You can tell when a food trend is in full flight, when its influence has worked its way down the food chain, literally, from fine-dining restaurants to global fast food franchisees. So what does McDonald’s recent fast-food offering of ‘El Maco’ tell us? Well – that we’re in the grip of a major Mexican-influenced food moment! While on the one hand, on-trend Maccas is offering us Mexican-themed burgers, local chefs (including Neil Perry – known more for his Asian-inspired recipes) are buying into it, spicing up their recipes with Mexican chillies and using Latin cuts of meat, such as skirt steak.
Also, on the food-trend radar is Korean cuisine, but this is a bit less obvious and more cherry-picked, rather than authentic. Brought to the fore by American super-chef David Chang, of Momofuko fame, and other American Korean chefs who mix it up to suit their whim and create individual food melting pots. Take LA food truck chef Marc Mangrera, a Filipino-American, married to a Korean, who’s famed for his mash-up of Korean barbecue and Mexican food – the result is dishes such as kimchee quesadillas and burritos.
Why one food trend catches on and another doesn’t can have a lot to do with how easy it is to adopt locally and how relevant it is to the way we live. So, while Scandinavian chef innovators are another major global influence, this trend is unlikely to filter down to home cook, except for perhaps seeing dill and cucumber cropping up a bit more. Why? Well the climate for one thing, which couldn’t be more different - winter here doesn’t necessarily stop things growing; in Australia, we have a year-round supply of vegetables. The need to preserve reindeer and forage for moss in lieu of ‘proper’ vegetables is hardly required!
In contrast, Mexican flavours are tailor-made for the casual way we all eat these days. We’ve dabbled with its flavours in the past, but got it so terribly wrong! Thankfully, we now know that nachos is NOT Mexican food and that drowning everything in cheese is, well, not very authentic; while the real lighter, cleaner, zingy flavours of chilli and lime are so at home on the playlist of the Australian kitchen. Although there are still gaps in available ingredients, and it may be a few years before things like fresh tomatillos (a type of green tomato) are widely grown here, there’s certainly enough for the cook to be able to put a modern and Australian interpretation on the flavours. So get into fiesta mode and check out our truly delicious Top 6 Modern Mexican feature in the June issue of MasterChef Magazine, with recipes created by our resident Mexican stylist, Kristine Duran-Thiessen.
TOP 10 MEXICAN CUPBOARD INGREDIENTS
There’s more to tortillas than just floured (wheat) tortillas. For real flavour, try corn ones. Supermarkets sell them and there are a couple of small producers making really great ones with white, yellow and even blue corn for a homemade authentic taste. You could even try making them; after all, it’s only flour and water, though you do need a special type of flour made from corn called Masa Harina, available from delis. Once you’ve nailed it, you’ll find it hard to go back to buying them!
There are varieties that span the whole year, though my favourite is Hass for taste and texture. The trick to picking a good one is not the colour of the skin – some varieties like Sheppard stay green while Hass will go from green to almost black. Just give it a squeeze (but not around the middle, as this will tell you nothing). With your thumb, push down gently at the stem end; the amount of give in this area will give you the indication of ripeness. I like to pick mine with just a little bit of give, as once in the fruit bowl, they ripen up quite quickly.
Known in the Americas as cilantro and Mexican parsley, the whole plant is edible – root, stems and leaves. Leaves offer the most flavour and should be added at the very end to preserve their fresh, herbaceous quality. When chopped coriander is called for, I like to chop the soft stems too.
These chubby green 5-6cm-long chillies have quite a bit more heat than long green chillies, which have virtually none. There are also red jalapeños, but these are rarely seen in Australia. Remove the seeds for less heat. Grilling or roasting tempers the heat. Check out the delicious Jalapeño Crema in our Fish Tacos recipe.
If you want to be really authentic with the cooking fat you use, cook with lard, though most modern chefs will use other cooking oils – olive, grape seed or vegetable. There are recipes where a little bit of pork fat can really make all the difference in taste, such as in refried beans. If you don’t want to render your own pork fat, use a little bit of streaky bacon instead.
6. CHIPOTLE CHILLIES IN ADOBO SAUCE
Look for Embassa and Goya brands from delis. These dried smoked jalapeños are packed into a sauce made with vinegar and spices. Once you’ve experienced these you’ll be adding a little bit here and there to a variety of things – the flavours is so addictive.
Mexicans eat a lot of slow-braised meats and work with the whole animal, not just the expensive cuts. Barbecuing over charcoal rather than gas will give your meat an authentic taste.
In the Mexican kitchen, heat and fat tend to be tempered with the addition of some form of acid, which could be the freshness of lime juice added to an accompanying salsa, or vinegar or orange juice added to a braise, such as carnitas, to counter the fattiness of pork shoulder.
Fresh and ground into masa harina it’s the cornerstone starch along with beans and rice in Mexican cooking.
10. HOT SAUCE
Mexican hot sauces, available from delis, are what ketchup is to the burger! They’ll make any dish dance with their heat and flavoursome tang.
Sophia Young is the Food Director of MasterChef Magazine.