If you thought Mexican is all about corn, beans, nachos and burritos, think again. With modern influences from the Deep South of the US, and with flavours drifting up from a dozen or more countries in South and Central America, there is always something new to explore in this dynamic cuisine.
While nachos and burritos are eaten in the north of Mexico, there are distinct differences in the cuisine eaten further south, influenced by French and Portuguese dishes as well as recent Japanese migration to countries such as Peru. Even Caribbean cuisine occasionally gets a look in.
While we are already deep into the trend of exploring the regional dishes of Mexico, which already has a wide variety of European influences, those delicious dishes are constantly changing, influenced by new local and global trends.
And as twists on Thai, Indian and Italian have already been well explored, Mexican has hardly been touched. So now there is no better time to head south of the border to seek new inspiration from the Mexican cocina.
Ask the experts
Mejico in Sydney’s CBD and Miranda takes it cues from Mexico City in the north to the Yucatan peninsula in the south.
Amanda Fuller has recently taken over as Executive Chef at The Sam Prince Hospitality Group which runs Mejico, and says her version offers more healthy coastal eating, less cheese, no ground beef and more on-trend version of Mexican and South American dining than traditional Mexican. It offers dishes such as conchinita pibil – a citrus and Yucatan spiced pulled pork, served with hot sauce, and adds the twist of not-particularly-Mexican smoked eggplant.
“We don’t have burritos and nachos,” she says. “It’s healthy, light feminine eating, so it’s less cheesy, a bit more coasty. It’s fresh and also adaptable to the various eating habits of today, such as gluten-free and vegetarian.”
She taps into the knowledge of Leo Legname, Head Chef at Mejico in Pitt St, Sydney. His inspiration comes from his mother’s Brazilian kitchen and his own experience. The combination can be found in Mejico’s marinated fried chicken which combines a Brooklyn-style of deep frying with a Brazilian-style marinade – which is full of punchy flavour – alongside melon, poblano cream, and hot sauce.
“We are also using a lot more fruit in our dishes,” says Amanda.
The other twisted dish on Mejico’s menu is corn lollipops, offered with jalapeno hollandaise and crispy wasabi peas, which clearly combines both French and Japanese influences. There is also a scallop ceviche – which has its origins in Peru – served with tiger’s milk (also Peru) and jalapeno (Mexico) with roasted coconut (Pacific), which is not Brazilian per se, yet Leo talks fondly about having it as a kid.
“We also ensure we use the best produce, which reflects the seasonality, so flavour is paramount,” says Amanda who oversees all seasonal menu changes.
Twists and turns
On the healthier side of international flavours, fellow Sydney restaurant Barrio Cellar has an Asian-Hawaiian inspired tuna poke bowl which contains tuna sashimi, soy-sesame dressing, avocado, wonton crisps, shallot, jalapeño and a chipotle mayo, delivering myriad textures to a whole heap of international flavours.
For an Australian twist, at last year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Mamasita’s signature dish was chargrilled corn, served with mayonnaise flavoured with Kakadu plum from the Kimberleys. Also on the menu was a native blood-lime-infused rockling ceviche, served with grapefruit, fennel, fig and blue totopos (tortilla chips).
In Auckland, Besos Latinos offers dishes from the Mexican homeland of Head Chef Luis Cabrera as well as inspiration from Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. Cabrera can serve up bar-style bites including Venezuelan-style corncakes stuffed with cheese, beef, chicken or veggies, and Mexican jalapeño poppers filled with cheese, or coxhinas, a breaded and deep-fried teardrop shaped Brazilian croquettes.
What works for Tommy Payne, Head Chef at Perth’s modern Mexican restaurant and bar, El Publico, is working alongside Sous Chef, Mexican Gianni Monti to find inspiration. They like to create diverse dishes which take their influences from tlayudas, traditional Oaxacan street food from Mexico’s south, using a thin and crunchy flour tortilla base as opposed to the soft pillowy kind. All El Publico tlayudas are served with homemade salsa roja base and topped with Oaxacan cheese, a semi-soft, white, string-type, Hispanic-style cheese made from cow’s milk.
When it comes to essential ingredients, you also have to know your ancho from your chipotle from your jalapeno, so do a bit of research. Ancho powder is the secret weapon in Mexican food and can be used as a sprinkle, in a marinade or in a mole (a hot rich chilli and chocolate sauce) and, much like paprika, adds a perfect smoky sweetness. Other hot elements include the now readily available Cholula sauce, which is ideal on bar snacks but use it carefully, it’s built to burn.
While fresh ingredients such as the tomato-like tomatillo can be tricky to find, they’ll give your salsa the perfect balance between sweetness, freshness and authenticity. Tinned tomatillos are also available. For simpler dishes, you could try cooking up chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic and chipotle paste with readily available pinto beans for an authentic side dish.
Or go hunting online for authentic suppliers such La Tortilleria which specialises in sourcing top-quality Mexican produce and ingredients including fresh, soft nixtamal (a type of corn) GF tortillas and organic blue corn tortillas. Most chefs admit that there is a particular skill to making fresh tortillas. Even Noma’s Rene Redzepi failed in his attempt to make the real deal at his Mexican pop-up a few years ago and got local women to make them instead.
So, think of modern Mexican as the hot link between America’s Deep South and the other countries of Latin America. Add to that the Spanish heritage of Mexico, mix in some traditional European techniques and some untapped flavour combinations and there is no end to the twists and turns you can take with Mexican cuisine.