Chef Jozef Youssef: Why Mexican Cuisine Is Among The World’s Most Sophisticated
Our guest contributor for this month is Jozef Youssef, who has worked at the Fat Duck, Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, and at The Dorchester Hotel. He is the author of Molecular Gastronomy at Home and the founder of Kitchen Theory.
Kitchen Theory began as a website – a place for exchanging information on food science, culture and history, and in particular how the sense of taste interacts with the other senses and the brain. The concept has proved very popular and Kitchen Theory now runs experimental dinners, seminars, workshops and classes which incorporate contributions from a wide range of academics, artists, specialists from the hospitality industry and ground-breaking chefs (see link for a description of one such event). Jozef Youssef has most recently put together México, a series of events showcasing Mexican cuisine and food from a multi-sensory point of view.
In order to prepare for this event I needed to research Mexican food, culture and art; examining ancient traditions as well as the most cutting-edge, recent developments. I discovered that, with its vibrant flavours, unique produce and up-and-coming innovative culinary scene, Mexican cuisine is one of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines in existence.
The foundations of Mexican cuisine
I looked first at the roots of the cuisine, which go back thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztecs, Maya and other Mesoamerican people lived off the land, on a diet consisting mostly of corn; breads (made from corn flour); beans; cacti; squashes and gourds including zucchini; root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and Mexican potatoes (aka jicama); and a wide variety of chillies.
Corn was the basic staple of mexican cooking and today remains one of the three ingredients of the Mexican Holy Trinity, the other two being pinto beans and chillies. The flour from the processed, hulled corn kernels is used to make enchiladas, tacos, tortilla chips and much else.
Originally the carbohydrates were supplemented with protein derived from game – deer, rabbit, armadillo, possum and peccary (a type of wild pig) – as well as from domestically-reared animals such as turkeys, ducks, dogs and bees.
And it just doesn’t seem right to talk about Mexican cuisine without mentioning insects, a culinary delicacy in this part of the world since ancient times. Entomorphagy (the eating of insects) is also a very current concept since a 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization found that eating insects could be a more sustainable food option that would help boost nutrition and reduce pollution globally. In Oaxaca four insects in particular are eaten. The Chinicul or gusano rojo (red worm) is added to stews, and both the red worm and chicatana (flying ant) are fried and eaten as a snack or salted and served with mescal. Grasshoppers (chapulines) are toasted with garlic, lime juice and salt or chilli and served with guacamole and rare honeypot ants (hormigas de miel) are also eaten as a delicacy.
Flavour was derived from the use of bitter chocolate or cocoa (used in savoury dishes); epazote which is a pungent herb used to flavour beans; annatto (from the seeds of the achiote tree) which gives an earthy and nutty flavour as well as orange colouring; nopales, the pads of the prickly pear which are cooked like a vegetable, and of course vanilla.
Other native ingredients are tomato, avocado, guava, chayote, camote, jícama, tejocote, huitlacoche, sapote, mamey, and many varieties of beans ….
The influence of the Spanish
The arrival of the Spanish brought an additional culture and way of cooking to local methods, which, never being quite assimilated, forms a glossy sheen over the essential, more ancient heart of Mexican cuisine. But the Spanish also introduced new ingredients which expanded the potential of the local approach to cooking. Rice, wheat, beef, goat, lamb, chicken, olive oil, milk and cheese all arrived in the sixteenth century together with spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, and herbs, such as parsley and coriander.
Mexico has developed its own very particular range of fresh cheeses, the most popular being Queso Fresco, Panela and Asadero. Other interesting cheeses are Oaxaca (a type of string cheese sold in balls also known as Quesillo), Cotija (a hard cows’ milk cheese) and Chihuahua (a soft, white cheese also known as Menonita).
Mexican food is so much more than just chillies and beans
Since I’ve been researching this fascinating subject I’ve developed a deep respect for Mexican gastronomy. I feel a growing resentment about the stereotypical and generally derogatory way in which many people think of Mexican food – a kind of blow your mind chilli fest, with a meat-dominant menu, and the inevitable nachos and burritos. Of course Mexican cuisine includes a variety of meats and chillies, but the general perception of Mexican food could not be further from the truth. In fact, in Mexico I have eaten some of the best vegetarian dishes I have ever tasted and not so much as broken a sweat or had to reach for the water. On the contrary, dishes are well-balanced in terms of savoury, sweet, and sour, and they also have fresh flavours and a variety of textures. However one very interesting point is that colour-taste perceptions are different in Mexico. Unlike in Europe where generally red=sweet, green=sour, black=bitter and white=salty, in Mexico the general perception is red=sour, green=bitter, black=salty and white=sweet!
The same misleading and limiting stereotyping I mention above applies to the beer. Most people only know of Corona and Sol… possibly also Negro Modelo. But there is an amazing range of Mexican craft beers, for example, the Fieber de Malta, which was manufactured right beside where I was staying.
Cutting-edge Mexican chefs
Mexican chefs are just starting to make their mark on the global scene. Look, for example, the pioneering Elena Reygadas, who won the award for Latin America’s best female chef last year and experiments with edible flowers, insects, cuttlefish, and octopus. She, Enrique Olvera and Pablo Salas all have restaurants included in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I spent much of my time hanging out in the kitchens of Zafiro, the restaurant of the gastronomy faculty of The Universidad de Claustro de Sor Juana, where a whole new generation of chefs is being trained under the experienced and highly skilled hands of Executive Chef, Juan Pablo Flores Benitez (former Head Chef at Le Cirque Mexico), and his Head Chef, Eduardo Carmona (whose vast experience includes a season at El Bulli).
The México events in London
Both the Zafiro chefs mentioned above have helped me to develop the concept for the México events we’re running in London. Expect to see NO sombreros and NO maracas, our aim is to take our guests on both a modern culinary and cultural sensory journey into Mexican gastronomy.
Below is the menu for the event. To find out more follow this link.
- The Holy Trinity – corn, beans, chilli
- Nopal – nopal, oaxacan cheese, fresh tortilla, salsa, lime, coriander
- Memories of Oaxaca – shellfish, corn, lime, epazote, coriander
- El Chapulín Colorado – hearts of palm, octopus, onion, cucumber, jalapeno, aguachile, avocado, coriander, tostadas
- An Offering for the Gods – venison, mole negro, pumpkin, burnt tortilla
- Mezcal – orange, mezcal, tajin, coriander
- Vanilla and the bee – honey, vanilla, cinnamon, chamomile