Monday, October 27, 2008
We were at a dinner party hosted by some Mexican friends, when they asked why I liked Mexican cuisine. It was the same question asked of me by one of Melbourne's leading food critics at a dinner. Funnily, he didn't ask why I liked French and Italian food, as if the answer was a given, but in both cases my reply was the same - Mexican food has a way of making me feel connected, connected to an ancient culture whose food has hardly varied in some 10,000 years with few exceptions, and connected to produce that gives a sense of the very earth in which it's grown.
Mexican cuisine is very much dominated by just three ingredients, corn, beans and chillies, so nourishing that they have sustained a race of people through the millennia, but when held up to say French cooking, is easily dismissed as cheap peasant food, or just another type of takeaway, but according to Fiona Dunlop, in her new cookbook, Viva, La Revolucion!,
'Mexican cooking is considered to be one of the world's three original cuisines, along with those of China and France.'
But while the cuisines of the two latter countries has continued to develop, Mexican cookery, apart from major changes wrought after the 1519 Spanish invasion, appears stagnant by comparison; it seems there is only so much that can be done with corn, beans and chillies. Or perhaps poverty has played a part. People more concerned with survival, tend less to play around with their food. Maybe the gutsy nature of the flavours inhibited experimentation, making nuance an alien concept.
But in the last twenty years, there seems to be a movement to modernize Mexican cookery, so while tacos and burritos will always be loved (Mexicans consume 300 million corn tortillas daily, not counting the wheat ones eaten in the north), it is possible to eat Mexican food that is both light and refreshing.
Ceviche is considered a Peruvian dish, whereby seafood is cooked only by the acidity of lemon or lime juice and is a technique fully embraced by chefs in Mexico, who have made it their own. A beautiful, light dish for a hot summer's day.
red, white and green, colours of the Mexican flag
(serves 4, adapted from Viva, La Revolucion!)
1kg raw prawns, cleaned and butterflied
juice from several lemons, enough to cover prawns
1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 green and red chillies*, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 avocado, peeled and cut into small chunks
12 baby plum tomatoes, sliced into rounds
salt and fresh ground pepper
2 limes, juiced
few coriander leaves to garnish
Place the prawns, red onion and chillies in a non-reactive bowl and cover with the lemon juice, leave to marinate 15 or 20 minutes. When the prawns are fully cooked through by the lemon juice, drain and mix in the avocado and tomato and season with the salt and fresh ground pepper. Place decoratively on serving plates, give each plate a good squeeze of lime juice and garnish with coriander leaves.
*The original recipe called for 12 jalapeno chillies. Use any chillies with which you are familiar, or, leave them out altogether and add capsicum strips instead.