Mexico: it's a country that encompasses a unique, effervescent energy. It boasts a culture that has been moulded over thousands of years and is as colourful as it is contagious. The locals will dance with you in the street, welcome you into their homes, invite you to sit and dine with them, they will treat you like family. But for this aspiring street food specialist, it was the Mexican cuisine that lured me in, tempted me, teased me and had me wanting more.
I set off solo to discover the real Mexico…to get down and dirty and embed myself in Mexican culture, but before I knew it, what I had really embarked on was a culinary quest. The best part of my discovery was that food embodies culture in Mexico, you can see, smell and taste it everywhere you go, and in the best ways possible.
In Mexico, there are two foodie worlds that seem to exist side by side; the chaotic hustle and bustle of a local market place; and the more refined dining scene offered by restaurants and beachside bars. I would spend days hunting down the former, researching and taste testing from each street food stand in town. I'd take pleasure watching tacos get thrown together in an autopilot-like haste, a pinch of pico de gallo here, a sprinkle of cilantro there, before I'd devour them just as fast. Yet, I would also savour those nights spent leisurely enjoying a meal in Mazunte, as the waters of the Pacific gently lapped just metres away. Relishing ceviche made from the day’s freshest catch; tortilla chips and guac on the side, washed down with an ice-cold Cerveza or two.
For me, they were worlds apart and I got to experience them both simultaneously. In places like Mexico City I started my days with a freshly baked treat from the local panderia, no sad cereal in sight. On occasion, I’d join a group tour to hunt down the best fare and sip my way through the city’s most celebrated margaritas.
Aside from the feeling of security and the friends I'd make along the way (it's easy when food admiration is a guaranteed shared passion), these tours led me directly to the best cuisines that the city had to offer. Something I wish I'd discovered weeks earlier, when my legs, wallet and taste buds did the legwork for me.
In Puebla I ate my body weight in Elote - a local snack made from grilled sweetcorn, a range of condiments and shaved cheese - served up by local street vendors either in a takeaway cup or still on the cob. I'd wander the streets grazing on my warm, spiced corn, as local mariachi bands serenaded passersby, and street traders showed off their most colourful wares. As tempted I sometimes was, it was the food that was calling me. I'd continue on, with cinnamon churros dipped in hot dulce de leche, a sweet condensed milk, before slipping into a cosy looking bar to wind down with a vino tinto (red wine).
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Another favourite was the colonial haven of Oaxaca, which took me deep into the heart of pre-Hispanic cuisine with its traditional little morsels. Some like to play it safe, but a menu in Oaxaca is not the time or place for one’s comfort zone; something I learnt while biting into a quesadilla full of chapulines – little dried grasshoppers. Choosing between traditional chillies and a myriad of mole dishes was another daily struggle. The way the Oaxacan's have mixed chocolate, chilli, seeds and spices into slow-cooked sauces (mole) is an art in itself – the city boasts seven different types. These slightly sweet, slightly spicy condiments are drizzled over savoury meals, where any excess can be soaked up by the always generous servings of tortilla breads that accompany. And that’s exactly what I did.
From weathered mujures in the markets flattening freshly made blue corn tortillas by hand, to brightly decorated taco stands lining busy city streets; from fisherman pulling in their haul from turquoise waters, to chorizo sizzling on local asadas and the rainbow of fruit that hangs in local mercados. When it comes to food in Mexico, it is all about the embodiment of a vibrant culture where colour is king, spice is life, and festivity guaranteed to follow.
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