Chicana author Stephanie Elizondo Griest searches through a digitised archive of old Mexican recipes hoping to find the answer to one question: what is ‘real’ Mexican food?
Growing up Mexican American just 150 miles from the border, I thought I understood my ancestral cuisine. A tortilla was a fluffy, flour disc that your abuela (grandmother) warmed over the stove and slathered with butter and honey. Queso was a brick of neon-coloured Velveeta cheese your mum melted in a pot with a can of green chillies and served with Tostito corn chips during the Dallas Cowboys game. And tamales were a spicy blend of pork, masa and Crisco vegetable shortening that your tias (aunties) smeared over corn husks and steamed for Christmas dinner.
So, it was a shock when, on my first trip into Mexico’s interior 25 years ago, I opened a menu and recognised none of the options. Where were the fajitas sizzling on a platter? What made the enchiladas suizas (Swiss) and the eggs divorciados (divorced), and what happened to the complimentary chips and salsa?
Apprehension evaporated with my first bite, however. I had ordered chiles en nogada, hoping it would approximate the chiles rellenos I loved back in South Texas, but no. This poblano chilli was not battered and fried but blackened over a flame and stuffed with beef, potatoes, peas and squash cooked in a tomato puree. Instead of being smothered in neon cheese, it was covered in a walnut cream sauce flecked with parsley and pomegranate seeds. The flavour was extraordinary: smoky with hints of oregano and cloves.
And it wasn’t just chiles en nogada. In restaurants and at street stalls across Mexico, I savoured foods radically more complex, delicious and nutritious than what my community ate back home. Fresh corn tortillas replaced packaged wheat; pork belly was favoured over Crisco. Herbs and vegetables were harvested moments before use. Cooks selected chillies for their taste and aroma rather than their capsaicin. Cheese was used sparingly, with no Velveeta in sight.
If this was Mexican food, what had I been eating all my life? [ … ]