Cooking in the Tropics: Culinary Tourism
Recently, we spent a few weeks in Mexico and the highlight of each day was mealtime. We looked forward to our decadent dinners, where we tried every exotic offering on the menu. We learned that the escarole mixed into our guacamole was ant eggs, the caviar of Mexico, and that tequila and mezcal are accompanied by chapulines (grasshoppers), toasted on a comal with garlic, lime juice, and salt. Oaxacan mole sauce can have over 30 ingredients and take two days to prepare.
The signature dish at Pujol (number 20 on the list of best restaurants in the world) is a mole madre that had been aged for 1590 days when we tasted the dish, paired with a mole made that day. This reverence for the traditional cuisines of Mexico and the constant rediscovery and exploration of regional ingredients is central to Mexican culture.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, most of Mexico was united under the Aztec Empire. The empire was a multi-ethnic society formed of many smaller kingdoms, including the Maya, Olmec, Toltec, Huastec, Zapotec, and Mixtec people. Rulers of conquered cities were allowed to remain in power as long as they paid semi-annual tribute to the Alliance and supplied military forces when needed for the Aztec war efforts. In return, the imperial authority offered protection and political stability and facilitated an integrated economic network of diverse lands and peoples who had significant local autonomy.
Regional products and cuisine were shared along the Aztec trade routes, and corn was the most important crop throughout the empire. Corn had been domesticated by 1200 BCE, and a process called nixtamalization, or treatment with lye, was developed to soften corn for grinding and improve its nutritional value. This allowed the creation of tortillas and other kinds of flatbreads. Corn was consumed at every meal by all social classes and played a central role in Aztec mythology. It came in a vast number of varieties of various sizes, shapes, and colors; yellow, reddish, white with stripes of color, black, with or without speckles and a blue-husked variant that was particularly precious. Maize was revered to such an extent that women blew on maize before putting it into the cooking pot so that it would not fear the fire, and any maize that was dropped on the ground was picked up rather than being wasted.
Traditional Mexican cuisine is ingredient-rich and labor intensive. It was inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity– a list published by UNESCO with the aim of ensuring better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of the significance. It is gratifying to see how many of the most important chefs in Mexico have dedicated themselves to preserving the culinary traditions of the country, using sustainable, local ingredients and bringing back varietals and herbs that were in danger of disappearing. Modern Mexican cuisine is a celebration of the oldest culinary traditions of the region.
One of my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, began a book of short stories about each of the senses. Under the Jaguar Sun explores the sense of taste and is aptly set in Mexico, where eating replaces sex for a couple on holiday. Calvino believed that culinary tourism was perhaps the only journey that had true meaning in the modern age: “The true journey…implies a complex change of nutrition, a digestion of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has meaning nowadays when everything visible you can see without rising from your easy chair. (And you mustn’t rebut that the same result can be experienced by visiting the exotic restaurants of our big cities – they so counterfeit the reality of the cuisine they claim to follow that, as far as our deriving real knowledge is concerned, they are the equivalent of not an actual locality but of a scene reconstructed and shot in a studio.)” No doubt the great Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.