Tag Archive for: Mexico

Beware sweeping put-downs. “All border towns bring out the worst in people.” The words of Mexican detective Vargas, hero of Orson Welles’ classic film noir, A Touch of Evil, which is set (though not filmed there) in a widescreen approximation of Tijuana.

Shadowy, seedy, violent, borderline – movie stereotypes stick. Chuck in the country’s more recent reputation for drug cartels and organised crime along with Trump’s fixation on That Wall, 30ft prototypes of which are still in place near Tijuana, despite enterprising locals nicking the razor wire, and there’s a bad press to overcome.

Our intrepid band overcame it instantly on a glorious day trip to this capital of Baja (Lower) California state, which has so much in common with its richer Northern namesake. Not least the food. Which brings us to Caesar Salad.

Back in the 1920s Tijuana was called Satan’s Playground by American preachers aghast at their fellow countrymen fleeing Prohibition to have a Las Vegas style wild time just across the border. 

Caesar Cardini ran restaurants here and in San Diego, USA, 20 miles up the the road. On the Fourth of July 2024 a rush of customers depleted kitchen supplies in Tijuana, so Italian-born Caesar tossed together at table all the salad ingredients left. It was a hit, word spread and even Hollywood stars flew down regularly to order a ‘Caesar Salad’. I the crush the obligatory tableside service eased pressure on the kitchen.

Whether today’s recipe was there from the start I’m not sure, but a major pleasure of our visit to the historic Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolucion was to watch our waiter stirring together lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, egg, Worcester Sauce, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Parmegiano and black pepper to enhance a simple green salad with croutons. 

Oh and they didn’t enhance it with strip of chicken. And some purists still question the necessity for anchovies with Worcester Sauce already in the emulsion. Some favour cup-style large leaves, messy finger food style; I’m happy with chopped. Whatever, it is pure theatre.

The great Julia Child recalled a childhood encounter: “My parents were so excited, eating this famous salad that was suddenly very chic. Caesar himself was a great big old fellow who stood right in front of us to make it. I remember the turning of the salad in the bowl was very dramatic. And egg in a salad was unheard of at that point.” 

These days it all seems very ‘heritage’ against the backdrop of Mexico’s fifth largest city with many poor districts that are less than charming. Compensations are some seriously authentic local dishes such as aguachile shrimp, spicy goat birria and breakfast snack chilaquiles.

All of which seem quite inappropriate as I prepare a swift autumnal lunch in a deluged Pennine mill town. So, store cupboard open, a batch of romaine from Aldi at the ready, Caesar Salad it is…

My chosen Caesar recipe is a hybrid from two versions in my quarter-of-a-century old Dean & DeLuca Cookbook (Ebury Press). The deli chain itself expanded way beyond its original New York base and came a financial cropper in recent years, but I still love the eclectic recipe roster in my faithful smudged kitchen companion.

Author David Rosengarten provides the classic version, minus anchovy fillets but he does parboil rather than leave the egg raw. Alongside he includes an alternative recipe with crispy walnuts replacing croutons and crumbled Roquefort instead of Parmegiano  shavings. I crave both cheeses, so straddled the middle ground. I also philistinely added a burrata and basil on the side. Sorry Caesar. At least I didn’t resort to a bottled dressing.

Ingredients 2 big heads of romaine or cos lettuce, 50ml olive oil, 350g garlic-rubbed croutons (I cheated with focaccia cubes), salt and pepper, curls of Parmegiano cheese. For the dressing: 4 anchovy fillets, no egg, 2tsp sherry vinegar, 2tsp lemon juice, 1tsp Worcestershire sauce, ½tsp dry mustard, 125ml extra-virgin olive oil and 125g Roquefort cheese.

Method Make the dressing by mashing the anchovies and garlic into a paste. Whisk together this paste with vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard ad crumbled Roquefort in a small bowl. Add olive oil in a stream, further whisking the mix until is is emulsified. In a large bowl toss the lettuce chunks with the dressing. Fold in the croutons and liberally garnish with the Parmegiano curls.

Breaking up is so hard to do, but I’ve made my decision. Tonight’s guacamole will be the last I ever prepare. In future my signature fish tacos may have to make do with just a piquant pico de gallo pairing. I chop up (not too finely) chunks of avocado to a soundtrack of Radiohead – In The Right Place and Kid A from a newly exhumed double album of early Noughties new directions. The definition of bereft.

The avocado’s detrimental impact on the environment and global communities has long plagued my conscience, but I’ve put it on the back burner since cafe brunches with obligatory avo on sourdough are hardly my natural habitat and I regard this veg-come-fruit as special treat, not a staple. Especially given the supermarket lottery of rock hard stuck to the stone or brown mushy surprises after all those air miles.

The tipping point has been a week’s worth of besuited fossils dithering away at Cop26. The planet in safe hands; you’re having a laugh. Combine this with my recent reading list of ethical books on food and farming – James Rebanks’ English Pastoral, Julian Baggini’s The Virtues of the Table and Wendell Berry’s The World-ending Fire – and it’s become Adios Avocado.

So what’s the environmental case against the big A? Let’s start with the carbon footprint. The bulk of the production is in their native Central and South America, so they travel over 5,000 miles to reach Europe and on top of that require temperature-controlled storage en route. It also takes an awful lot of precious water to cultivate them originally – at the extreme end as much as 320 litres to grow just one avocado.

And then there’s the monopoly of Mexico, which now produces over a third of the world’s 11 billion avos, eight out of ten from the state of Michoacán alone, a huge amount of which are destined for the USA. There was never a Wall against them. Amazingly, thanks to the power of television advertising, seven per cent of the annual US consumption takes place on the day of the Super Bowl.

With the huge demand comes all the downsides of intensive, industrial scale agriculture – agrichemical overload, the exploitation of labour and deleterious soil degradation. And, of course, in Mexico criminal gangs are omnipresent to follow the money – exports from Michoacán pre-Pandemic totalled $2.4bn. Check out a Guardian piece from 2019 that details the battle for control of this ‘Green Gold’:

“The 19 mutilated bodies, nine hanging semi-naked from a bridge in the Mexican city of Uruapan, were initially thought to be the result of a clash between rival drug gangs. But the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which claimed the murders in August, is believed to be fighting for more than drugs. It wants dominance over the local avocado trade.”

Meanwhile, the environment is being criminally abused, too. Forest lands with diverse wildlife have been destroyed to create the brighter sun conditions to produce avocado, thus contributing to global warming.

Yet we all know how willing we are to ignore what’s happening on the other side of the world when a food import is as creamily delicious as an avocado, especially when the ‘sustainable’ word is wheeled out.

Whatever their sustainability claims, I still feel The Avocado Show is an irresponsible venture. The  avocado-centric restaurant brand that started in Amsterdam finally opened permanently In London this autumn, with indications they have an eye on other UK cities, including Manchester. There’s a vapid client base waiting, beguiled by Intagram pictures of beautiful green dishes, apparently. I despair. What’s not to like about the ‘infamous’ avocado burger that uses a whole avocado cut in half as a bread bun alternative? Everything.

Fortunately, elsewhere some thought is being given to creating guacamole substitutes minus the avocado. It’s a start. I’ve never been the hugest fan of Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca chain but, while understandably retaining sustainable avocado on her Mexican-influenced menu she has sought a guacamole alternative. Step forward the Wahacamole – a dip made from fava beans, green chilli, lime and coriander.

Over in Toronto the Mexican chef Aldo Camarena has put forward a version made with courgette and pumpkin seed paste. Frozen peas and broccoli have also become part of the ethicl equation. I’ve tried both takes without enthusiasm. I can’t even get my head around a new guacamole from Kol, a high-end Mexican restaurant in London, that’s a blend of pistachios, pine oil, cucumber juice and fermented gooseberries.

And so to my requiem for the One True Guacamole tonight. Once I recall a Manchester restaurant pairing guac with lobster. Tonight’s home-made fish tacos are done with halibut. Is that really a sustainable fish choice? The eating life used to be so much simpler.

Why have I allowed an invasive native of the Yucatan peninsula into my kitchen? The immediate answer is the thunderstorm outside. It’s freaking out our chihuahua (fellow Mexican), who is cowering in a corner, while I’m equally frightened our new Chaya plant (also known as Tree Spinach) will be devastated if left out in the deluge in its flimsy pot.

When it hits maturity as a 12ft tall rival to Japanese knotweed the Chaya will hold its own but, as a stripling freshly arrived from a Lincolnshire herb nursery, we’re giving it shelter. And that kind act is causing ructions all of its own. Because I have briefed the rest of the household on the pluses and minuses of harbouring such a nutritious plant.

So already I’ve slipped in its major selling point. Chaya has high levels of protein, calcium and iron, while  the leaves are also crammed with carotene, potassium and vitamin C, putting normal spinach or Chinese cabbage in the shade. Superfood status? This is a hype-free zone.

All this nutritional benefit is for the future, of course, when my plant grows enough foliage to cook with. 

Wild tree spinach grows abundantly around Hartwood restaurant

You could just juice it or, like our spinach, stew it in butter, one minute minimum. I’ll start with legendary food writer Diana Kennedy’s Tamales de Chaya and then proceed to Grilled Coronado Fillets with Piña and Chaya from Eric Werner and Mia Henry’s Hartwood restaurant between the jungle and the sea in the hippest stretch of Yucatan (if you can’t get there their cookbook is highly recommended).

Culinary bucket list logged but let’s first fit in the downside, which is causing some domestic consternation. As a major convert to indigenous Mexican regional cuisine during lockdown I hunt down authentic ingredients zealously, but some do come with a health warning. Not all the insects surprisingly. Cue Chaya. When mature, the leaves can be tough with microscopic stinging hairs, which can irritate the skin for days, so handle with latex gloves when cleaning. Unless very young, best not to eat it raw since, like spinach or almonds, it contains a toxic compound, a form of hydrogen cyanide. That’s easily sorted, I’m telling my wary nearest and dearest, simply by boiling, frying or drying the leaves.

This is my tree spinach in search of jungle conditions in the Calder Valley

I will be charting my progress – in the garden and the kitchen – with this vigorous perennial, which I’ve been slow to catch on to. A decade ago Guardian gardening correspondent Alys Fowler vividly described the beauty of the Tree Spinach Chenopodium giganteum or Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter in her garden: “The tree spinach is a brilliant bright green with each new set of leaves blushed a shocking magenta.”

Attractive, but Alys warns: “It will reappear everywhere. It is not exactly a thug, but if you’re not prepared to eat it, that’s an awful lot of weeding. If you sow it as seed, consider sowing it in modules or seed trays and planting it out as this will give you more control as to where to grow it. If you want full-height plants, it needs to go at the back of the border.”

Maybe it needs a WALL.


Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy (available to rent on Amazon Prime for £3.49) tracks the now 98-year-old expat Brit 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.

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.

This tortilla press has been a passport to a whole new world of tacos, burritos and enchiladas

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).

Food preparation is labour-intensive in both Yucatán and Oaxaca

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,