Updated on Tuesday, 15ᵗʰ February, 2022
If you think Mexican is all about corn, beans, nachos and burritos, think again. With modern influences from the American deep south and flavours that drift 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, which is influenced by French and Portuguese dishes as well as recent Japanese migration to countries such as Peru. Even Caribbean cuisine gets a look in.
Yes, might already find ourselves deep into the trend of exploring the regional tastes of Mexico with its wide variety of European influences, but these 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 is a new frontier that’s ripe for reinvention. Let’s head south of the border to seek new inspiration from the Mexican cocina.
Ask the experts
Mejico, with locations in central Sydney and Melbourne, takes it cues from Mexico City in the north to the Yucatán peninsula in the south.
Amanda Fuller is the group 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 a more modern take on Mexican and South American dining than traditional Mexican. Mejico offers dishes such as wagyu beef rump, with the requisite Mexican influence being delivered by a jalapeño jus and burnt pepper seasoning.
‘We don’t have burritos and nachos,’ she says. ‘It’s healthy, light feminine eating, so it’s less cheesy, a bit more coast-y. It’s fresh and adaptable to the various eating habits of today, such as gluten-free and vegetarian. We are also using a lot more fruit in our dishes.’
The other twisted dish on Mejico’s menu is the watermelon salad, which includes the Mediterranean flavour of fennel, the heat of jalapeños, and a Mexican take on the North African spice mix, dukkah. There is also room for a corn ribs street snack that features a chilli and lime version of the fermented Japanese seasoning miso, and an Italian flavour hit of pecorino cheese.
‘We use the best produce, which reflects the seasonality, so flavour is paramount,’ says Fuller, who oversees all seasonal menu changes.
Twists and turns
On the healthy side of international flavours, Sydney restaurant Barrio Cellar has a Mexican-inspired poke bowl of cos lettuce, jicama, cactus, cucumber, queso cheese and guava dressing, delivering myriad textures and a whole heap of fresh central American goodness.
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 Chilean-influenced empanadas stuffed with shrimps, cheese and pebre sauce, as well as Baja-style battered king crab tacos with avocado cream, a flour tortilla and jalapeños.
At Perth’s modern Mexican restaurant and bar, El Publico, diverse dishes take their influences from regional Mexico and abroad, including banana battered beef mogo mogo balls from the southern Tabasco region, chicharrón, a Spanish-style house made pork crackling, and the Peruvian-inspired blue spot emperor ceviche featuring a pineapple habanero salsa, pico de pepino (cucumber salsa) and sweet hibiscus foam.
To know your ancho from your chipotle, research is required. 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, 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) gluten-free tortillas and organic blue corn tortillas. Most chefs admit that there is a particular skill to making fresh tortillas. Even celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi failed in his attempt to make the real deal and had the local women 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.