People don’t often recommend that you visit a place on an overcast day. Unfortunately for those of us who live in central Mexico, many summer afternoons are filled with gray days composed of O’Keefe-esque cloud formations and a serious chance of rain. But the town of El Mineral de Pozos, with its whitewashed adobe houses, crouching around the tiny, and in this season, electric green plaza are nicely contrasted by an overcast horizon and rolling clouds.
I first discovered Enrique Olvera at Mistura, Lima’s annual gastronomy festival, a few years ago. He gave a presentation on Mexican food that echoed many of the same sentiments I was seeing in Peru about rediscovering native ingredients. He seemed cool too. Not in the least bit cocky, as many Latin American chefs can be. Pujol has been on the top of my Mexico City restaurant list ever since. The restaurant is now a decade old as Olvera opened it right after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Come September in Mexico, the time is right for a food pilgrimage to the city of Puebla for Chiles en Nogada. Trying to find the best food in Mexico is like trying to find the best beer in Germany or the best tea in China. Impossible, you say? Well, Chiles en Nogada is a poblano pepper stuffed with a mix of ground beef and pork, nuts, and fruit, including apple, pear, peach, and plantain (a banana for cooking). Then it is drenched in a walnut sauce and sprinkled with parsley and pomegranate. Distinct flavors are represented – spicy, sweet, savory. The colors of Chiles en Nogada – the white walnut sauce, the red pomegranate, and the green parsley – correspond to the Mexican flag.
Mexican food is a complex cuisine with so many regional variations that it would be crazy to try to sum it all up in a book. So instead, what Roberto Santibañez did in his latest book “Truly Mexican”, was to focus in what he believes lays the backbone of Mexican food: its sauces and salsas. These are, according to Santibañez, what different dishes share in common. He doesn’t strive to offer a comprehensive guide of all Mexican sauces either, what he intends to do is to teach us the fundamentals, the basic techniques that will allow us to understand and enjoy Mexican cuisine, and in doing so getting the necessary skills to master other recipes as well.
At the 2nd floor restaurant in the Hotel Basico in Playa del Carmen, called Marisqueria, which is basically a mock food cart serving up Mexican street foods with a contemporary touch alongside tequila cocktails overlooking a much less authentic Quinta Avenida, I first came across the aguachile. The aquachile (agua=water, chile=chile pepper) is, for the most part, a type of spicy cebiche using either shrimp or scallops. Best served cold or room temperature, the dish pairs sliced green Serrano chilies and limejuice, and, much like a ceviche, the shrimp or scallops are soaked in the mixture.
It’s Cinco de Mayo, which isn’t Mexican Independence Day (that’s September 16), but a day to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862, which no Mexican outside of Puebla talks about. Basically, it is a Mexican themed drinking holiday in the United States fueled by Mexican beer and Tequila companies. Let’s skip the margarita this year and even the Corona and premium sipping tequilas. Instead opt for one of two real Mexican concoctions that turn a beer into a sort of cocktail: the Michelada or Chelada.
Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya aren’t the charmless nightmare that is Cancun. True, Señor Frogs and Sandals are there, but there are some hotels that really help you get the most of a real Yucatan experience without camping on the beach in Mayahuel. Here are my three picks:
Maybe the Cancun area is what the Mayans had in mind as the end of world in 2012? Then again, maybe that message was misinterpreted. Yaxché (pronounced jag-shey) is one of the oldest restaurants in Playa del Carmen. Unbelievably, Mayan food is the focal point of the menu. Sure it might be a little bit gimmicky: there’s flaming coffee that I’m fairly certain that the Mayans had no part in. Yet, apart from Cochinita Pibil, Mayan dishes aren’t really utilized in high-end restaurants anywhere in Mexico. Rather than become more gimmicky though, the restaurant is increasingly working with Mayan communities in the Yucatan.
About a month ago I stayed at the Fairmont Mayakoba on the Riviera Maya. While there I was pleasantly surprised with the resorts commitment to sustainability, particularly in their restaurants, two of which are AAA Four Diamond Award Winners. I was impressed with the chef’s garden, use of sustainable seafood and lobster bought from the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and not shying away from the likes of geoduck, tiradito, and Mexican wines. The Fairmont Mayakoba’s Executive Chef, David Andrews, was kind enough to give us this interview.
Few realize that Cochinita Pibil is actually a Mayan dish. It’s quite common now all over Mexico, especially in the Yucatan where it originated, and I see it often at Mexican restaurants and Taquerias in New York and around the States. Traditionally, cochinita refers to a slow roasted baby pig, though pork shoulder (which is actually pork butt) is more common now. The signature spice in the seasoning is achiote, the orangish-red seeds that give off a deep, earthy flavor and are used habitually in Mayan cooking. Cochinita Pibil is the dish that Rick Bayless won Top Chef Masters with (and his recipe from Mexico One Plate At A Time was very influential in this one).