After nearly three weeks in Mexico we’ve still only just scratched the surface of the country’s cuisine. And having only traveled in the Yucatan we haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore its regional nuances. But first impressions still matter. So here are some of ours about this foreign cuisine that we Americans know so well.
U.S. Mexican food is really quite excellent
Several years ago I was inspired to write a post asking “Is Regional Cuisine Still Relevant” after traveling the U.S. and discovering that no region had a monopoly on its signature cuisine. We found, for example, that legendary Texas barbeque was routinely better in other states and that Southern Fried chicken was done just as well in the north.
Since then we’ve also discovered that Italy doesn’t have a hammerlock on great Italian food, especially pasta, or Thailand on Thai (the U.S. has yet to master Vietnamese cuisine, though, but that’s probably for lack of really trying).
So it’s no surprise to report that U.S. Mexican food can be every bit as delicious and “authentic” as what’s served south of the border. We really do have some terrific Mexican cooking in the U.S. (Taco Bell notwithstanding.)
What’s more, we’re starting to come to the conclusion that the U.S. is the single best destination in all the world for food. That’s not to say we invented great cuisine. Most of the stuff we invented is crap (corn dog, anyone?). But we copy other cuisines brilliantly, and we probably copy more of them better than anyone anywhere else on the planet. Mexican food is no exception.
Mexican food is relatively healthful in Mexico
One of the things U.S. cooks do to Mexican food that isn’t an improvement is load dishes with tons of grease, cheese, and rice. So far we’ve encountered very little of that in actual Mexican cooking. And while many of the dishes and flavors are similar to the ones we’ve eaten in the U.S., they tend not to be the huge calorie bombs that are so common up north.
But where did all the vegetables go?
The lack of vegetables here in the Yucatan is both a shock and a disappointment. We wrongfully assumed that this tropical region would overflow with an abundance of unique and wonderful produce. Instead we discovered that it’s not unusual to get served a dish with almost no vegetables at all.
Even markets have a woeful selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Mostly we’ve seen tomatoes, onions, limes, avocados, bananas, cucumbers that look like zucchinis, and a few assorted other things. That’s about it. We’re not quite at the point of worrying we’ll contract scurvy, but it’s not completely out of the question either.
Habaneros, heat with flavor
In the U.S. the jalapeno, a mostly tasteless pepper who’s overwhelming virtue is its mouth warming properties, reigns supreme. In the Yucatan, however, the habanero is the go-to pepper for adding that flavor-enhancing heat. It is a far, far superior choice. Not only are habaneros hotter than lowly jalapenos, they also pop with a savory toasted flavor that just makes everything wonderful.
The many different kinds of habanero “salsa picante” we’ve tried here are all truly works of art. There are green ones and brown ones and red ones, too. They come in chunky salsas and thin sauces. We even encountered one that looked exactly like stone ground mustard. The only thing they all had in common is their universal awesomeness.
Fresh corn tortillas kick ass
I hate soft corn tortillas. Those dry, brittle, grainy rounds of dirty-sock tasting wrappers that destroy whatever food has the misfortune of being imprisoned inside are an affront to everything that is good and holy. They’re an abomination . . . in the U.S., that is, where they’ve undoubtedly sat on a shelf for weeks after being “enhanced” with preservatives for “freshness.”
Here, and I’m guessing throughout all of Mexico, you actually watch as goops of fresh dough get pressed either by hand or by a contraption into little discs of deliciousness. You can then watch as those discs get cooked on a grill minutes before they’re handed to you for consumption. They’re everything U.S. tortillas are not – soft, flavorful, even nuanced. And they’re a revelation.