Cuisine Spotlight: Mexican Food
In the next instalment of our Cuisine Spotlight series, we take a long hungry look at Mexican food and all the salsa that goes with it. Opinions on Mexican cuisines in the UK range from the super trendy burrito food truck on a graffiti-laden street in East London to a Americanized pizza restaurant who also serve up ‘burritos’ on the side. And by burritos I mean a wrap filled with donner meat and cheese; so pretty far from a real Mexican burrito in most people’s dictionary!
Mexican Cuisine is Mexican Culture
Despite many influences, notably Spanish from the 1500’s to the 1800’s and then American after that, Mexican cuisine has stuck to its native roots of the essential food staples: beans, corn and chilies. That’s right, meat and dairy products are actually only recent players on the Mexican scene. Cheese wasn’t even introduced into Mexican cooking until the Spanish conquered the country! I don’t know how the Mexicans survived so long without cheese, it must have been some pretty bleak times. And although rice was introduced throughout the last few centuries, the main source of starch in the Mexican diet is corn; corn tortillas, tamales, sopes and even the occasional fermented corn dough drink called pozol.
At Birmingham’s highly rated Mexican takeaway restaurant Perios can you get started with grilled Mexican sweet corn with a whopping eight different sauces like the fiery hot blazin’ chilli sauce.
As a British tourist traveling around Mexico you’d be immediately labeled as a gringo when politely inquiring why your taco isn’t in a hard shell, or if you asked where to get a good fajita. Though the camera and map may have already given you away, these food items do not actually exist in Mexican cuisine and they are as American as guns and supersized soft drinks. To dispel some illusions that all Mexican food is simply a tortilla with cheese and meat, let’s take a look at all the amazing variations within Mexican cuisine.
A corn tortilla: the backbone of Mexican food
The first thing that needs clearing up is tacos. The real deal, sold by the little taqueria on the streets of Mexico should, under no circumstances, crunch when you bite it. Well okay, only if the taco you’re munching down on is a deep fried-tongue taco, a popular filling in Mexico. The type of taco that is authentically Mexican, yet is also becoming increasingly popular across the UK, is the freshly made corn tortilla, which is heavenly soft and delicious to boot.
In Mexico, corn tortillas are filled with regionally-sourced traditional fillings including chicken, beef, pork, veggies, and seafood, served with salsa, chopped tomatoes, fresh coriander and avocado. Tacos are to be gently folded and grabbed from the top. Slightly tilt your head, not the taco, and lean in, bite, repeat. So with your firm foundation of taco basics, you might be asking how a quesadilla is any different?
Isn’t a quesadilla just the same thing, but folded and cut into triangles? Not quite, as quesadillas can be corn or wheat tortillas that always contain some cheese and usually veggies or meat.They are folded in half and then lightly cooked on a griddle until the cheese is stringy and throughly melted (the sign of good quesadilla cheese is how far you can stretch the melted cheese). So totally different from a taco in that sense! And nachos are just quesadillas deconstructed; corn tortillas that are cut, fried crispy and then covered in cheese. Modern Americanised nachos on the other hand usually include a plethora of toppings like meat, beans, veggies, salsa and guacamole.
A tostada starts out like a taco except the corn tortilla is deep fried flat in the pan and served with the general rotation of beans, cheese, meat and fresh tomatoes, lettuce, salsa and avocado. Whatever is on hand.
Similar to a tostada, a taquito is simply rolled before it’s crispy fried and filled with the favourites. As opposed to a corn tortilla that is topped, folded or fried, an enchilada is a tortilla that is filled and rolled, covered in chilli pepper sauce. Fillings consist of the usual suspects (are you seeing a pattern here?) like meat, beans, cheese, seafood and cheese. A chimichanga is most commonly a flour tortilla that is filled and rolled like an enchilada, and then deep fried, topped with the favourites like tomatoes, fresh coriander, salsa, sour cream and guacamole.
Mexican Cantina in Hammersmith does some fine Mexican dishes like chimichangas, quesadillas, burritos and plenty of nachos with salsa and guacamole. They also have bottles of Corona available with your order, the most popular beer in Mexico.
And a burrito? It humbly started out as a flour tortilla that was filled with meat or beans and wrapped tightly, often steamed or grilled to beans or meat that was filled and wrapped. However, nowadays it has taken on a whole new meaning that is closer to Tex-Mex than Mex in terms of the larger size and diverse fillings of the former.. Burritos are now ubiquitous on the menu’s of Mexican restaurants around the country, with places like Benito’s Hat in London taking the art of burrito-making into a whole new level.
For a crash course in Mexican food or for your next Cinco de Mayo party, Mexican Fresh in Wimbledon does an amazing array of crispy tortilla chips with guacamole, a range of salsa from mild to fiery hot, pico de gallo and sour cream. And if you’re a Mexican food fiend, there’s a few dozen burritos, tostadas, taquitos and quesadillas on the menu to keep you satisfied. A must if you’re in the area!
And what about fajitas? Well known around the UK, the word fajita actually refers to the cut of beef known as skirt steak – nothing about a hot plate with veggies and meat with a build-your-own strategy for tackling this tasty dish. Fajitas are a Tex-Mex invention that you can however find on most menu’s of self-respecting Mexican restaurants, partly because of fajita name recognition and partly because modern fajita’s are so frickin’ good!
For a burst of flavour, Fajitas Mexican Bar and Grill in Liverpool is well-loved by the local fajita-fiends. The prime steak fajitas are one of the most popular dishes and served with all the favorite toppings like sour cream, guacamole as is the marinated spicy chicken enchiladas that are smothered spicy chilli sauce and cheese and served with beans and rice. Quite the feast!
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