Monday, January 21, 2013

La Fiesta de la Cocina Mexicana

Pico de gallo, salsa verde, salsa chipotle


Like most non Mexicans, I grew up imagining that Mexican food was tacos, tacos, tortillas, tacos, beans and rice, tacos... And a little later tacos, tortillas, guacamole, tacos, refried beans, grated tasty cheese, tacos...Then there was something called chocolate mole chicken but that was just a passing plate in the night.

I stopped over in Mexico for a couple of days when I went as a brigadista picking coffee in Nicaragua in the mid 1980s. I spent half of that time in a dark hotel room being feverish and vomiting from something I ate on the street - probably a tortilla. But I did get to add quesadillas to my Mexican repertoire, and I remember still the extraordinary cafe con leche I had - the cafe came in a tall glass, black and strong; the leche came in a small tumbler, hot; the idea was to drop the glass of leche into the cafe and let the milk gently swirl up and mix with the coffee. In Nicaragua itself we brigadistas lived on a diet of gallo pinto - red beans and rice, and Chicha de Maiz (with brown cane sugar and maize in a thick soup which was brought to us in the coffee groves at mid-morning), and white rum bought in plastic bags, with chicken as a celebratory dinner on our last night on the finca.That was when I was involved in solidarity work with Latin American refugee groups in Australia, particularly as a member of an acoustic quartet Canto y Lucha (sorry, no YouTube . This led me to empanadas (not Mexican, I know) and cebiche.

I did also come back with a copy of The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy, and it became the source of my guacamole, well-fried beans (not refried, as Kennedy pointed out, this being a mis-translation of the word refritos, though they continue to be called refried) and a chicken in red sesame seed sauce.

Strangely, it was not until years later I came across corn chips, and I will confess it was the packet kind, and I will confess also that I have devoured many in the time since. I also confess that I have rarely downed a tequila sunrise, let alone lick, sip, sucked, sipped salt, tequila and lime. (Apropos of nothing, except being cursed with a memory for trivia, one of my favourite bit characters in a Looney Tunes cartoon was named Tequila Mockingbird, now the name of a cocktail (with two distinct flavours), restaurants, blog and music group).

My appreciation of Mexican food took a big leap when my daughter Mary and her then boyf now husb Chris worked at Riders, a small restaurant above the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills, run buy Mark and Anna who now run Rider Food. That was my first meeting with nopal salad (a fantastic use to which prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species) has not been put in Australia but could take over from the Cactoblastis cactorum if neo urban foragers and cash-strapped farmers put their minds and gloved hands to it) and also with fajitas.

Next stage of this journey to the Fiesta of the title of this blog, was Chris becoming manager of Beach Burrito cafes in Bondi and Newtown (and Chris and Mary spending time on Mexico on a pre-proposal gap year trip) and discovering the pleasures of frozen margaritas (and as another aside, I did once have down pat all the words to Jimmy Buffet's Wasting Away in Margaritaville) and Coronas with that jaunty slice of lemon stuffed down the neck on a hot summer night in Newtown.

You still with me, we're getting close to the meal reveal!

Then my niece Casey, living with Marilyn and me for a couple of years now, met up with Helen Garcia Garza, chef/proprietor at Fuego de la Tierra, bringing home Mexican sweets Helena made for her stall at the Bondi Farmers Market  - guayabate,thinly rolled guava paste with sweet caramel-like cajeta, sprinkled with lightly toasted crumbled pecans; alegrias, a puffed amaranth bar bound together with honey and brown cane sugar and pressed with nuts and raisins; mazapan de cacahuate, soft, creamy and crumbly peanut marzipan; jamoncillo, crumbly fudge made with ground pumpkin seed, ciruelas rellenas de almendras, prunes stuffed with a sweet vanilla and almond crumble, and pellizcos de tamarindo,sweet and sour tamarind blended with guajillo chili. It was fascinating to recognise the last two as sweets I ate as a child in Sri Lanka. I also had the pleasure of dipping into Helena's salsas.  

Critical mass was now reached and a dinner to which we all contributed was inevitable. So in January 2013 we came together for La Fiesta de la Cocina Mexican, a celebration of origins, regions, tastes, ingredients, traditions and tweaks.  The dishes on the night and their makers were:

Ensalada de nopales (pickled cactus salad)
Ejotes guisados (sauteéd green beans with orange and lime juice)
Bacalao  (salted dried cod with almonds, raisins, olives, potatoes, garlic, onion and tomatoes)
Tamales Oaxaqueños (masa steamed in banana leaves and filled with chicken and mole poblano)
The table
Salsa chipotle
Salsa ranchera with habanero

Frijoles refritos (well-fried beans)
Pollo en pipian rojo (chicken in red sesame seed sauce)

Arroz (plain white rice)

Chris and Mary:
Braised goat (cooked in Corona beer, crushed tomatoes and roasted spices)
Pico de gallo  (tomato onion and coriander salsa
Home-baked corn chips

Atole de Fresa (a cold strawberry, corn flour and mint soup as dessert)

The extravagance of the meal was balanced by a simpler selection of beverages - red and white wines, Coronas and water. Helena also made horchata (an almond milk drink) which we didn't have on the night but I polished off over the course of the next day.

Casey's place setting
Casey decorated the table equally simply; a single orange bauhinia (from the much loved tree on our side terrace which never fails to produce a mass of blossom no matter how severely I prune it) offsetting  plain Indian cotton napkins (thanks Marg!) on a white plate.  

Chris was official papparazzo and its his images that grace this blog.

Some slight headaches and sleep ins were reported the following morning.

Muchas gracias todos!

Helena finishes off the tortillas

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fishy business

Jimbaran beachside fish market, Bali
Was it every Sunday that we went from mass to the Colombo fish market in Pettah to buy mud crabs for lunch, their massive front claws immobilised by small wooden peg inserted just where they emerged from the shell, their bodies tied in string for ease of carrying, string which we eagerly awaited the cutting of on the kitchen floor back home, the preliminary to us chasing the crab around the polished concrete till Rosalind our cook grew tired of our game, grabbed the crab up expertly avoiding the flailing claws and tossed them into the chatty of boiling water.

Negombo wharfside fish market, Sri Lanka
Probably not every Sunday, but often enough for it to be one of my strongest childhood food memories. The crabs and the dizzyingly attractive pungent stench of the market. All produce markets are pleasure gardens to me, but fish markets more so. The pulpy glassy eyes that look horrified and accusatory at the same time; the line of open mouths like so many choristers; the stall holders scale covered hands slashing off hunks of pink/white/red flesh, fanning away the flies, splashing water onto flesh well past resuscitation ; the blues, silvers, reds, browns, spotted, striped, ringed, yellow-finned, spine-finned, whiskered, shelled, pod-footed, segmented, fan-tailed, tentacled, bounty of it all.

The crab would inevitably end up as Sri Lankan crab curry, than which I reckon there is no finer. Hunks of tuna would be washed in lime, coated with ground goroka and emerge from the pan as sour sweet ambul thiyal. Halmassa, dried sprats, would be fried up, mixed with fresh sliced onion and green chilli for a sambol. Swordfish would be the base for a fiery miris malu.

Vendor buying fish from recently arrived angler, Jimbaran
I am no angler so I have a lot of respect for those who are, be they fishing off a breakwater like that which ran out to the lighthouse at the seaward arm of the Colombo Harbour, or the seine net fishermen in Cochin harbour walking the length of the arm of the net to drop it into the bay, or the outrigger boatsmen in the waters of the southern Balinese coast ( I name these because I have direct experience of them as I do not of the North Sea fishers or others off coasts and in oceans I haven't travelled).

Seller, Jimbaran beachside
So, to celebrate those who have brought me so much sensory pleasure over the years here are images from fish markets in Sri Lanka (Colombo, Negombo and village stalls) and Bali (Jimbaran).

The scales used at JImbaran

Vendor at Jimbaran covered fish market

Gutting and preparing fish for sale, Negombo

Vendor, Negombo fish market

Vendors, Negombo fish market

Interior, Jimbaran covered fish market
Exterior Jimbaran covered market, on-sellers round up
Village vendor, Sri Lanka
Seaside fish market, South Coast, Sri Lanka