Mexico: Birthplace of civilizations delights with galaxy of diversity

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“When I go back to Mexico, everything seems to look more vivid. I don’t know why, but it is,” says Miguel.

The three of us are in a Tokyo café, enjoying a good “sobre mesa” – a long, relaxed conversation after lunch that Miguel says Mexicans love.

Mexico. What pops into our heads when we hear the name of that country? Maybe it’s a beach, maybe it’s a pyramid, and certainly Mexico has impressive examples of both, but that’s just scratching the surface.

First of all, let’s turn our attention to the plate, and not just the Mexican plate. Tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, peppers (both hot and not), cacao, vanilla – all these things are deeply embedded in the cuisines of just about every country on Earth, and all are originally from Mexico and neighbouring lands. Along with China, the Middle East and India, this region is one of a handful of places around the world to be labelled a “Centre of Origin” – areas that have contributed foods and food ingredients now essential to all of us. Bringing it down to a more personal level, whatever you’re going to have for dinner tonight, there will quite likely be a little bit of Mexico on the table.

To put it another way, can you imagine Asian food culture without chili peppers? How about European sweets with absolutely zero chocolate or vanilla? Or just about any menu anywhere without tomatoes?

And, raising our gaze from the table to broader horizons, we also learn another thing about Mexico: it is one of only six places on our planet to have originated a civilization, joining China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Andes.

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“This dish right here has 105 ingredients in it.”

We are standing by Mexican Embassy Chef Victor Alonso Vázquez Campos next to a large, round table covered with several of his creations, and he is pointing to a morsel of boneless chicken wrapped in a glossy coat of chocolate-coloured sauce called Pollo con Mole. Joining it is a large stone mortar filled with a soupy something in brilliant apple green, a plate with a giant grilled fish filleted and coated in every shade of red you can imagine, and a serving of something that looks remarkably like spring rolls topped with a scarlet sauce dappled with white cheese. Every one of these sauces, we learn, is made primarily of chili peppers, though several different varieties are involved.

Pescado a la talla, Acapulco style.

Pescado a la talla, Acapulco style.

A hundred and five ingredients… Sauces made almost entirely of chili peppers… When we were invited for lunch at the Mexican Embassy with Ambassador Carlos Almada, Madame Mara Madero and Third Secretary Miguel Escalante, we suspected there would be a chili pepper or two involved, but we had no idea of the variety and complexity we would find. We thought there was a lot on the table when we arrived, but there is in fact so much more here in front of us than we suspected.

“Mega-diverse.” That’s the term applied to countries such as Mexico; countries with diversity in plants and animals, cultures and languages, that stands far and above most other places on our planet. On the biological side, the OECD’s 2013 environmental review declares that “with over 200,000 different species, Mexico is home to 10-12% of the world’s biodiversity.” It has the greatest variety of reptiles, the second most kinds of mammal, and is fourth in overall numbers of animal species. It also has the fourth greatest variety in both plants and ecosystems.

On top of that is layered an astounding and unique variety of traditions and peoples, with no less than 68 languages being spoken in a staggering 364 variants across Mexico, helping make it the third most culturally diverse country in the world (according to UNESCO materials held by the Conservatorio de la Cultura Gastronomica Mexicana).

A traditional Mexican cooking implement

A traditional Mexican cooking implement

What we’re looking at today is just one, tangible expression of that diversity — the diversity of Mexican cooking and all the traditions that underpin it that was recognised by UNESCO in 2010, when it inscribed Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. The listing was not just for what appears on plates or what goes on in kitchens across the country, but as a means to preserve the rituals, community practices, manners and even the unique farming techniques like milpas (rotating swidden fields) and chinampas (farming islets in lake areas) that make Mexican cuisine “a cultural system.”

Knowing all this, about the depth of Mexican food’s foundations, makes us want to experience as wide a sampling of the cuisine as we can. And we have been given that chance today, as well as the chance to learn through this food even more about what animates Mexico and its diverse culture.

The first dish to appear on the dining table is Enchiladas Queretanas, the spring roll-shaped savouries dressed in a thick chili pepper-based sauce that Chef Vázquez introduced earlier. It’s no coincidence that they’re on the menu today, as they come from Madame Madero’s home region of Querétaro – which contains a beautifully preserved colonial city that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, deliberately laid out and built so that Spanish colonists would mix and mingle with the local native populace.

Enchilada Queretana, with mild guajillo chile sauce.

Enchiladas Queretanas, with mild guajillo chile sauce.  See the recipe.

We also find out that Mexico is home to the oldest winery in all of the Americas, and that we are sipping two of its products as we talk and taste. This historical winery, founded in the 16th century, has in fact been owned by Madame Madero’s family since her great grandfather’s time. Wait, wine with spicy Mexican food? Yes indeed, and it is a wonderful pairing. After all, wines go best with foods from the same region; foods they’ve evolved with and shared tables with, in this case, for centuries. So, we think, let’s ditch our preconceptions and give it a try. And we’re glad we did.

After a sip or two, we try the enchiladas. Hearing that the sauce was made from chili peppers we were expecting a bit of a spicy punch, but it turns out to be surprisingly mild – a lovely accent to the smooth potato, carrot and cheese wrapped in the soft corn tortilla of the enchilada. The specific chili pepper in the sauce is called Guajillo – one of many “chile” varieties found across Mexico. The Japanese word for chili pepper – togarashi – conjures up images of little red peppers resembling eagle talons, ready to set your tongue on fire. Encountering Mexican chili peppers, with all their subtlety in taste and variety of shape, size, colour and level of heat, perhaps it’s best to forget that impression for a while.

Next up is the bright green Aguachile Verde de Camarón y Callo, a rich avocado and shrimp creation. Rich, but also fresh and balanced, each ingredient enhanced with a healthy dash of lime juice that makes each bite light and bright a well as smooth and avocado creamy. There is also a hint of spice provided by yet another of the chili family, Chile de Arbol, experienced as just an enjoyable prick on the tongue to go along with other accents provided by cilantro and finely chopped onion.

Aguachile Verde

Aguachile Verde  See the recipe.

After green comes more red in the form of Sopa de Fideo – a light tomato soup filled out with fine noodles that the Mexican diners say is a common sight on just about every home table in Mexico, in the same way as miso soup in Japan. This isn’t hard to imagine even here at an ambassador’s table. It looks, and tastes, like something made in a loving home.

And now it’s time for that 105-ingredient wonder: the Pollo con Mole. Considering the fantastic diversity – cultural and biological – of Mexico, we realize that it’s perfectly natural to create such a complex, many-faceted dish as this. It would take Chef Vázquez forever to explain all the ingredients, but he does reveal with a smile that there are several kinds of chili pepper — including the Pasilla and Mulato – plus cinnamon, banana, peanuts and chocolate. The rest we’ll have to riddle out for ourselves, though considering the immense complexity, this might be too much of a challenge. The overall flavour is tremendously rich and deep, washing over the tongue in a wave of kaleidoscopic flavour. You might think that putting that many ingredients together must inevitably create some clash of tastes, but there is not a single discordant note in flavour or aroma. Both are completely new to us, but we instantly take up the tune, smiling with each bite.

Sopa de Fideo, "Miso soup for Mexicans."

Sopa de Fideo, “Miso soup for Mexicans.”  See the recipe.

Ambassador Almada says that there are many kinds of mole all over Mexico, some red, some green, some black, and all different. Often served at wedding feasts, he adds, moles are “a great pride of Mexican cuisine.”

And our conversation on Mexican diversity continues.

”I think one of the things that helped Mexico to be so diverse is that we are a mixture of cultures” – an ancient original civilisation and those of later arrivals — says the ambassador, adding, “And we do not have any difficulty with that. We feel proud, we feel happy that we are culturally part Spaniards, or Portuguese, or Italians, or French or whatever, and Mexican native people.” He goes on to point out that the Spanish brought with them the entire history of their own country’s cultural diversity, rooted in all the varied peoples who have called Spain home over the millennia – Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Goths and Arabs among them. Arab culture “has been extremely important for us,” Ambassador Almada points out. “Because the Arabs occupied parts of Spain for 800 years. So for instance my name is Arab. ‘Almada’ is an Arab name.”

Calabaza en Tacha, a mildly spiced pumpkin dessert.

Calabaza en Tacha, a mildly spiced pumpkin dessert.

Calabaza en Tacha with Vanilla icecream.

Calabaza en Tacha with Vanilla icecream.

But this grand mixture doesn’t end with Mexico’s links across the Atlantic. When it was still a Spanish colony, Mexico was Spain’s bridge to its East Asian holdings. Spanish ships set out across the Pacific from Acapulco, headed for colonial ports such as Manila in the Philippines to trade. Carried in the holds of those ships were many of Mexico’s gifts to world cuisine. And then, on their return to Mexican shores, those same galleons brought with them strong Asian influences. Added to this, the ambassador says, was African cultural input from people originally brought in as slaves.

What is good about Mexico is that in not such a large country you can experience the feeling of history from so many places, dating back millennia, Miguel says with a quiet passion.

“I think that you have to feel very happy with what you have, be proud of your origins, but not being exclusive,” Ambassador Almada says with a smile, voice soft but firm.

Mexico, birthplace of civilizations, home to a level of cultural and natural diversity seen almost nowhere else in the world. The country has certainty seen more than its fair share of historical turmoil, but then it has also given so much to our world, and become a place where cultures didn’t just meet, but interconnected and transformed into truly unique shapes. Every time we visit there, if we look closely at the vividly coloured mosaic that is Mexico — right down to the microscopic level — we may find signs of our own heritages. There is so much in our human world that has, even without us truly noticing, been connected, interwoven, for hundreds or even thousands of years. We were reminded of that this afternoon as Mexico — its tastes, its peoples, its variety — was unfolded before us, and the realisation went straight to our hearts. There is much to discover in this country.

Diverse Mexican Table

Story by: Rika Sakai

English Text by: Robert Sakai-Irvine

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