Saturday, July 28, 2007

About Mexican Cuisine

About Mexican and Tex-Mex

There is nothing wrong with Tex-Mex at all. It's a great cuisine. But it's wholly distinct from Mexican. Tex-Mex is a natural fusion cuisine, and its Mexican influence comes from the north along the border. Tex-Mex uses more beef than Mexican, and to some degree, different chiles (the New Mexico chile is used exclusively in Tex-Mex and northern Mexican cuisines.) The flour tortilla is unknown in Mexico, except for the north (and Tex-Mex). Chile powder is also unknown in Mexico.

There is a popular myth that Tex-Mex is less picante than Mexican. That is untrue. A lot of Tex-Mex is extremely picante, and not all Mexican food is picante.

Mexican food is far from monolothic. The foods of different regions of Mexico differ from one another as much as any other regional foods. Along the coasts, far more seafood is eaten. On the eastern coast, allspice (from the Caribbean) is popular. The food of Yucutan (the only part of Mexico where the now-trendy habanero is eaten) is distinctly different from even the food of southern Mexico, and uses a great deal more citrus. Central Mexican cuisine differs greatly from both northern Mexican and southern Mexican cuisine.

Be warned. Most Mexican food is not convenience food. Mexico is a traditional culture where women spend many hours preparing food. If you don't like working a lot in the kitchen, pick your Mexican dishes carefully.

Mexican cuisine: Fusion

Mexican food, like its national identity, is meztiso, a fusion of native Mexican and Spanish foods, and very different from either. It may also be the most distinctive and successful fusion cuisine.

Consider the aesthetic similarities between the two cultures when they came into contact. We had the highly complex and elaborate Spanish culture, where the preference for complexity was not only reflected in its arts, music, and architecture, but also its food. Native Mexican culture was as complex and elaborate as that of the Spanish conquistadores. Despite other political and cultural conflicts, the aesthetics of both cultures shared the same preferences.

Mexico provided the dishes (mostly), and Spain provided new ingredients. Beef (still rare in Mexico outside the north), pork, chicken, cooking in fat, "Indian" spices, cheese and dairy, all were brought by the Spanish to an already rich and elaborate cuisine. Although the Mexicans were making, say, tamales for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, Spanish contributions made the tamale a very different dish. Spanish and native Mexican fused into what we know today as Mexican cuisine. And Mexican cuisine is distinct from all other world cuisines in one fundamental way: The role of chiles.

Chiles: Why Mexican food is unique

In North America, the agricultural triumverate was corn, beans, and squash. In Mexico, it was corn, beans, and chiles.

The chile was first cultivated in Mexico, and is the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. Unlike any other national cuisine, Mexican food uses the chile for flavor, and not heat. This means you cannot change the types of chiles used, or use less for fear of burning your palate without essentially changing the dish.

If a recipe contains chile powder, it ain't Mexican.

Mexico has hybridized more varieties of chiles than any other culture, all of them for their different flavors. As if that weren't confusing enough, chiles are used both fresh and dried, and one can never be substituted for the other. Drying significantly alters and concentrates the flavor of the chile. If you have a local Mexican grocery, go wonder at the large selection of different chiles; if you have more than one, chances are the owners are from different areas of Mexico and carry different types of chiles. No doubt just to be confusing, the same chile has different names when fresh or dried. For example, the poblano, a large, fleshy, semi-sweet chile available in most supermarket vegetable sections, is called the ancho when dried, or the mulatto when the chile is allowed to ripen before it is dried — and as if that weren't confusing enough, different names are used for the same chiles in different parts of Mexico. You need to learn to recognize chiles by appearance, and not just by name. And to make things even more complicated, dried chiles can be used either by grinding them, or soaking them, which produces two very different flavors from even the same chile.

Despite scoville ratings and statements on menus, chiles are not uniformly picante. So while the poblano usually is only mildly hot, you can run into a poblano that isn't at all picante, or one that is quite picante. The same is true for the habanero, and every other type of chile. Any description of how hot a variety of chile is is a generalization.

The Holy Trinity

Across Mexico three chiles form the Holy Trinity: The ancho, the pasilla, and the guajillo.

The ancho is the dried poblano. The ancho has a complex, fruity flavor and is only mildly hot. Outside of the New Mexico or California chile, which are only used in northern Mexico, the ancho is probably the easiest chile to find (odds are your local grocery carries anchos). If you let the poblano fully ripen until it's red and dry it, it becomes the mulatto. I think of the ancho as the contralto of the Holy Trinity.

The pasilla is dark brown, wrinkled, narrow and around six inches long. The pasilla has a dark, earthy, almost mushroom-y flavor, very different from the fruity ancho. Don't confuse the pasilla with the pasilla de Oaxaca, which is a different chile, hotter, and vaguely smoky. The pasilla will often be labeled pasilla negro or pasilla Mexicano to distinguish it from the pasilla de Oaxaca. Definitely the basso profondo.

The guajillo is ranges from bright orange to dark red. It is broader than the pasilla, though also about six inches long, and it has a smooth, unwrinkled skin. The guajillo has a sweet, bright flavor reminiscent of tomato, and is fairly hot. The guajillo is a thick-skinned chile, and must always be strained. The guajillo is the heldentenor of the three, with bright, trumpety top notes.

The two chiles most commonly eaten fresh are the jalapeño and the serrano, both available in nearly any supermarket produce section. The poblano is also eaten fresh. The habanero is eaten primarily in Yucatan (once you get past the incredible heat, it has a wonderful, flowery flavor). In Mexico, the habanero is never dried. Some chiles, such as the guajillo and pasilla, are never eaten fresh.

Some chiles are also smoked until dried. The chipotle is the smoked jalpeño. The morita is the smoked serrano. In Oaxaca, the pasilla is also smoked, and is sold as the pasilla de Oaxaca. Chipotles are sold either dried (the chipotle meco, a tan color), or canned in adobo, and both have a distinctly smoked (like ham) flavor.

By the way, chiles are immensely nutritious, if you care about that sort of thing.

Other ingredients

Use plum tomatoes whenever possible.

Tomatillos are available in nearly every supermarket these days. They are not tomatoes, and one cannot be substituted for the other. Tomatillos must be husked and the sticky residue rinsed off. Even raw, they're very soft, and cooking them typically only takes three or four minutes in boiling water. Tomatillos are the basis for salsa verde.

Mexicans use true cinnamon, called canela in Spanish. What we call cinnamon is really the bark of the cassia tree, a close relative of the cinnamon tree. They are different, however. True cinnamon is much less "hot" and sweeter than cassia. These days, canela is pretty easy to find. Canela — true cinnamon — is much less hard than cassia — what we buy as cinnamon, and in the bag, feels soft and pliable.

Vegetables are almost always roasted until black on a griddle, then peeled. Raw or sauteed garlic is almost never used. Garlic is instead roasted on a hot griddle until blackened and soft, and the result is much like oven roasted garlic.

Nearly all Mexican cheeses are dry aged cheeses, like Parmaggiano, or fresh like farmer's cheese, and do not melt. There are soft cheeses made in Mexico, such as Chihuahua, but gooey cheesy is typically Tex-Mex, not Mexican.

Sour cream is unknown in Mexico, where you will instead find crema. Crema is most similar to creme fraiche, although it isn't quite as sour (and not nearly as sour as sour cream). Mix one part sour cream to four parts heavy cream for a passable substitute, if you can't find crema at the store, or one part creme fraiche and one part heavy cream.

Mexican chocolate is not conched like American and European chocolate, so it is comparatively grainy. It also contains cinnamon. Mexican chocolate is widely available, and comes in disks. If you can't find Mexican chocolate, substitute (ounce for ounce) bittersweet chocolate, and add a couple of shakes of cinnamon for each ounce.

The huitlacoche, a delicacy in Mexico, is the fungus that grows on corn. You can find it canned here, but it's nearly flavorless. Substitute dried mushrooms, if you can't find it fresh, but no mushroom is really a substitute.

And finally . . .

Back in Indiana, I taught a number of classes at the local cooking school on Mexican food. I got two questions that I will here address: Is Mexican food hot, since it's based on chiles? and What if I'm sensitive to hot food?

No, Mexican food is not invariably hot, or at least it's not always murderously hot (although yes, it certainly can be). Mexican food is often slow cooked for long periods of time, and the long, slow cooking takes some (often much) of the heat out. Mexican food is, however, nearly always spicy to some extent, which leads us to the second question: What if I'm sensitive to hot food?

Desensitizing your palate is actually pretty quick and simple. We've desensitized quite a few people, all within a week or two. Just eat spicy food. As you eat it, your palate adjusts, and move one notch spicier. It helps to know that water or beer is useless. If your mouth is on fire, you want a mouthful of beans, rice, or tortilla (which absorb the oil instead of just washing it around in your mouth). Milk works well because the lactose bonds to the chili oil. You even get to the point you enjoy the endorphin rush that accompanies the fiery throat and beads of sweat on your forehead. Really.

A molé is a category, and not a particular dish. Molés are highly complex sauces cooked for hours over very low heat. They do not always or even usually contain chocolate, and when they do, they never taste of chocolate (it should be noted that the Mexicans, from whom we get chocolate, did not use chocolate as a sweet; that was a European innovation).

Finally, all Mexican meals are served with tortillas. Even if there are tortillas in the dishes, heated tortillas are served on the side. Always. Try making your own tortillas sometime; they're delicious, and much different from store-bought tortillas. Enchiladas, however, are always best made from stale tortillas, as they are less likely to fracture.

By the way, flour tortillas are unknown except along the northern border with the United States.

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