Mexican food is so much more than westernised Tex-Mex – swap your burritos for enchiladas and prepare for a sensory fiesta
Mexican food is undoubtedly one of the world’s great cuisines. While many of the dishes we consider ‘Mexican’ are relatively recent creations, with ingredients introduced during the Spanish conquest, traditional Mexican cuisine has been evolving for thousands of years.
In pre-Colombian times, Mesoamerican civilisations cultivated corn and fertilised crops with harnessed rainwater; meals differed regionally, but typically centred around beans and squash, served with tortillas de maíz (corn tortillas).
Visit a restaurant in Mexico today and you’ll be overwhelmed with choice. From tostadas to taquitos, sopes and enchiladas, the options are endless and equally mouthwatering.
We spoke to Jose Piñeiro, a Queensland-based chef hailing from Mexico City, about food in his native Mexico.
Can you tell us about your background and connection to food?
For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around food. My grandma and grandpa were cooks; they used to own a taco shop, and later managed a hotel restaurant. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I started working at my aunty’s cafe after school where I learned about food and hard work.
In my travels, I always look for Mexican restaurants to see if they are able to imitate the tastes of typical Mexican food. Out of the 100 cities, I have visited, only a handful have managed to do it justice. On a day trip to the Gold Coast one day, my partner was craving Mexican food and introduced me to a Mexican restaurant that claimed to be authentic. I didn’t have high hopes, but the first bite took me home. It was the best taco I’ve ever tried outside of Mexico, and when I found out they were opening a branch close to home, I decided to follow my dreams and apply for a chef position. Now, at this time in my life working in a place I love, doing what I love, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is it about Mexican food that inspires you?
I love how food forces you to use your five senses. You have the taste, obviously. The smell of the coriander and tortilla when it approaches your mouth. The sound of crackling on top of a pulled pork taco. The presentation of the dish and most importantly the touch, as most Mexican food is eaten with your hands - it’s a sensory experience.
Growing up, what were your favourite Mexican dishes and why?
I had many, but my favourite will always be tacos – I probably ate a taco every day! It’s the most accessible and quick food to eat. I love tacos so much for their simplicity, yet huge variety; you can get tacos with every filling, from typical steak or chicken to marinated meat, all the way to tongue or brains. There are also different taco styles, like basket tacos, soft tacos and green corn tortilla tacos. Just no hard shells - they’re an American invention.
My second favourite would be quesadillas. Their variety is huge as well; you can have them grilled or fried with many different fillings – and who doesn’t love cheese? My favourites are quesadillas with beans or pumpkin flowers, enjoyed with a glass of refreshing Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus tea).
Why do you think food is so important to Mexican people?
I think food is something that brings us together as a society. Mexico is a very classist country, in which social groups are segregated, but one thing that brings everyone together is food. All people, whether rich or poor, have enjoyed tacos on the street; even the richest of the rich get covered in sauce while eating one!
The simplicity and adaptability of food is another huge factor. Mexico has big cities, meaning people are always rushing and on the move – this is why street food is such a popular choice.
What would you like first-time travellers to Mexico to know about the cuisine?
It’s important to know that traditional Mexican food is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and as such, we are very proud of it. Nachos, burritos and chilli con carne are not Mexican, despite being served at many ‘Mexican’ restaurants.
Another thing that goes unnoticed is our seafood. Dishes like ceviche and shrimp cocktail are must-try, along with aguachile – a spicy take on cured shrimp, seasoned with chilli, lime, cucumber and lemongrass.
What are some dishes that first-time travellers should order?
Without a doubt, tacos al pastor – perhaps the most famous tacos in the world. This street food is made with dried poblano chilli (chile ancho) and pork marinated in achiote paste (annatto seeds, cumin and various herbs), served in a tortilla and topped with pineapple.
Tamales are a must as well; nothing tastes more like Mexico than this unique dish of masa (corn dough) steamed in a banana leaf or corn husk. People should also try ceviche tostadas – perfect for a summer afternoon – and the Mexican challenge: a Torta Cubana. This massive sandwich weighs around a kilo and is packed with meats, cheeses and many other things. If you finish this beast, you will earn our respect.