Much like when I walked out of my hotel on that first morning in Mexico City, I don’t really know where to start. That day, I took a confident right turn then did a 180 after two blocks, hurrying back past the hotel eyes averted as though this was what I intended to do. This vast, sprawling city which crawls over the mountains and sparkles with colour, a mere pin-prick in the expanse of Mexico, perfectly personifies my current dilemma. For three weeks my eyes couldn’t move quickly enough as I travelled with new friends through seven different towns and cities, floated in clear blue rivers, clambered over petrified waterfalls, photographed ancient Mayan temples, sweated in the rain forest, danced and drank beer, and devoured taco after taco. Just like that first day, I suppose the best thing to do is jump straight in?
First thing’s first; Mexico is a whirlwind of colour! Everything is a feast for your eyes – the brightly painted buildings, the bunting fluttering over the streets, intricately painted alebrijes, and, of course, the food. I swear the avocados are greener. In Mexico, colour is layered on colour (Frida Khalo’s house is almost offensively blue) and their food is just the same thanks to the bright, fresh produce. Even the plates used by street food vendors come in luminous shades of green, red and orange, vividly complementing your tacos or tortas.
Secondly, I need to burst some bubbles. Mexican food is not the Mexican food we think we know, or should I say, Tex-Mex. It is not that well-loved fajita kit from Old El Paso. There are no taco shells, none of those fancy free-standing soft wraps, and most conspicuously, there is next to no wheat. Instead, there’s corn.
So much corn.
Coming from a country where our carbohydrate vehicles are somewhat bland and neutral, this domineering corn flavour in the tortillas was unusual. In the UK our only exposure to those golden kernels are in a can, which you empty into a bowl before microwaving. There is no glamour to it. Biting into a taco laden with strips of steak, onions and potato, and liberally showered in lime juice, my first thought was, ‘Woah, where’s the corn?’ In Mexico, you are practically slapped in the face with a corn on the cob. Considering this now, I’m surprised I never actually ate one, but I ate a good field’s worth of tortillas, potentially in one particularly memorable meal but that did include pulled wild boar which was just asking for tortillas to mop up all the juices.
While we were travelling we ate in restaurants or on the go, so as a result we ate a lot of tacos. As they say a taco a day keeps the doctor at bay (or something like that). Eager to try the national cuisine I dived into tacos and tostadas, all drenched in lime juice and piled high with scraps of meat such as pork, chorizo or steak, but before long denial hits, then resistance and you spend an evening at a local Italian simply to have a break from all the corn and tacos, until, at last you are blessed with acceptance and you find yourself, mid-meal, reaching into the basket of tortillas for another.
Plus, the rumours are true. Mexican street food is as incredible as you’ve heard. It’s hard to avoid all the stalls as they crowd together under sheets of tarpaulin, blocking pavements, causing hold ups and long winding queues. They radiate waves of heat from their boiling planchas, the chefs shaping tortillas then and there, slapping them onto the hot stove and flipping them around until they are golden and speckled.
As a tourist, and one that speaks pitiful Spanish, ordering street food was a steep learning curve. Confused and intimidated, especially as I had no idea what to order other than ‘taco’ in my English accent, I avoided all street food for at least two days. Gradually, over the three weeks of studying menus, ordering street food became easier and I would confidently load my chicken tacos with the range of salsas, guacamole and pickled onion always available at the front of the carts.
Everyone eats tacos in Mexico. At lunch time the locals crowd around food stalls or at big taquerias, perched on stools, at tables or simply eating their tacos where they stand. There’s no denying that tacos are messy food. They require you to bring your face to your plate to ensure a short journey before all the filling spills out. Your elbow needs to stick out at a right-angle, without skewering your neighbour in the eye, and there’s no conversation as you take big, greedy mouthfuls. By your last bite your fingers are coated in meat grease and salsa. They’re not for the faint-hearted.
I promise it wasn’t all meat and greasy fingers, although that does epitomise most of my diet. In Mexico City I devoured a tostada, a crisp toasted tortilla, topped with ceviche cured in lime, finely sliced strawberry and a pile of herbs. The delicate tostada couldn’t be scooped up and shoved unceremoniously into my mouth so I instead broke off pieces and scooped up chunks of tart ceviche, balanced by the sweet strawberry. This wasn’t the first fish and fruit combination either. I also ate tacos of grilled white fish with banana, the fruit gently caramelised and tender. Here the creamy sweetness of the banana softened the chile’s heat hidden amongst the salsa.
A quick lunch usually involved, surprisingly, a taco but occasionally menus offered other dishes, which were blatant dares for us to try something new. For example, the empanada. This well-known Latin American pastry is stuffed full of meat, vegetables or cheese, then deep-fried. I repeat, Mexican food isn’t for the faint-hearted, or anyone with high cholesterol. Puffed and golden, it steamed gently on my plate. I ripped it open to reveal a molten core of Oaxacan queso, a stringy curd cheese similar to mozzarella. Salty and drippy it oozed out of the empanada pastry and steamed my face as I took feverish bites.
Served alongside was a chaya leaf. At first, my friends and I thought it was a pretty albeit large garnish, until our tour guide told us it is in fact edible and eaten in the same manner as a tortilla. Hankering for our first vegetable in days we quickly wrapped them around some hot-pink pickled onion and crunched our way through the spinach-like leaf, feeling the vitamins coursing through our veins, and hopefully cancelling out all that melted cheese.
Our breakfasts started off as ramshackle affairs. We’d stroll to local bakeries to buy large, soft conchas, a sweet bread baked with a crinkled sugary seashell topping which came in pastel colours, or glazed pastries and croissants. Eventually, as we settled into routine, we would find nearby cafes and enjoy the ‘combo’ deals – a hot breakfast served with a bowl of fruit and endless coffee. Many a morning saw me and my two friends, Sally and Shaina, huddled around a table as we nursed hangovers and gulped down coffee. We must have looked a sorry bunch as the waiter took pity on us and offered more causing us to nod eagerly, and hold out our cups with a passionate, ‘Si, por favor!’
One morning in Oaxaca, we blearily read the menu and each selected the same dish including tomato sauce and frijoles, however, confusion arose due to its various options. You could have eggs OR cheese OR meat. Shaina, under pressure, blurted out cheese and was eventually delivered what looked like a block of feta swimming in red sauce. Sally and I snickered and tucked into our huevos cooked like omelettes, creamy soft which we used to scoop up the mounds of mashed salty beans. Even now, when I think of that breakfast my mouth waters. It was sloppy and vivid red, and didn’t photograph well, but it was the perfect antidote to my hangover. Shaina enjoyed her cheese. Next time though, she ordered eggs.
Aside from all those tacos and hangovers and sloppy red eggs, let me finish by telling you about the reason I was so excited for this trip. It included a cooking class.
I know, I know, change the record already! But food is my life, guys, just let me be me!
Chef Gerardo took us to the bustling, labyrinthine market in Oaxaca where we obediently followed him as he bought tortilla dough, fresh guavas, banana leaves, corn, chicken and avocados. We were packed into his enormous car and drove to the kitchen. This was the kitchen I need in my future home. A large table stood in a bright blue and yellow courtyard decorated with the traditional Mexican green cooking pottery and patterned tiles. Plants sprouted from pots and bunting hung from the ceiling. Mexicans will always love colour. In the cool space we drank jamaica, cold hibiscus tea, donned our floral aprons and hurried to the table to make tamales.
Tamales are bundles of corn dough called masa filled with anything delicious, such as beans, shredded pork or beef, or squash blossoms and cheese, and wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. We painstakingly spread a rectangle of masa onto our banana leaves, and topped it with spoonfuls of black mole and strips of chicken. Each banana leaf was carefully bundled together to make a parcel and stacked into a large pot to steam.
While they cooked we chopped and fried and stirred, preparing for a four-course feast. We soaked dried chiles then charred them on the plancha, Sally then scratching her eye which burned for the rest of the day; blitzed almonds, spices, capers and olives then stirred the sauce into garlic and tomatoes to make mole. We fried onions, chopped chunks of cheese, shaped and cooked our own tortillas.
At last food was ready. Ravenous and a little tipsy thanks to the beer spiked with lime and chile, I charged to the table where an enormous dish of guacamole stood waiting for us. I could barely contain my excitement as we were served the first course – sopa azteca, or tortilla soup, a clear tomato broth garnished with crispy fried tortilla, avocado, crumbly cheese and pieces of charred chile. As we scraped our bowls clean, Gerardo emerged with a platter of tamales. Now steamed we could peel back the banana leaf to find cooked masa brimming with rich mole and chicken. I piled guacamole high on my plate and tucked in.
There are only a few meals in your life that make you pause then groan in ecstasy. This was one of them for me.
You’ll be surprised to hear I managed to move after that meal, but in fact I did and even took an overnight bus journey. At least I didn’t waste money on snacks. The trip passed in a blur of sunshine, sun cream, late night yarns and early bus journeys. We ate breakfast at dawn overlooking grassy mountains, licked blue mezcal ice lollies in clubs which dripped down our arms as they melted, treated ourselves to pastries then went back an hour later to buy more, and drank buckets of beer on the beach. I didn’t buy many souvenirs but I have a treasure trove of memories from my Mexican summer.