Almost everything you knew about Mexican food is wrong, so throw away those cheesy nachos and get stuck into the Yummy Magazine Mexican food tutorial 101.
MEXICO VS. TEXAS
If you have never set foot in Mexico, you would be forgiven for thinking that burritos overflowing with rice, pulled beef and guacamole; nachos swimming in molten yellow cheese, chili con carne and fajitas filled with strips of stir-fried chicken and capsicum; are the quintessential culinary elements of this country that sits on the southern border of the United States.
As with many other dishes – think Mac and Cheese and Kung Po chicken if you will – immigrants to the USA fused their traditional cuisines with locally available ingredients and ended up creating recipes that were often far removed from their original conception. When it came to Mexican food, the dishes already existed and it was more a case of ranchers coming to Texas to breed cows and grow wheat, adapting the local Mexican cuisine to suit the ingredients they had at their disposal.
The cornerstone of all Mexican food is Masa, a type of maize meal that undergoes a specific process in order to hull and tenderise the kernels before they are ground. Tacos, tamales and empanadas (kind of a large, fried, meaty ravioli) are all made from Masa. And here lies the major distinction between Mexican cuisine (which in itself is not a homogenous category) and what evolved into TexMex cuisine. While Mexican dishes are mostly defined by maize-based dishes, goat, pork and seafood; Tex-Mex food is defined by wheat, beef, sweet corn, canned beans and industrially processed American-style cheese.
Other distinctions between Tex-Mex and Mexican are in the use of spices. Whereas Tex-Mex relies on dry spices – think paprika, cumin, cinnamon and black pepper – Mexicans focus more on fresh herbs – oregano and coriander – and a larger array of different chillies to flavour their foods. It is safe to say that Tex-Mex is more about using ingredients that have been processed on a large scale – so things that come out of a can or were prepared for easy consumption elsewhere – while Mexican food (much like Kenyan) only really uses fresh ingredients which are prepared for the occasion.
HECHO IN KENYA
When the owners of Fonda NBO, a Mexican restaurant that opened in 2017 on the top floor of Rosslyn Riviera Mall, were at the conceptual stage of their restaurant, one thing they knew for sure was that they intended to steer clear of all TexMex food. Having lived in the US for fifteen years, husband and wife Yash Krishna and Salisha Chandra, were determined to bring to Nairobi as close as a Mexican experience as they could manage.
“We travelled to Mexico where we learned how to cook 200 odd dishes over the course of four months there,” says Krishna, who comes from a hotel management background and whose passion for Mexican cuisine is palpable. Their aim, he recently told me over a cool glass of Agua Fresca – a refreshing non-alcoholic range of beverages that are extremely popular at the restaurant – was to only serve dishes that were conceived in Mexico.
“Our research took place in museums, in markets, in the streets and in people’s houses”, says Krishna, underlining that the couple made a conscious decision to steer away from places that served nouveau styles of Mexican cuisine in favour of more traditional eateries. “When it came to designing the restaurant and its menu, we tried to let our five senses guide us. Although we decided that most things in the restaurant would be made in Kenya, every decision was informed by the colours, the materials, the feel, the sounds and the smells we became familiar with over the course of our stay in Mexico”.
With somewhere in the region of 3000 different recipes to choose from, Krishna explains it was quite a task narrowing them down for their Nairobi menu. Eventually though, they decided to focus mainly on food from the Central region of Oaxaca and, once they broadly knew what it was they wanted, they hired a Mexican chef from Fonda Fina, one of their favourite restaurants in Mexico City, to come and help train the Fonda NBO staff.
THE REAL NACHO
In the early days of Fonda NBO, one issue that Krishna kept on coming up against was that people would get disappointed when they found out there weren’t any nachos on the menu. “It was quite frustrating to have to constantly tell customers that we didn’t serve nachos as they aren’t technically Mexican”, he confides.
The challenge had a simple solution and soon Quilaquiles (Kee-la-keeless) were added to the menu. Quilaquiles, Krishna explains, are a quintessential Mexican dish that has its roots in an Aztec term that roughly translates as “herbs or greens in chili broth”.
Essentially a form of Mexican comfort food, the dish is usually eaten for breakfast and brunch although it makes for a perfect bar snack too. At Fonda NBO, the chef churns out Totopos – basically a baked or friend broken up taco – we’re talking tortilla chips here but according to Urban Dictionary it is very bad to call Totopos tortilla chips, so forget I said anything – which are then simmered in a salsa verde (green sauce) and topped with beans, fresh white cheese, picode-gallo (Mexican kachumbari) and chicken.
The dish is tasty and comforting, and lacks the guilt associated with scoffing down a calorie-laden plate of cheesy nachos. Truth be told I had never even heard of it before coming to Fonda NBO but now that I have, I intend to make it my bar snack of choice in the coming World Cup season.
To prepare this unique form of maize meal the dried maize must first be nixtamalised – a process that involves simmering kernels for twenty minutes and then soaking them for up to 8 hours in an alkaline solution in order to hull and tenderise them for grinding.
The wet maize is then washed and the skins separated out at which point it is ground into the dough called masa. When the masa is dried and powdered it then becomes masa harina.
In traditional communities families grew their own maize and then brought it to a communal mill (molino) to be ground.
Masa is the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine and is used to make tortillas, quilaquiles, empanadas, dumplings and tamales.
Katy learned all about Quilaquiles as a guest at Fonda NBO restaurant