Desperately seeking salsa

I’ve just made plans to meet a colleague for Mexican food at a fantastic place in London called Wahaca. While no big thing for those of you in the USA, there are precious few restaurants serving good Mexican food or even Tex-Mex here in the UK, and those that do are pricey.

We watched re-runs of Happy Days while eating tacos

Affordable Tex-Mex was so ubiquitous where I grew up (Ohio) that I never imagined I would miss it. As a child, tacos were a particular joy. Mom or dad would brown ground beef sprinkled with a packet of Old El Paso™ taco spice mix (a blend of things most people have in their cupboard, combined with some things I don’t recognize as actual food). We’d fill a few thick, hard, taco-shaped corn shells with the beef, then pile on spoonfuls of rainbow-coloured fillings: bright-orange shredded cheese, chopped red tomatoes, pale-green iceberg lettuce, chopped black olives from a can, and snowy-white sour cream. We ate while balancing our plates on our laps in front of the television, enjoying sensational dancing on ‘Solid Gold!‘ or reruns of Happy Days. Bliss.

You call that a tortilla?

My Mexican food education expanded considerably when I spent four months living with a family in Mérida, Mexico. I learned that those hard taco-like things we ate were sad substitutes for the real thing. I went walking early one morning and found steam pouring from the chimney of a tiny, low-ceilinged adobe building, from which short, round women with long braids – Mayan women – emerged carrying towel-wrapped bundles of warm tortillas. We ate the tortillas at our big mid-day meal, with simple roast chicken tinted with red anatto (a natural food coloring derived from the achiote tree), topped with lettuce and sliced onions in fresh lime juice and salt. After lunch, as the rest of us napped in hammocks, our hard-working cook, who was one of the Mayan women I’d seen that morning, fried the uneaten tortillas in oil for our dinner or a snack.

Years later I moved to Austin, Texas, and the variety of Mexican foodie delights are too abundant to list. A favorite was Saturday mornings at Magnolia with my pal V, for gingerbread pancakes (click for the recipe) and a T. Rex omelet (shredded smoked turkey, cheese, avocado and pico de gallo salsa), or El Sol y la Luna for chilaquiles (bits of corn tortilla fried, then simmered with salsa and mixed with scrambled eggs, topped with cheese). It was also a treat to drive into a dusty parking lot for a couple of breakfast tacos (favorites were potato and bean or cheese and egg) from one of the little trailers that set up shop in the mornings.

Viva Mexico … pero No Viva Chi Chi’s

After the flood of incredible Mexican and Tex-Mex in Austin, came the drought: I moved to Belgium. Early on I spotted a Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Brussels. It brought back memories of birthdays spent at the Chi-Chi’s in Toledo, where staff would plop a giant sombrero on your head and sing happy birthday, as you sweated over a candle stuck in a bowl of cinnamon-fried ice cream. While lame in the realm of culinary snobbery, the fried ice cream tasted awesome. Once I asked our waitress how it was made and was told the ice cream is rolled in cinnamon and crushed cornflakes, then quickly fried. I tried it at home but, as expected, the ice cream melted. Oh Chi-Chi’s … how DO you do it?

In a sad epilogue, Chi Chi’s stopped doing it soon after I moved to Brussels. They were blamed for a deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A, which apparently originated at their location in a mall in Pennsylvania.

Brussels terrace

The view from our terrace in Brussels, where we feasted on contraband Mexican goodies

Far from the Hep A catastrophe, things were looking up in Brussels: I got a hot tip from an expatriate Texan about a Mexican woman living in a suburb-of-a-suburb of Brussels, who sells Mexican food supplies out of her garage. We called this mysterious woman and were told to stop by her place that evening. Cookie-cutter houses lined the street, which was pin-drop quiet on that cool autumn evening. We skeptically rang the doorbell, worried that our request for Mexican food would be met with the same sort of incredulity and disdain I got every time I tried to speak French at a shop in Brussels. After what seemed an eternity, the garage door opened. Inside were metal shelves stacked with cans of black beans, massive bags of dried chilies, sacks of masa harina, cast-iron tortilla presses, bottles of tequila and jars of salsa. The woman was middle-aged, married to a German, and she missed Mexican food. We weren’t clear on the legality of this business venture, but didn’t care as we filled the back of our Toyota with the makings of many fine Mexican meals. With the complement of fresh avocados and other vegetables from Brussels’s biggest weekly market, the Marché du Midi, the drought was over.

Mole, mole, mole

We moved to England in 2005, where I managed to grow two huge tomatillo (husk tomato) plants: these produce small, green tomatoes in husks which are whisked up with chillies, cilantro (fresh coriander) and other ingredients to make salsa verde (green salsa). I’d actually given up on the tomatillos since we were (and still are) having such dreadfully wet, cool summers. And when I visited my forlorn vegetable patch in October that year I was shocked to see the tomatillos had survived and were ready to pick (the lesson seems to be that when I ignore the plants, they grow). For all the space the plants take up (they grew to about 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall), they made only one luscious, much-appreciated bowl of salsa verde, which we still remember fondly. (Here’s a recipe from Another Freaking Cooking Blog.)

Oaxaca, Mexico

The view from our friend's place in Oaxaca, Mexico

A few years later we visited friends living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They took us to the one and only market stall from which they would buy mole poblano, the rich sauce made of dozens of ingredients, most popularly chocolate, which is often served with chicken (or in the case of my vegan friend, black beans). I have a faint memory of eating chicken with mole poblano for the first time in Chiapas in 1991, when I was a student. I had been served a hot tea-like beverage with a shot of some sort of alcohol, and I was told to pour the shot into the tea. I did so, drank it, and don’t remember much about the evening or the mole after that. So it was years later that I really gained an appreciation for mole poblano.

We bought several kilos of black and red mole from my friend’s favorite stallholder in Oaxaca, brought it back to the UK and stored it in the freezer. For a year, each meal we made with it was a ritual of indulgence. We barely spoke during those meals, so busy were we devouring the oily, dark mole and chicken, scooping it up with freshly made tortillas, washed down with beer, and then licking our fingers of greasy goodness.

While mole is an indulgence, fresh tortillas are a staple. The heavy flour ‘wraps’ from the supermarket and thick yellow shells of my youth simply won’t do. Masa harina for making tortillas is six times the price in the UK compared to Ohio, so when we pack for a trip to the USA we leave a four-kilo space in our suitcases for masa. Occasionally, a sympathetic friend brings over a bag of it when they visit (thanks to T from Texas for our most recent bag). In one case, a friend from the UK was returning from Florida and got cold feet at the last minute: couriering a kilo of white powder from Miami was just a bit too unsettling.

We’re dangerously short of masa now, with no plans for a trip back to the USA to replenish. And we’ve scoured the many food shops selling all manner of corn products aimed at South Asians and Africans, but none works for making Mexican tortillas. It’s a shame, but then it makes those past meals so much sweeter, whether watching re-runs while crunching mass-produced Tex-Mex in Toledo, snacking on leftover deep-fried tortillas in Merida, or savouring our own version of burritos with ingredients from the garage-cum-Mexican-tienda outside Leuven, Belgium. Viva Mexico, wherever you may be.


One Comment on “Desperately seeking salsa”

  1. […] pox. They asked me to take some time off  — apparently plagues are bad for business (see previous post about Chi Chi’s Restaurant and […]

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