mexico. So too, does vanilla, hot peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, and chocolate. Wow.
What makes Mexican cuisine worthy of the World Heritage designation was evident right there on my plate. First, the food speaks relentlessly of the place and people who produced it. This little road side stall that I have been going to is not a fancy restaurant. They don’t even have a kitchen. They have a fire pit, one large flat pan called a comal, a counter, and lots of ingredients they grow (including animals they raise) themselves. Everything is made from scratch. Nothing travelled more than a few hundred feet to get to my plate.
The tortillas are made by hand. She doesn’t even use a tortilla press, but rather shapes them in her cupped hand before cooking them over the fire. The cochinita pibil and suckling pig have been cooked on hot stones wrapped in banana leaves and buried to slow cook and steam in their own juices. The earthy-vegetal flavour and aroma of the banana leaf is there as a subtle note in the food.
The onions, vibrantly pink and colourful, were pickled in hot vinegar heated over the same fire, and then cooked to tenderness on the same comal that now heats the tortillas. The spices and herbs were crushed by hand in a rock mortar, just as they were about to be used. The shredded turkey with the black sauce, relleno negro is divine. This sauce, made with dark-toasted chili peppers mixed with achiote, burnt tortilla, sour orange juice, garlic, cumin, cloves, black pepper. It is nutty and earthy, and pairs beautifully with the small slice of egg and the bright onion.
The choice is vast, the preparations and accompaniments varied, but what does not change is the time and effort that goes into preparing food like this. What also does not change is how important the quality of the base ingredients are, and how local everything is. We don’t need rock-star chefs and $50 cookbooks to tell us that eating from your own backyard is healthy, good for the planet, and tastes better. We just need to remember that the Mexicans have been eating this way for millennia, with dishes that have changed little in that time. Take UNESCO’s endorsement to heart, hop on a plane and come over, and remember that you can have a great meal for less than $10.
My favourite part? The fresh made habanero salsa served on the side. Take 4 habanero peppers and lightly toast them on the grill. Roast the halves of two bitter oranges face down on the grill until lightly charred. Take one plump clove of garlic. Remove the stem from the peppers and place in a blender along with the garlic clove, salt and pepper to taste, and the juice of the roasted oranges. Mix to blend. Enjoy this intensely hot, smoky condiment with fish, tacos, meat, vegetables. It is divine.