What a sad culinary world it would be if general perception of Vietnamese cuisine was nothing more than pho, Chinese cuisine just consisted of dumplings and Italian cuisine began and ended with pizza. (OK, look, I could live with that last one.)
For the finicky who rarely venture outside of their their meat-and-three veg routine, dipping their toes in the waters of international cuisine might mean trying the most popular food associated with a country and labelling it “adventurous”. But in countries with a depth of culinary delights, or where regionality plays a large factor in cuisine, stopping at the main entrance point is to sell that country and their tasty cultural evolution all too short.
Case in point: Mexico.
Besides the taco, Mexican cuisine has been a little slow out of the gate in terms of Australian food trends. This is most likely due to the relatively small percentage of Mexicans who call our country home, or perhaps it’s due to the decades we spent insisting that tacos come with hard shells. (*Ahem* Old El Paso.) While cities like Los Angeles and Toronto feature quality Mexican restaurants and food trucks in nearly every neighbourhood, all with an array of dishes, many people in Australia seem to only have eyes (or mouths?) for a very narrow slice of Mexican cuisine. But all you have to do is take a trip down the coast of the Sea of Cortez to discover all that this colourful country has to offer.
It’s time to move beyond the taco and indulge in the flavours of Mexican foods as you’ve never tasted it before.
Because tacos are primarily served as snacks instead of meals in Mexico, you may have to find something a little more substantial to fill your belly come meal time. Tortas feature a variety of meats, usually braised then seared on a flattop grill and stuffed in a large, soft roll. Some places will hollow out the roll more than others, allowing for maximum meat and toppings like crunchy lettuce, cabbage, fresh tomatoes, guacamole (more creamy than chunky) and a spicy mayo to boot. Designed to be eaten on the go, you still may need a quick siesta afterwards.
If you’ve ever looked at frozen jalapeño poppers and wondered who could have dreamt up such a wonderful invention, you have the fine folks of Puebla to thank. Chile rellenos are poblano chiles (longer and skinnier than the ones you’ll find in your local Coles) stuffed with local cheese or sometimes meat mixed with raisins and nuts. It’s then coated in a thick batter and fried until crispy and served as an entire meal.
Queso (cheese) plays a vital role in Mexican cooking, but the country’s most common cheeses could not be more different from your standard tasty cheddar. Queso Oaxaca is a white, stringed cheese often used in the eponymous quesadillas. It’s got a bite to it, especially when pulled apart from a larger ball sold in a Mexican delicatessen. Queso Fresco is another wildly popular cheese. Resembling feta and often broken off in white crumbled chunks, the bold flavour pairs well with equally strong tasty taco meats. Don’t hold back when offered Queso Fresco with freshly sliced cucumbers and lime juice – it’s about as refreshing an afternoon snack as you can find.
With over 20 ingredients required to create an authentic mole, many indigenous only to Mexico, you may have trouble finding the meal in Australia beyond any knock-off variations sold in a jar – but the real thing is worth the effort.
Mole is a rich, dark sauce that uses chiles as a base before arriving at a complex finish with elements of chocolate, cloves and cumin to balance the heat. It’s a sauce unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, we guarantee it. Mole is often served with turkey and chicken during celebrations and for many Mexicans it’s a powerful representation of Mexican cultural heritage. While lately this dish has been avoided for foreign foods by the upper class in Mexico, I found many lathering their enchiladas with mole in restaurants both haute and not.
Dating back thousands of years, tamales feature hearty corn-based dough that engulfs anything, from fried meats to nuts and berries, before finally being wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Instant meal, it ain’t. It takes time to prepare, but the labour intensiveness is reflected in their sheer succulence.
Consider yourself lucky if you’re served tamales in modern Mexico; you’ve probably found yourself at a celebration of some sort like Christmas or Mexican Independence Day. The historical importance of tamales, especially given the careful planning that goes into preparing one, is still done justice to this day.
Another Mexican snack that has evolved into a full Australian meal, the tostada is served with heaps of spiced rice and refried beans. Tostadas are some of the best, simplest and most economical food in Mexico, served on stands to busy commuters. Approach with caution, though: one bite in the wrong spot of the crunchy, fried taco topped generously with seafood could lead to the whole thing falling apart. It’s a delicate balance but one many in Mexico’s busy streets have mastered. The crunch of the fried, crispy taco (often made from stale tortillas, because waste not want not, right?) paired with fresh crab is a match made in Mexican cuisine heaven. Until, of course, it’s snack time again and you’re ready for something else.
OK fine, we said we’re moving beyond the taco, but what we really mean is the hard shell style with flavour sachet minced meat, chopped salad and slatherings of sour cream – these hold nothing on authentic Mexican tacos. Real tacos need to be eaten as intended – devastatingly simple with a focus on well-marinated meat.
Throughout Mexico tacos are served in tacquerias, humble looking food stands that may very well have just one type of meat available, only some of which rotate a la the doner kebab grill. The taco is no fine dining experience. It’s best consumed on the side of the road under a cloud of thick smoke from the barbecue you ordered it from.
For a traditional favourite, let the shop keeper slice the slowly braised and simmered pork off the barbecue onto the tortilla, then top it with simple diced ingredients like fresh onions, cucumber, cilantro or cabbage. (Don’t worry, they don’t go overboard.) Once it reaches your hands, don’t feel ashamed to basically inhale it. It’s actually the ideal snack.
(Lead image: Justin Kern/Flickr)
Joshua Kloke is a freelance travel, music and sports writer. His work has appeared in Vice and the Vancouver Sun and his debut book Escape is at Hand for the Travellin' Man was released on Eternal Cavalier Press. He likes hanging out in the world's best record shops and pizzerias and is just waiting for someone to combine the two.