Yucatán or Oaxaca? Oaxaca or Yucatán? It’s a heavyweight contest. Celebrations of particular cuisines don’t come more comprehensive – and gloriously well illustrated – than two monumental, magisterial love letters to regional Mexico by David Sterling and Diana Kennedy.
Sterling’s Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition and Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy together weigh in at over 5kg. Both are published by the University of Texas, from a state that likes to think big. They’re beautiful too and immaculately researched.
Essex-born Diana, based in Mexico since 1957, is the doyenne of writers on Mexican cuisine. Even the Mexican government recognise her championing of their culinary traditions, often sadly debased – they gave her their highest honour for a foreigner, The Order of the Aztec Eagle. Oaxaca, her magnum opus, won Cookbook of the Year in the 2011 James Beard Awards. Similar US top table recognition for Yucatán arrived four years later; within a year its author was dead at the age of 65.
Originally from Oklahoma, Dvid Sterling had a mega career as a designer before his chef talents saw him found, in the heart of the Yucatán, Mérida’s Los Dos – lauded as one of the world’s top 10 cookery school. That designer’ visual sense permeates a book that, like Kennedy’s, is the result of a lifetime’s intense research. Both could be seen as coffee table books but are so much more. I bought hers first and then found the courage to stump up the £48 for his.
The books became my lockdown lifeline. I dream one day of flying into Mérida, gateway to the beaches of Cancun and Turum but also a portal to visit the ruins that evoke the Mayan civilisation that flourished hereabouts. Or will Oaxaca 800 miles to the South West live up to DH Lawrence’s prose in Mornings in Mexico and the musings of Anthony Bourdain in Netflix’s Parts Unknown, where he encountered classic Zapotec (ie pre-Hispanic) cooking?
Pandemic restrictions gave me time and space to foster an interest in the regional cuisines of Mexico, as varied a those of Italy, say. It has resulted in a wooden box hosting 20 different types of dried chillies, a spice cupboard boasting epazote, Mexican oregano and achiote, a giant chaya plant prospering in a garden tub and a bright red tortilla press with bags of blue corn masa at the ready. Yes, I am also a devotee of Netflix’s Tacos Chronicles.
The watershed moment? The documentary Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy (available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49) tracks the now 98-year-old expat to her lair deep in the Mexican forests. This fiery, formidable cookery writer is the foremost champion of authentic Mexican cuisine and Elizabeth Carroll’s inspiring warts and all profile does her proud.
For over 50 years she has travelled the length and breadth of the country. The resulting books are light on illustration and design; the best the travelogue My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes. All that low key presentation is rectified by Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy.
Let’s be honest. Its sheer authenticity makes it hard to replicate dishes. There’s little chance I’ll be rustling up an iguana in a black mole sauce any time soon. For the uninitiated a mole is a rich chilli sauce with chocolate and nuts, not a wee underground critter.
Techniques cited too are equally intimidating. Her recipe for mole negro oaxaqueño calls not only for a specific type of clay pot (“it has to have a round base and a ‘collar’ around the top to hold in the heat”), but also for this pot to be cooked on a charcoal brazier. All this and I’m still trying to source an iguana (ready skinned).
Kennedy’s ringing endorsement is on the dust jacket of Sterling’s Yucatán: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”
She herself had not given her full attention to this tropical peninsula, isolated from the rest of Mexico. Sterling makes up for it big time, exploring the three states it comprises – Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. The food is a melting pot of many traditions, Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese, French and more, all fuelled by remarkable abundance of raw produce. All these are catalogued in full colour at the start of Yucatán.
Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.”
At the heart of Yucatecán cuisine are the spice mixes called recardos, some powdered, some in paste form, which you’ll find heaped up in every market. There’s no shame in using these essentially home-made bases for every recipe. Alas here you’ll have to make your own. Or travel to Yucatán. It’s on my post-pandemic bucket list.
It just pips Oaxaca because of a contemporary culinary cuckoo. In ultra-hip Tulum, south of suntan city Cancun, is Hartwood, New York exiles Eric Werner and Mia Henry’s restaurant between the jungle and the sea. Each provides the freshest wild ingredients to be transformed by the wood-burning oven that dominates the outdoor kitchen (I expect I’d pack insect repellent before visiting).
The food served at Hartwood is “addictive,” says Noma chef Rene Redzepi, adding, “It’s the reason people line up for hours every single day to eat there, even though their vacation time is precious.”
How do I know about it? I read the cookbook, of course,