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The taste of Mesamérica, one of the most important international culinary events of today, still lingers on the tongue after a fortnight. It's still too soon to gauge the impact of the global food event, but social networks have spread the word. Using #Mesa13 numerous chefs, bloggers and journalists have Tweeted about the event.
Participants in the second edition of this multidisciplinary congress, headed by Enrique Olvera, could sense the vibrant atmosphere Mexico city, with its traffic-filled, colourful streets, its attractive markets and flavours bursting out of everything from street tacos to high-end ceviches. No longer a secret, Mexico has now confirmed why its cuisine is flourishing, surpassing expectations and showing off the qualities that make the Federal District one of the coolest cities in the world.
The Future is in our Hands
Carlo Petrini is founder of the international Slow Food Movement and considered one of the most influential global figures defending crop biodiversity. He points out that gastronomy is a branch of the political economy and therefore the countryside needs protection, and crops must be safeguarded from voracious multinationals. He also spoke of the high risk that Mexico’s food poverty posed for agriculture, given the low level of consumption of locally produced foods. In this context, I’d like to suggest that as consumers, we follow three essential principles when choosing what we eat: food must be pesticide-free, nontransgenic and fair (in other words, producers must be properly paid). Paradoxically, Mexico imports 33 percent of the corn it consumes.
Picture by Bonjwing Lee
When the political situation pushes culinary matters aside, the daily shop becomes a real challenge, something some countries in Latin America are no stranger to. For example, Carlos García, a Caracas-based chef and owner of the Alto restaurant referred to how Venezuela’s economy has affected the price and supply of basic foodstuffs. García also mentioned how, given the country’s current situation, people have sought refuge in traditional flavours to soothe differences between an ideologically divided population.
At Alto the chef tries to project a national flavor and a menu that does not boast exclusivity. García serves dishes that until recently would have been unimaginable at a high-end restaurant. For example, he includes pasta with sardine, a classic yet humble dish found across Venezuela, and one that is a particular favourite of hard-working manual labourers and truck drivers. Sardine is the cheapest of tinned foods, and pasta has become as traditional as the arepa—making Venezuela the world’s second largest consumer of pasta products. But despite being so iconic in certain parts of the country, some still consider this pasta “small fry” showing that cuisine can also be discriminatory.
García’s kitchen triumphs with such traditional dishes, and his refined techniques are wowing illustrious diners; he has scored a similar hit with his cachapa con morcilla curapanera, corn dough and blood sausage served with soft crineja cheese—flavours which Venezuelans would say remind them of the wonder they hold in their hands and between their teeth, a taste of Venezuela shared by all.
Jorge Vallejo, a Mexican chef from the restaurant Quintonil, which derives from ‘quelite’, from the Náhuatl ‘quílitl’ - a wild herb or edible tender shoot - serves a range of flavours distilled from classic Mexican dishes. He tackled a controversial theme among the gastronomic community using the example of the nopal cactus leaf which grows almost everywhere in Mexico. However, despite the nopal’s versatility and nutritional quality, it is rarely used by chefs; and despite being a powerful national symbol that features on the country’s flag, there is a trend of forming negative associations with the ingredient due to an uninformed snobbery that sneers at certain foods. Nopal is even used as a racist slur: “you’re [slimy like] a nopal”, or “I’m so poor I only eat nopales”. Therefore he asked the participants to explore and re-evaluate the products’ potential, without being influenced by its price. The chef also practices what he preaches by serving exceptional dishes that make fresh use of the ingredient: a nopal salad cured in salt with iced goat’s cream, coriander and oil, infused with oregano, or the provocative (and frankly addictive) nopal and bitter lemon sorbet with burnt salt in corn leaves.
Experimenting with Tradition: Mexican flavours
Mexican cuisine would be much poorer without its flavoursome caldo, a soup or broth. Birria—a caldo from the state of Jalisco, particularly its capital Guadalajara—is one outstanding example. Watching the video showing chef Antonio de Livier prepare the dish, viewers could almost savour the aromas of this concoction that is prepared with various spices, including oregano, pepper and thyme, together with a host of chillies. De Livier gave this legendary dish a fresh and mouth-watering twist by substituting the traditional lamb or mutton with Pacific clams.
The Yucatan peninsula, as well as Oaxaca, has developed one of Mexico’s most internationally acclaimed regional cuisines. It has achieved this largely by combining pre-Hispanic and Spanish techniques and ingredients. Perhaps the chief characteristic of this fusion is the strength of the condiments. This is shown by Mario Espinoza KuuK who combines a complex assortment of earthy and ashy flavours in his black recado or mole sauce.
Diego Hernández from northern Mexico spoke about the identity of Ensenada, a region populated by Mexicans who have moved there from various corners of the country, alongside a number of foreign migrants from China, Japan, Molokans from Russia, and Europeans, all of whom have had a considerable influence on the cuisine of this region. Baja California is the newest state in the country, with only 60 years of being a formal state, and founded around 120 years ago. Here, sashimi with olives have taken over from mole; ceviche from corn-based dishes, a shift that is also apparent in central Mexico.
Hernández’s restaurant Corazón de Tierra reflects the philosophy of this land. In his kitchen, for example, he uses caramelized cornstalks for desserts, cheese whey for fish and meat dishes. Hernández’s dishes show that he places great importance on the process and condition of each ingredient. He also likes to work with fermentation processes—for instance to explore the flavour of vegetables—and with ‘mother’ sauces to add depth to his stews. Hernández said that although Baja California might not have a great culinary tradition, which has given them greater freedom to local chefs, they know something important: “Whatever we do today will affect tomorrow, as we make a cuisine how we want it to be: a cuisine for our children and the generations to come, so we must be mindful in what we do.”
Chef Jair Téllez - pioneer of agrochic as a practice in Mexico and one-off tastings - opened his restaurant Laja in Ensenada over ten years ago, as well as Merotoro in Mexico City. In his restaurants Téllez offers a cuisine that has changed the perception that Mexicans themselves had about their culinary identity and their cultural environment. He introduced them to dishes without any nationalist connotations, such as ‘Vuelve a la vida,’ a delightfully refreshing recipe with a clam caldo, sea urchin, avocado and cucumber cubes, and the subtle hint of powdered chilito piquín, a trending dish for the city’s foodies.
It is also astonishing that in Mexico City, with its vast range of landscapes and histories, pre-Hispanic crop techniques continue to be used, such as in the chinampas or floating gardens in Xochimilco where crops are grown in earth-covered, floating ‘rafts’. Ingredients continue to be produced in this way and offer culinary veritable treats, such as the endemic salmon trout farmed in the west near the city of Toluca an ingredient which chefs such as Pablo Salas at the Amaranta restaurant and Daniel Ovadía at the Paxia restuarant rate highly for the quality and purity of its flesh.
Looking toward Latin America
Jordi Roca and Rene Redzepi agreed that currently the Latin American region plays a strategic role in the international gastronomic scene: it has a wide range of ingredients, dynamic protagonists, and is an ideal place to sow the seeds of social responsibility, as shown in the work of Gastón Acurio, in Peru, and Alex Atala in the Amazon region through ATA.
Both the European chefs concurred that Latin America is about to rise to the very top of the international scene. In fact, Redzepi admitted that: “In Europe, sometimes people talk about the cheapness or simplicity of Latin American cuisine, but here we have found restaurants that are more developed than many in Denmark.” He also mentioned that he had not eaten such a delicious meal as he had had in the Pujol restaurant. On the same topic, the Brazilian Alex Atala, as a good leader and aware that his preeminence may not lost forever, anticipated a change in the guard and passed the baton to the Mexican Enrique Olvera and, without naming names, predicted: “Soon the best restaurant in Latin America will be a Mexican one.”
Mesamérica also included the participation of some of the most influential chefs in the world today, such as Iñaki Aizpitarte, Atxa Eneko, David Kinch, Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz and Virgilio Martinez, all of whom shared their thought-provoking ideas with the audience.