For the Love of Tacos: Digging into the UNESCO-Approved Food of Mexico

Food so good, it's on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. | By Naintara Maya Oberoi

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Oaxaca La Casa del Mezcal bar has been in business since 1935. Photo: Adstock/UIG/Dinodia Photo Library

“I think I’m drunk,” I whisper as we stand in the central apse of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral. “I didn’t know I was such a lightweight.”

My friend and host looks concerned. We’ve only had a paloma each at lunch—those friendly whispers of tequila capped with grapefruit juice and soda. Then her brow clears. “No, it’s not you, it’s the cathedral. It’s sinking.”

I look around, befuddled. The cathedral, a feverish, tropical baroque dream in blood-red and gold, is definitely tilting to one side. Apparently, the Spanish conquistadors who plundered the medieval Templo Mayor for building materials, failed to notice the canals of the marshyh Aztec city surrounding it. The stone they stole was too heavy for the squelchy soil of Mexico City, and now the cathedral is slowly dipping, the south wing more than a metre lower than the north.

The Spanish must really have been hitting the tequila to have built a colonial capital on top of marshland, in an earthquake zone surrounded by volcanoes. But it turns out tequila hadn’t even been invented then. The conquistadors were simply determined to bury the old Templo Mayor under their new capital, and cow the corn-worshipping, blood-swilling pagans into submission once and for all.

But you shouldn’t underestimate the staying power of a culture that celebrates both human sacrifice and hot chocolate. Aztec Mexico may have surrendered to the Spanish, adopted the Catholic religion, and accepted the total destruction of its capital city, but it wasn’t going to let go of its food. As a result, Mexican cuisine is a centuries-old hybrid: Its Mayan and Aztec roots have been enriched by colonial Spanish and French influences to make it the country’s most beloved export. In fact, it’s so inarguably good that UNESCO has put it on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

As the ground under the city centre bucks and heaves, throwing up stone and the occasional Aztec serpent goddess, Mexico City’s culture is undergoing some dramatic upheavals too. A renewed interest in the country’s mestizo, or mixed, cultural heritage, long subsumed under a preference for all things European, has led to a fad for pre-Hispanic delicacies: winged ants, armadillo meat, and pulque, the drink made from the viscous, fermented sap of the maguey plant.

Mexico is a riot of colour. Food vendors (left) loudly hawk their snacks, while stalls advertise in big, bold fonts; San Cristóbal de las Casas is a town in the central highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas region, rich in indigenous culture and history. It’s customary for locals to get a bite at a taco shop (right) in the evening, as dinner is eaten rather late. Photo: Stuart Antrobus/Getty Images (meat shop); Frans Lemmens/Corbis (taco shop)

Mexico is a riot of colour. Food vendors (left) loudly hawk their snacks, while stalls advertise in big, bold fonts; San Cristóbal de las Casas is a town in the central highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas region, rich in indigenous culture and history. It’s customary for locals to get a bite at a taco shop (right) in the evening, as dinner is eaten rather late. Photos: Stuart Antrobus/Getty Images (meat shop); Frans Lemmens/Corbis (taco shop)

I’ve wanted to visit Mexico for years. Tex-Mex food is ubiquitous now, of course. But I’m convinced there must be more to it than DIY taco kits and clammy bottled salsa, two things that would prompt the Aztecs to contemplate another human sacrifice or two. Every Mexican I’ve ever met (and I confess that I actively seek them out, in the hope that they’ll invite me home for dinner) is obsessed with their country’s cuisine, and they all insist that it can’t be replicated outside Mexico. The meat, the avocados, the chillies, they say, looking wistful. It’s not the same anywhere else.

Having been consumed by envy for many years, when my old friend Nandini moved to Mexico City last summer, I bought a plane ticket and set off with a list of specialities I had to eat.

As we leave the cathedral, Nandini tells me that a hurricane warning has been issued for the entire duration of my stay. “I hope it doesn’t turn up,” she says kindly. But as we head to another alarmingly tall edifice, this one a little better shored-up, the sky above is a forbidding, untropical grey. Still, the view from the Torre Latinoamericana is staggering. When it was built in the 1950s, the tower was Latin America’s tallest building at 45 storeys. Even now, up at the Mirador, the Torre’s observation deck and at the lounge bar, you can’t help but stare down at the vast sea that is Mexico City, spilling across the hills around, in wave after wave of small, squat houses and neighbourhoods. It’s an urban sprawl that has no horizon.

We conquer our vertigo with some of the bar’s top-shelf reposado (rested) and añejo (aged) tequilas: mellow, golden, ripe. Each comes with a shot of sangrita, or spiced tomato juice, and one of lime juice, a patriotic trio that mimics the colours of the Mexican flag, each sip drawing out the citrusy and spicy notes of the blue agave plant, from which tequila is made.

Palacio de Bellas Artes Mexico

A small café overlooks the imposing, domed Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), Mexico City’s premier cultural centre and venue for opera and theatrical performances. The building is also famous for its extravagant exterior, a mix of art deco and beaux-art, and its interiors, adorned with the work of some of Mexico’s most famous artists including Diego Rivera. Photo: Bertrand Gardel/Hermis.FR/Getty Images

Down at street level, people are leaving work for the day. For such a huge city, the Distrito Federal (“Dé Fé” for short), as its inhabitants call it, is surprisingly relaxed. The chilangos, as the residents refer to themselves, look purposeful, but there’s no get-out-of-my-way hustle in their gait. I invariably find myself doing an awkward sidestep in order to avoid slamming into the person in front of me.

Even the traffic crawls. Ironically, as we inch through the rush-hour gridlock in our Volkswagen taxi, our cabbie tells us how tired he is of the hustle of Mexico City, and how everyone’s so rushed all the time. “I look forward to getting back to my village,” he says. “Everyone is so calm there.”

Mexico Taxis Volkswagen Beetles

Although the licenses of Mexico City’s iconic green taxis “officially” expired last year, a few of the two-door Volkswagen Beetles, locally called “Vochos”, still remain on the city’s streets.

But even he agrees that there’s always time in DF for an antojito, or a “little craving”, as street food is known here. Any country where gordo or gorda (chubby) is a term of endearment is obviously a place where food is the focal point of national life. Certainly, it’s the focal point of any street in DF. All the metro stations are flanked by stalls selling quesadillas, large tortillas folded in half and stuffed with cheese and various fillings. Squash flowers, marinated chicken, and stuffed chillies are ladled out of plastic buckets, before the tortillas are quickly toasted. There’s also sautéed corn with cheese, chilli powder, and lime juice; grilled tlacoyos (small, flattened, blue corn pockets stuffed with cheese or beans); and chicarrones—crackling, golden-fried sheets of pig skin piled high on carts.

Quesadillas Mexico

Quesadillas are a quick, fuss-free snack for tourists on the move. Photo: Adolfo Enrique Pardo Rembis/Getty Images

The salsas, the hot, spicy sauces and dips, are impossible to resist. No Mexican meal is complete without an array of fresh-made salsas. Each dish has its traditional sidekicks, but you’re free to mix and match. My own favourite is guacamole, made by mashing ripe avocadoes in a mortar, with salt, lime, tomatoes, coriander and chillies. In other parts of the world, guacamole can be hit-or-miss, depending on the avocados. Here, the mysterious hard-skinned green wonders are invariably perfect, and so is the guacamole: fresh, rich, and spiked with serrano chillies.

After a couple of days of constant eating, I’m feeling rather gorda myself. But I am determined to sample as much as I can, and it’s hard to choose between the generous wallop of smoky, charred salsa roja; the bright green bite of the tomatillos in salsa verde; the rich smoothness of Yucatán pumpkin-seed salsa; or the classic salsa pico de gallo, a relish of chopped tomato, onion, coriander, chilli, and lime.

The colours on my plate, lush and eye-popping, are mirrored in the surroundings, which gleam even under a rainy sky. At the venerable Café Tacuba, the walls are lined with blue azulejo tile-work and dark, overwrought oil paintings of nuns cooking elaborate feasts. In the 17th century, Café Tacuba was a convent. It’s now a much-frequented classic restaurant. The waitresses wear nurse outfits, with elaborate bows and hairnets. On some nights, a costumed musicians’ troupe makes the rounds, springing up from behind the ponderous wooden chairs without warning.

Besides red and green tomatoes, salsa (left) can be made from pineapple and avocado; Taco al pastor (right) is stuffed with meat cooked on a shawarma spit, and topped with salsa. Photo: Gourmet-vision/imageibr/Dinodia Photos (salsa); David R Frazier/Dinodia Photos (meat seller)

Besides red and green tomatoes, salsa (left) can be made from pineapple and avocado; Taco al pastor (right) is stuffed with meat cooked on a shawarma spit, and topped with salsa. Photos: Gourmet-vision/imageibr/Dinodia Photo Library (salsa); David R Frazier/Dinodia Photo Library (meat seller)

Nothing can detract from the food, though. At dinner, we’re absorbed by the lushness of pescado à la Veracruzana. The red snapper fillets are baked with tomatoes, capers, green olives and their brine, fusing salt and sour and spice. Behind us, a loud family is celebrating a birthday: The 15-year-old guest of honour wears yellow taffeta and braces, and smiles all evening.

One night, under a darkening, rumbling sky, we go out in search of tacos al pastor, DF’s signature offering. We perch on plastic stools at El Tizoncito in the chic Condesa area, and begin with horchata, the cinnamon rice-water drink. I dislike its thin, watery consistency and the woody sweetness of the cinnamon instantly, so I’m relieved when we swap the horchata for beer and tacos.

Inside Condesa’s hip wine bars and cocktail dens, the sleek, blonde-highlighted people look like they could be anywhere: New York, Berlin, Singapore. But at 1 a.m., as everyone pours out of the bars, what they want is a real chilango taco al pastor, spicy and meaty, from their own favourite tin-plate taqueria (food stall). Tizoncito is a popular one; we only just manage to hold our spot by ordering three more plates of tacos al pastor: made from slivers of marinated pork or lamb, which turns on a shawarma spit on an open flame. The idea was borrowed from the Middle Eastern immigrants who came to Mexico City in the early 20th century. I’m sold at first bite. The small, soft taco is a huge improvement on shawarma, packing spice and sweetness and a herby punch from all the salsas (I try all four options, of course).

Chimichanga Mexico

Many Mexican dishes, like the chimichanga, have been adopted by chefs looking to give regional favourites a posh twist. Photo: Food N Drink/IndiaPicture

The next morning, we are at El Cardenal, a world away from plastic spoons and metal plates. This is one of Mexico City’s most revered institutions, where DF’s power brokers breakfast. I take my cue from the elegant woman next to me and order a dish of revueltos a la cazuela, scrambled eggs cooked in a clay casserole, slathered in a tomato chipotle salsa with long pieces of queso fresco, that ubiquitous, bland, white cheese. We end with sweet pastries shaped like seashells, and a cup of hot, rich, near-solid chocolate.

All week long, the clouds skulk overhead, and on Monday morning at 7 a.m., they burst just as we board a bus for Oaxaca, in southwestern Mexico. Our bus rattles along unhurriedly as the storm sluices down. Inside, passengers pick from plastic cups full of roasted chilli-spiked corn, mesmerised by the Spanish-dubbed Twilight blaring at full volume on the bus’s single screen. When we arrive, the sun is coming out again, just in time to show off the clean reds and teals of the streets.

Mexico is a collection of diverse climates, and the cuisine a glorious hybrid of European and Meso-American techniques. It’s a tightrope act between depth of flavour derived from chocolate, spices, and methods of marinating and slow-cooking, and a freshness from citrus, vegetables, and herbs. Oaxaca is the birthplace of many of the classics of Mexican cuisine: chocolate, molé, mezcal.

Fruit Seller Mexico

Fruit sellers are everywhere, in the markets, and on cycles, offering plates of pineapple, berries, and mangoes. Photo: Harald Sund/Getty Images

Prickly Pear Mexico

The prickly pear is eaten as a side dish, brined and turned into pickles, or pulped to make homemade shampoo. Photo: Alex Craig/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Out in the mercado (market) the next day, under tarpaulin sheets, there are rickety stalls selling beer, fresh fruit juice, chapulines (the angry red dried-and-fried grasshoppers), and chiles rellenos—fried chilli peppers stuffed with cheese and accompanied by salsa. There are huge, heart-shaped lollipops and fantastic swirls of striped candy, and grainy hot chocolate stands. In the produce sections, women sit with carts and baskets of vegetables, tortillas, sweet eggy little breads, and chillies, more chillies than you can imagine: fresh, dried, roasted, crushed, mild or tear-inducing, red and orange and green and black. Mexico, after all, introduced chillies to the rest of the world, and can still give any other country a complex by its sheer number of varieties: serrano, jalapeño, ancho, cascabel, Habanero, guajillo.

Walking to find lunch, we watch a wedding party go by, the bride encased in purple satin ruffles, her bridesmaids giggling delightedly as they follow in short, blue-frilled cocktail dresses, with baskets of purple-dyed flowers. The suit-and-tails band of solemn musicians are struggling to maintain formation, and as we watch, they give up and then just putter along with their guitars, stopping to adjust their red printed kerchiefs.

Mariachi Band Mexico

Mariachi bands are the quintessential symbol of celebration in Mexico. The musicians almost always wear the charro cowboy suits, embellished with silver or gold buttons and embroidery, and a sombrero hat. Photo: Holly Wilmeth/Taxi/Getty Images

Following this parade, we find ourselves serendipitously in front of Casa Crespo, a cooking school with an attached restaurant. A sleepy waiter appears with bright, sour hibiscus juice and the day’s menu. We eat in a beautiful, cool room painted goldenrod and white, with blue doors opening onto a leafy courtyard. Guacamole comes topped with little cubes of mango, and fat flores rellenas, squat, green squash blossoms stuffed with tomato salsa and melting queso fresco cheese. We finish with taquitos (little tacos) bursting with marinated duck de barbacoa, and pork-and-almond enchiladas in thick, luxuriant Coloradito molé, flavoured with guajillo and ancho chillies, and tomatoes.

Fried grasshoppers

Most street food delivers thrills of the spicy kind, but some vendors up the ante with offerings like fried grasshoppers. Photo: José Luis Ruiz/Getty Images

Oaxaca is the home of molé, with bragging rights to more than 200 varieties of the dish. Each long-simmered molé is different, though outside Mexico, the red Coloradito is most common, with its characteristic chocolate sheen and dark chilli-tomato undertones. Natives of Puebla, two hours southeast of the capital stoutly maintain that it was invented in their city, and that Oaxaca merely elaborated on the idea. The thick sauce is said to have been created in the 17th century by the nuns at the Santa Rosa Convent in Puebla. According to legend, an unexpected visit from the archbishop threw them into a flurry when they realised that they had nothing to feed him. The panicked nuns threw together whatever they had on hand: chillies, chocolate, spices, meat. Thus was born a molé, sour and sweet, thickened with nuts and stale tortilla, and enriched with chillies.

But molé is also the perfect expression of the intermingling of European and pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures. Like the Metropolitan Cathedral, it conceals a Meso-American past: Its name is derived from molli, the Nahuatl word for sauce. The spices and nuts came with the conquering Spanish, but its chillies and tomatoes are native.

The next morning, we trail around a distillery outside town that makes mezcal, the liquor distilled from the fermented sap of the agave (or maguey) plant. A languid horse drags a wheel around a groove to mash agave, before it’s roasted in a stone pit, and distilled. The demo might be kitschy, but the mezcal is authentically smoky and rich.

Tequila and mezcal are both made from the cooked heart of the agave, but mezcal is smoked. In fact, tequila is technically a variety of unsmoked mezcal, manufactured in a specific region of Mexico, from the blue agave plant. Smoky, peaty mezcal can be just as potent as its notorious party-hard cousin, though.

A benign, plaster baby Jesus peers out from behind his ermine cape as the woman at the counter pours us shots out of various bottles, all with the signature worm nestled in the bottom. We find that the mezcal gets smokier, denser and warmer, as you move from fresh to aged. We try flavours like almond (medicinal), orange (sweetish) and coffee (surprisingly lovely), chasing them with orange wedges, and a plate of what looks like chilli powder. My friend refuses to tell me what it is, so I lap it up, and then turn to her.

“Worm salt,” she says.

I stop licking my lips. The woman behind the counter giggles, and confirms this. “We dry them, and crush them,” she explains.

Truthfully, the maguey worm salt tastes mostly of chilli, and, if anything, the invertebrate is a mere hint. By the evening, I’m so nonchalant about creepy-crawlies that I order a cocktail laced with crushed worm, and dip wedges of jicama (a local root vegetable) into more worm salt. The clouds part just as we finish dinner. Walking home in the drizzle, we find a trio of undampened fire-dancers in the town’s main square, valiantly plying their art in front of Oaxaca’s squat stone cathedral. Families out for the night buy ice cream and reel in their children to go home.

Museo Frida Kahlo Mexico

Museo Frida Kahlo, the erstwhile home of the artist, still looks lived-in, and is among the most popular sights in Mexico. There are pots and pans in the kitchen, her shoes are by the door, and a half-painted canvas lies on an easel. Photo: Paul Franklin/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Murals Mexico Frida Kahlo Diego Rivera

The late artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are perhaps Mexico’s most famous couple. Some of Rivera’s stunning murals, which depict Aztec life and Mexican history, can be viewed at the Palacio Nacional de Mexico, in Mexico City. Photo: Burstein Collection/Corbis

Back in Mexico City, we take a taxi out to bohemian Coyoacan, the erstwhile home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (and where Trotsky was killed by a Stalinist supporter wielding an ice pick). Here, facing the plaza where bronze coyotes frolic in the fountain, I am emboldened to order huitlacoche. That’s “corn smut” to you and me. Huitlacoche is a grey fungus that grows inside corn husks, and it looks like boils growing on corn. Usually paired with the Mexican epazote herb, onion and chilli, it turns to a tarry, nutty mush when cooked. Mine comes as the stuffing for cheese-and-corn-slathered chicken; it’s a strikingly weird flavour, gummy and earthy, like mushroom spores on speed.

Mariachi Musicians Mexico

Mariachi musicians can be seen at Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City’s historic centre, any time of the day. The plaza is most lively on a Friday or Saturday, after 11 p.m. Photo: Lucas Vallecillos/Dinodia Photos

Light, silvery palomas round off my final evening in Mexico City. It’s ten days and a million calories later, and I’m full to the gills with phenomenal food, but I realise I’ve encountered only a sliver of the dazzling universe of Mexican cuisine. No wonder Mexicans surrounded by this mestizo culinary heritage, with its amazing wealth of ingredients, flavours and cooking styles, look aghast when they encounter a bottle of industrial salsa.

It starts to rain as we head home, so we duck into the neighbourhood cantina to fulfil one last “little craving”: a round of guacamole and midnight tacos. The guacamole comes patted into a round cake, topped by neon cacti-shaped wafers arranged like a diorama. Each small taco, carrying the zing of lime wedges and coriander, pork, onions and tomatoes, is exuberant, messy and perfect, like tapping a vein straight into the heart of Mexico.

For a guide to eating in Oaxaca, go here. Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “A Bite of Mexico”.

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