The secrets of Mexican food

Pretoria - Think Mexican food and and what probably comes to mind is dishes like chilli con carne and tortillas (what’s better known as TexMex – or a combination of Texas and Mexico).

A colourful guacamole. Picture: SuppliedA selection of tortilla and tostada with different fillings. Picture: SuppliedA familiar picture of salsa and guacamole with nachos. Picture: SuppliedMexican chef Paulina Hefferan. Picture: Supplied

But that has nothing to do with Mexican food, says Mexican chef Paulina Hefferan. Hefferan, courtesy of the Mexican embassy, was the guest of the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy to introduce the basics of authentic Mexican cuisine to food writers and restaurateurs, and to dispel myths.

During her demo it became clear that it was a cuisine you think you knew but didn’t really understand. This is because we get the US fast-food version adapted to suit their tastes but which has little to do with original, authentic Mexican cuisine.

Who knew that the real treasures they gave the world were coco and vanilla?

“They used to do a drink with chilli, coco and water,” Hefferan explains – and that’s not the sweet coco drinks we’re familiar with today.

The focus was on salsa, tortilla – which is their everyday bread – and chilli, of which the country has many varieties and probably makes up some part of everyone’s diet, each and every day.

Salsa reminds one a bit of a small, roughly chopped salad. The way Hefferan prepared it in three different styles showed some of the variety that’s part of Mexican cuisine. You can make it fresh, boil the ingredients or raw-cook it with lime. And those are just some of the methods!

Tomato and chilli are the base of most salsas – and then you build and improvise from there. This chef also preferred to keep her salsa as chunky as possible.

What made these different methods so fascinating was the different tastes that emerged. Boiling or just roasting something for a few minutes allows the flavours to escape in a way that’s often more explosive than other methods.

A mix of fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and usually chillies, salsas are made in a variety of ways but probably find their way on to most Mexican tables daily.

Hefferan also encourages chefs to use a mortar and pestle rather than a blender, which also contributes to the nuances of the taste. On the day, what I found most intriguing was the difference in taste from what I had expected. It’s subtle but distinct.

Talking about chilli and Mexico, she cautioned that chillies that didn’t make you cry were not considered hot. “Most Mexicans will tell you a dish isn’t hot, but it will be,” she warned.

Even her guacamole, probably the most familiar dip to South Africans, was different. She said mayonnaise was often used, but that wasn’t the Mexican way. Perhaps that was more fashionable a few years ago, but it’s fallen away – mostly.

The avocado-based dip originated with the Aztecs in Mexico. Traditionally it was made by mashing ripe avocados and sea salt. She added garlic, chillies, coriander, and as a modern touch, pomegranate juice and seeds, which added beautiful colour to the dish. “Our cuisine is often very colourful,” she said. “It feels like it’s a party all the time,” said Prue Leith head chef Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen.

Other dishes demonstrated:

Quesadillas: flour or corn tortilla filled with a mixture of cheese, other ingredients (potato, chorizo, squash blossoms, a popular Mexican ingredient, mushrooms and different cooked meats) and/or vegetables, then folded in a half-moon shape. They are usually cooked without the addition of oil and until the cheese is completely melted. Mexicans eat mostly mild cheeses. These snacks are served with a red or green salsa.

Sopes: these have spread throughout Mexico and there are now thousands of regional variants. While the pinched sides of the sope is its most distinct characteristic, it resembles a thick tortilla or tostada (toasted tortilla). Though both the sopes and the tostada are fried, the sope is much thicker and fried only until the exterior surface is cooked. The tostada is thinner and fried until crunchy and fragile.

Tamales: a traditional dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based) which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, most often a corn husk but could also be a banana leaf, which is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chillies or any preparation, according to taste. They can be either sweet or savoury and are steamed until firm. It is comparable to maize meal in taste, but the flour is treated differently. The taste and texture, though, are similar to what we would regard as porridge.

Diane de Beer, Pretoria News