Tacos, tostadas, salsa, tamales – Mexican food is a riot of colour, flavour and fresh ingredients underpinned by Mayan and Aztec heritage. Many traditional Mexican recipes start with corn, or masa. Corn flour, called masa harina, is used to make flat round tortilla breads, the soft dough filling of tamales, and stuffed corn pastry parcels gorditas.
Mexican Chef Martha Ortiz, of Ella Canta, talks us through the most important techniques, ingredients and stories behind Mexican cooking.
What makes Mexican food so exciting?
“Mexican food has this charge, an energy that comes from the flavours and colours. There is a physicality to it. For instance, we use the heavy stone molcajete and metate to grind ingredients and it’s hard work! But you are rewarded for the effort. If you make a salsa in the stone metate the flavour is different. For instance, salt that’s broken in stone has a distinct flavour.
“It also has a sound. The sound of women making tortillas by hand has a rhythm, a clapping sound. It becomes a symphony. Mexican food has sound and energy.
What are some of the stories connected to Mexican food
“There are many, but one I’m reminded of is from a famous book of the Mayans called Popol Vuh. In the book, it says that man and woman are made of masa – of corn. I read this when I was four, and I was so afraid. I didn’t want to go near the stove in case I was cooked, like a big tamale! It’s a true story. I really believed it.
“And in Oaxaca I once watched a traditional cook putting a cross of salt over her mole. And when I asked her why she said because it is now blessed. And I adore that – it was the holy mole! When I was young, I decided, mole is the blood of our Mexican heroines. It has deep flavours, and is a very profound red. I told my father, he’s a doctor, but he wasn’t so sure!
What are typical Mexican ingredients?
“Mexico has given the world some of the greatest ingredients of all time.
- Maize was domesticated in Mexico.
- Chillies, peppers, avocado, tomatoes are all from Mexico. What would the Italians be without tomatoes!? They might hate me for saying that, but it’s true. We have a beautiful geography where everything grows.
- Beans are also extremely important. And pumpkin.
Which are the best Mexican chillies?
“I really love dark chillies. They are the same as fresh but they’re sundried and some are smoked over wood. I adore the chipotle chilli, it’s so smoky and beautiful. My favourite chilli is the pasilla mixe. I want to make a perfume of it.
“And everyone knows the ancho chilli. You find them all across Mexico in all the markets. Mexican markets are always amazing. You see dried chilies everywhere and fruits, spices, the colours are beautiful. Watermelon, mango, pineapple - all the colours.
“We have a lot of traditional cooks who make street food in markets too – women mainly. And, for me, these women are the heroines of Mexican food. You don’t see their names anywhere. But they are fantastic. They might say they are simply taking domestic cooking to the public – but no, they are professionals of Mexican cuisine. We need to preserve that.”
Pasilla chillies are a dark green, dried chilaca pepper used in Latin American and Spanish cuisine. Literally translating as ‘little raisin’, mild pasilla has grape-like, liquorice flavours and a medium-low hotness, ranking just 1,000-2,000 on the Scoville Scale of chilli heat.
Ancho chillies, also known as a wide chilli or ancho poblano, are the most commonly used chilli in Mexican cooking. The rich fruity flesh and low-level of spice (1,250 on the Scoville Scale of chilli heat) make ancho chillies a versatile ingredient.
Chipotle chillies are made from smoke-dried jalapeño chillies, which bring medium-hot spicy and a delicate smokiness to meat marinades and slow-cooked stews.
What are the most authentic Mexican recipes?
- “The tortilla is everything to Mexican food. They are round, like a communion to the sun. In the time of Montezuma the Spansish called us ‘sun-kissed’. And the tortilla is part of the sun.
- Mole means sauce - we have a lot of moles.
- Then there are tamales – the parcels wrapped in corn husks. I like to think about how you can ‘dress’ tamales. They are such sensual and beautiful things, and maybe they show a bit of skin, but you can dress them how you like.
“More and more authentic Mexican restaurants are starting to pop up around the world. People are more interested in the history. Thank goodness Tex Mex is finished. It was breakthrough to finally say ‘That’s not a taco, it should be soft! We don’t cook with so much cumin, and the chilli shouldn’t be sweet – it should be warm, kicking and have more spirit.’ People want to understand the real Mexican flavours now, not the American version.
For more Mexican recipes, ingredients and features head over to our Mexican homepage.