Just back from three weeks in Mexico. Lots of tacos, lots of tequila, lots of avocados, lots of mezcal. Lots of pork. Pork of every texture, shape, taste, cookedness – and coming out of every kind of torta and tortilla.
How many different ways are there of saying tortilla in Mexico? All roads lead back to them – albeit with different levels of crunchiness and shape. Tortilla with eggs for breakfast. Tostadas. Totopos, Tacos. Chilaquiles. Flautas. Giant tortillas covered in frijoles and cheese and eaten with arms outstretched. Blue ones, corn ones, flour ones. Papusas, gorditas, sudados (‘sweaty’ ones – liked them).
It’s all about the maize. Sin mais, no hay pais – Without corn, there’s no Mexico. And I love the way the food traditions of the Toltecs, Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs have stood firm regardless of being raped by the Spanish. This is a country where you can see the culture, feel its history, in the rhythms of its street-side food prep and life of its markets. The smell of corn tortillas curls up from every other griddle and the slap, slap, slap of the dough being patted into neat little discs accompanies the other sounds that give those places their pulse: cumbia/merengue/salsa, and “elote! elote! elote!” shouted nasally from passing corn sellers, carts rolling past laden with veg and people shouting “Güera!” at you as you get in amongst it.
The vendadores set up from shopping trolleys, carts, baskets, tricycles. One guy had converted his VW Beetle (the Mexican national car) into a sugar cane juice-mobile. I stopped and chatted to him – turns out matey’s been to London and even had burrito action chez Luardos.
In Tulum town guys hook power to their puestas from nearby electricity lines. Nearly 30% of electricity is stolen in Mexico and I reckon the vendors have got the lion’s share. White light illuminates glistening meats and griddled tacos. The whole of Mexico favours the white light to such an extent that, from afar, cities make the sky glow silver, rather than the low orange of those over here. It’s kitchen-like, functional, a glow under which stuff gets chopped up, racked up, scooped up and sliced up. The street belongs to everyone and the warmth of the night makes you happy to stay and stay.
Watch how the Mexican eat their tacos. So neat. They say you can tell a lot about a person from the way they scoff it. Spot the tourista who’s over-loaded theirs, losing skids of beans through the bottom and meat shards over the top. They say that Mexicans are distrustful by nature but that all falls away when you’re at the stand getting your food on. Help yourself from the bowls of salsa, beans, papas, salads, then pay up at the end once you’ve counted up. When it comes to food the trust is right there – people who don’t know each other sitting like family round the same table.
One day I tried grasshoppers – chapulines – then hormigas – ants. Then they had me try a freaking dried (and very crispy) earthworm. Everyone on the stall stood around me encouragingly as I munched through it, eyebrows raised in anticipation of my reaction. ‘Ricisimo, verdad?’ they’d ask. ‘Mmmmmm!’ I’d reply.
In Mérida I spent the whole day with something to eat in my hand. From the little bags of fried pumpkin seeds that they open and throw chipotle and half a squeezed lime into (seriously delicious), to the corn ice cream (not for me). I troughed tamarind balls, flan, bags of chilli-d fruit and flors de Jamaica. Puerco profundo – the ‘deep’ bits of the pig all roiling and moiling around on a hot griddle, ready for chopping – was super-tasty and the botanas you get in the cantinas keep you loaded with food while you drink. This is tapas, Mexican style. For every beer come three plates of food – chicharrones/potato salad/cucumber salad. Or chopped hot dogs with habanero/macaroni with tomato sauce/frijoles. Kind of made you want to stay and drink all day….
In Laguinilla market in Mexico City we got lost under the yellow canopies. Pure, crazy gaud-fest amongst the 15 Años dresses – folds and layers and frills and ruches of every possible colour of satin for the girls’ big day. Made ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ look like a dress rehearsal. Next door people ladled horchata from huge plastic urns into giant polystyrene cups. Further along the cochinita pibil stall lured us in as always. This stuff is the business: achiote and bitter orange marinaded pork, slow-roasted in banana leaves and served in toasted buns with loads of tang. Seriously, when is someone going to start a torta de cochinita pibil stall in London? I imagine one called ‘Porksville’ which gives the tired old hog-roast a run for its money. Spice and lime my pork up, man. It’s the only way to go from now on.
Then to cool down your inflamed mouth afterwards, a choice from the sorbet pallet of ice cream flavours in the trolleys going by. Those colours! Mirroring the houses and signs everywhere and calling ‘try me! try me!’.
You end up trying everything because it all looks and smells so good. This is not a country of slimmers, avoiding the bad stuff, this is a nation of proper eaters who don’t care who knows it. This is lusty, healthy, proper eating and its streets would be ghostly without it all.
I’m a fan. Bring on the next trip over there…