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Feb 1, 2000 05:50 PM

Mexican flavors

  • k

Hey all,

I'm wanting to know a few of the secrets used for the flavoring of beef and chicken in Mexican dishes such as Enchiladas and Tomales; the techniques and recognized recipe ingredients for flavoring the meats, the rice (for Spanish rice), and the sauces?

It just seems like there's some basic concepts here, that, if understood, will help with so many Mexican foods.

Thanks much,


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  1. t
    Tom Armitage

    There's no short, simple answer to your question, Keith. But, in terms of "basic concepts" you'll need to start by learning about Mexican chiles. They vary greatly in terms of heat and flavor, from the relatively mild, nutty cascabel, to the smokey chipotle, to the incredibly hot but fruity habanero. One of the things I've done to introduce people to differences in the flavors of chiles is to prepare a variety of salsas based on a single chile. Tasting the salsas with nothing more than a tortilla chip produces a pretty undisguised flavor experience. You'll also need to learn about other typical Mexican ingredients and seasonings, like epazote and tamarind. Then you'll need to learn how to introduce these flavors through various techniques like dry rubs, marinades, and sauces. The "basic concepts" for Mexican cooking (like those for Thai cooking, Indian cooking, etc.) simply involve a knowledge of the flavoring agents and how to impart those flavors into the food.

    I suggest buying a couple of good, basic books on Mexican cooking, put on an apron, and start cooking. My recommendations are Diana Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico and Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. Another great read is Diana Kennedy's most recent book, My Mexico, which helps build an appreciation for Mexican cuisine and culture that goes far beyond reading recipes. There are lots of other good books on Mexican cooking, which varies significantly from region to region in Mexico, but the Kennedy and Bayless books are a good place to start. If you have the chance to take cooking classes with someone who knows what they're doing (and, in my experience, there are many who don't), that can also be very helpful. I had the good fortune to take classes with Diana Kennedy in the late 1970's, and I learned a lot from her. A few years ago, Rick Bayless (who owns the great Mexican restaurants Topolobambo and Frontera Grill in Chicago) was taking groups on cooking tours of Mexico. If you have the time and money, this would be a terrific way to learn about Mexican cooking.

    Like every kind of cooking, the quality of ingredients can make a huge difference in Mexican cooking. It can be difficult, for example, to find a good source for lard, masa, Mexican cheeses, or certain rare types of chiles. Chiles can be ordered by mail. I suggest rendering your own lard, if you don't have any other good source. Stay away from the boxed stuff in the supermarket. And if a recipe calls for lard, use lard, not safflower oil or something like that. I can still remember the withering look and answer Diana Kennedy gave one of the students in her class who asked about substituting a "healthy" cooking oil for lard.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Tom Armitage

      Excellent idea about the single quinta salsa tasting, Tom!

      But regarding the cookbooks and classes...when I studied history in college, I was continually urged to go back to primary sources. It's the historians' mantra, and, indeed, there's a world of difference between reading original material and reading later interpretations (no matter how "expert") of that material. If you have time, it's ALWAYS better to form your own interpretations.

      Likewise with Bayless and Kennedy. Both are very knowledgable, very
      thorough, and know an awful lot. But you can learn a heckuva lot more
      in one weekend chowhounding around Veracruz or Oaxaca than you could
      in a week of classes with (or reading cookbooks by) people like them. I don't think even they would deny this.

      There's so much that's missed when you get your info in the abstract.
      Food is a big biz right now, and an awful lot of people have
      a lot of interest in packaging culinary experience in various ways,
      but it's better to steer clear of all that and go to the primary material. Meet some Mexican grandmas and hang around with some Mexican chowhounds. Don't look for authorities--even respected Mexican authorities--to pre-filter your experience. Just GO EAT--with care and respect and attention. Don't tour with Bayless (at least not the first time); it's just another way of insulating yourself from the raw experience. Just go out and connect naturally, directly.

      Anytime you explore primary sources you're guaranteed to be shocked by how much the "experts" miss--even the rare GOOD experts like Kennedy and Bayless--in their distillation. Which is not to say there's not stuff to learn from cookbooks and classes. But my point is such things shouldn't be one's primary route to learning. It's a mistake.

      Of course, I'm basically just restating the gist of what chowhounding is all about. To rephrase the Zen saying in chowhoundish terms: if you see James Beard walking down the street, kill him.

      P.S.-lest I'm misunderstood, my point isn't that Bayless and Kennedy aren't ethnically Mexican. The same points would apply even if they were.

      1. re: Jim Leff
        Tom Armitage

        Hmmm, I might have to respectfully disagree, Jim, at least in part. I think there are two separate issues here. One is to learn the authentic tastes and textures of food, and the techniques to produce them. The other is to place those tastes and textures in a cultural context.

        I lived in the Philippines for three years, from 1963-1966. (I guess I'm giving away my age here, aren't I.) Although I was in the Air Force at the time, I requested to live off base, learned the local dialect (Ilocano), shopped exclusively at the local markets (not the base commissary), and did every thing I could to absorb myself in the Filipino culture. I learned to cook Filipino dishes from my Filipino friends. Some were good cooks, some were not, and I didn't learn much from the latter, but I always had a rich experience just in the act of being "taught" and the conversations and friendships that were associated with these experiences. In the course of my travels throughout the Philippines, I got to sample a lot of regional dishes in homes and at barrio fiestas, not just in restaurants. It was an invaluable way to get a sense of "authentic" Filipino cooking, very linked to my growing understanding of Filipino culture.

        I learned to cook Mexican food through a very different method. Yes, I have Mexican friends, and have enjoyed meals in their homes. But my opportunities for learning to cook Mexican dishes from them have been limited. I have never been to Mexico (with the exception of Baja California), though I would love to go there some day. But I have eaten lots of Mexican food, and think I have some understanding of Mexican cuisine in general, as well as some of the regional cuisines. Diana Kennedy may be a "secondary source," but in what sense? She lived and cooked in Mexico. She learned from other Mexican cooks, professional and nonprofessional. Was her learning any the less for the fact that she was a gringo? If she had been a daughter learning to cook from her Mexican mother, or a Mexican learning to cook from a Mexican friend, would she then become a "primary" source? I learned as much about Mexican cooking from Diana Kennedy, from Mexican cookbooks, and trying to replicate the tastes and textures of my many experiences eating Mexican food, as I did from my "cooking lessons" in the Philippines. What is missing from my Mexican cooking is the cultural awareness that would come from direct experience in every day living in Mexico.

        Can you learn more "in a weekend of chowhounding" in Mexico than "in week of classes"? Not necessarily. Perhaps if you have friends in Mexico, can live with them for a while (more than a weekend), and if they or their friends are interested in cooking and will take you to the local markets, teach you about the food, and show you how to cook it, then yes, that is probably better than a week of classes. But if you just arrive in Veracruz without knowing anyone, and spend the weekend eating in local restaurants, no, I don't think that will teach you how to cook what you have eaten.

        As you know, I really enjoyed my stay in Barcelona. I tried to eat as much authentic Catalan food as I could. I roamed several of the local markets. I had a great time. But I don't think I could say that I came back knowing how to cook the food I ate there. It just gave me an appreciation that would be very helpful in judging whether a dish that I prepared from a Catalan cookbook, or had been taught to prepare by someone knowledgeable about Catalan cooking, was in fact true to the tastes and textures I had experienced in Barcelona.

        1. re: Tom Armitage

          Tom, Jim, thanks much for the information you've given.

          I did get a hold of the cookbook "The Beautiful Cookbook" for Mexican cooking. Looks pretty well done, but I haven't torn into it yet. And since I work at a Waldenbooks, I can dig around for the others Tom mentioned. (33% Employee discount...yes!)

          It would seem, to some extent, that the shreaded beef, let's say, in a burrito is often times of the same texture and tenderness wherever I go - the taste varying more than anything. And these are the two interests in which I'm most interested: the seasoning, of course, and the seemingly overall consistancy of texture.

          I'm definitely going to info up on the chili scene, obviously a biggie. And...well, no, I can't make it to south of the border yet, but I have a mucho amount of Spanish books and tapes that I gotta master. When I do go down south, I ain't gonna come back here saying 'wa happin' because of a language barrier, if I have any say about it. Chilies or no chilies! (Yeah, I know, they don't speak the same Spanish down there that the books teach...thank God for my good friend Julio, you know!)

          1. re: Tom Armitage

            I'm not ignoring you, Tom (and Jonathan)...just horrendously busy and trying to get back on track after my computer crash. I'll post a reply as soon as I can get some other tasks finished

            1. re: Jim Leff
              Tom Armitage

              Understood, Jim. Your post obviously provoked some thinking on my part, which has continued since my response to you. There is, I think, an interesting string here on the relationship between eating and cooking, on what constitute "authentic" or, using your term, "primary" sources of experience for eating and cooking, and on the nature of learning in general. More later, I hope.

          2. re: Jim Leff
            jonathan sibley

            This is probably just asking for trouble, but I think that a good secondary source, such as Bayless or Kennedy for Mexican food or Wolfert for Moroccan Food (for example) can be immensely helpful and, in some cases not just a complement to local experience, but even an improvement.

            That is not to say that exploring local markets and eating in local restaurants (or homes) isn't a great (and helpful) experience, but it acknowledges, imo, two things. First, that a good author/researcher has invested a lot more time doing primary research into local cuisines that we typically have time for, and may well have better introductions to good local chefs. Second, many local folks may not eat that well (too much trouble, lack of interest, etc). Maybe they remember how their mother or grandmother made things or maybe they don't (or maybe the way they cook and eat is just the same or better).

            I'm not, by any means, saying that sitting home reading a cookbook is "better" than chowhounding on the ground, just that a good researcher who is really interested in good food can provide a lot of helpful information that it could take a lot of time to replicate on one's own.

            1. re: jonathan sibley

              I'm with you, too, Jonathan.

              It's a pain in the butt living here in southern Oregon where even God says "Where?". I mean, there's really a town next to me called Bonanza! LOOK, THERE GOES PA CARTRIGHT! It's crazy.

              Anyway, it limits me to the experiences I had when I lived in the Bay Area - no, I wouldn't move back there for anything, but God, at least, knows where the place is! So, I have to settle for cookbooks, one really good authentic Mexican restaurant, and...well, more cookbooks!


              1. re: Keith
                Tom Armitage

                Cookbooks and good sources for mail-order ingredients, like chiles. Some of the fresh ingredients you can grow yourself. Epazote, for example, is easy to grow. So I guess it's cookbooks, mail-order suppliers, and seed companies. Some ingredients, like fresh paddle cactus leaves (nopales), may be a problem--but that's when you need to focus on the good things about living in Southern Oregon.

                1. re: Tom Armitage

                  Actually, Southern Oregon is beatiful; Klamath Falls isn't, that's the problem. It's high desert, out in the middle of nowhere, snows heavily at times, and...well, it just ain't good for food products and chowin'.

                  However, it is quiet, slower paced, and...well, admittedly, I've come to accept it. But you don't want to know what Thai food is around here! Let's just say that at our local Thai so-called restaurant, you can get everything you need in...a JAR! Yes, preservatives and all, and maybe a tad of true ingredient here and there! It's sad!

                  Sorry, no room for forgiveness here! Now, there is a decent Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant that does a pretty darned good dish or two...somewhat redeeming for the Thai flop! Oh, and one really decent authentic Mexican restaurant. Other than that, kiss it goodbye!

                  So, I'm going to get a grip on some good Mexican techniques, some seasonings and mail-ordering supplies. I will conquer and eat authentically...sooner or later. And then I'll go to Mexico and see how it's really done!


                  1. re: Keith


                    Latinos are Oregon's largest minority group, and most of them are from Mexico. While it's been a while since I've been in K-Falls, there are bound to be some chowhound-like restaurants serving this population. This isn't a new trend...for many years one of the best Mexican places in the state was just up hwy 97 (Davila's in LaPine...not sure if it's still open). So look for small taquerias in the poorer neighoborhoods and farming communities...the grocery stores in those areas often have the ingredients, too.

                    If you get up to Portland (and if you drive all the way up 97, eat at the Mexican restaurant in's very good, too), there are many taquerias serving the basic, two-corn-tortilla taco for about $1.25, with fillings ranging from carne asada to birria to lengua. One of my favorites, Mi Ranchito, is on NE 26th and Alberta. Just down the street is a bodega with barrels of dried chiles, nopalitos, corn husks for tamales, and fresh masa.
                    Like a lot of immigrant food, the "Mexican" food cooked in el norte has evolved to include locally available ingredients, but the flavors are still there. You don't necessarily have to go to Mexico for real Mexican food.


                    ps...check out Esparza's TexMex Restaurant on my website for another version of "Mexican" food


                    1. re: Jim Dixon

                      Hey Jim, thanks.

                      Yeah, popping up here and there in K-Falls have been some small taquerias. And yes, some have been quite good and others so-so. (one would think I'd think to ASK the proprietors how day doo dat?). I'm going to have to pay more attention, though, to the outskirts, for sure.

                      Hmm, don't know if Davila's is in LaPine still. I think the one here in town, if they're related, burned down. I'll have to check. Thanks.

                      Thanks much for your tips and web site.