Mexico: More than just tacos and tequila…

When the Ambassador of Mexico Mauricio Escanero, said “Ven a comer” (“Come and share our food”), I took it as a personal invitation to visit his beautiful country.

He was actually welcoming guests to a dinner at which Jorge Vallejo – chef of world-renowned Quintonil in Mexico City – was cooking with SA’s own Luke Dale-Roberts as part of a collaboration between our two countries. The innovative use of ant larvae and escamoles piqued my interest and, after all, Mexican cuisine has been given Unesco World Heritage status.

A few weeks later, the mother of Mexican cooking, Abigail Mendoza Ruiz, an ethnic Zapotec from Oaxaca (known as the Land of Seven Sauces), where she runs her restaurant Tlamanalli, came to South Africa to teach cooking skills in our townships. We shared grasshoppers flavoured with chilli and garlic and spiced with her immense knowledge for breakfast, united in our mutual love of food.

Mexico has enormous geographical diversity – deserts, oceans, mountains and plains. We decided to ignore the sprawling cities and head straight for the coast, with Tulum in the East Yucatán on the Caribbean side winning the toss-up with popular Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific.

Just an hour’s drive south of the ritzy resort town of Cancun, Tulum boasts spectacular Mayan ruins, their cliff-top setting breathtaking. Where else in the world can you view ruins and the vivid turquoise water of the Caribbean simultaneously? Chichen Itza on its outskirts – one of the new Seven Wonders of the World – is the most famous Mayan site in the world and a spiritual and culture centre.

Lazy beach days were interspersed with vigorous activities that included shopping in the village for crafts and beachwear in vivid hues, with my man regularly seeking “moral support” from tequila and margaritas along the way. In excess of 100 million litres of tequila are produced annually. The blue agave plant is the base for this archetypal Mexican drink that’s sold on every street corner.

Cenote (caves) are one of Tulum’s big drawcards and the site of many activities. We entered the biggest domed cenote in the Yucatán Peninsula for some rappelling, slack-lining and swimming. My husband chose to go cave diving and, lacking a head for heights, watched me rappelling. It involves letting yourself down on a rope from the top of the cave into the icy, seemingly bottomless waters below. It was with fear and trepidation that I started to slowly release my rope before rapidly letting go and landing to loud applause. We later sought sustenance back in town at Charlie’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant at the bus stop that became our favourite haunt for its well-priced food. Here we could people-watch and make friends using our few lines of Spanish over tortillas, tacos and more tequila – referred to as “vitamin T” by the locals!

The highlight of my trip was meeting bright, vivacious and passionate Lily Espinoza, who runs Riviera’s Kitchen Tulum. Our taxi driver followed her directions into a suburb of small streets filled with noisy, playful children and man dogs. Her cheerful green kitchen – with a cat slumbering in the sunshine on the windowsill – is where she teaches tourists the basics of native cuisine and about the “people of the corn”. The fare revolves around corn, beans and chillies. The more than 60 varieties of corn are considered to be the staple food for Mexicans and when nixtamalised (dried with an alkali-like lime), the corn changes its state and becomes more nutritious. It’s then ground on a heavy stone to produce corn flour (masa).

We learnt to make tortillas – the basis of all local food, with other traditional favourites like guacamole and tomato salsa. A tortilla filled with cheese is called a quesadilla and when filled, sealed and baked, it’s called an empanada. If fried, it’s a tostados; top it with cheese, meat or seafood and it’s a frijoles, and if you add chilli sauce, you have an enchilada. Fill and fold and there is your burrito, often filled with flavoured beans. I queried the effects of eating so many beans. “Espazote is a green leaf that reduces flatulence and counteracts gastric parasites – and saves friendships and marriages,” laughed Lily.

She shared other culinary pearls of wisdom, such as that tomatoes “blink” when cooked, you can soften beans overnight for faster cooking and it’s best to use fresh chillies for more flavour.

After feasting and bonding at her kitchen table, Lily drove us to see her new cookery school in a large house in the country. It’s surrounded by fruit trees and herbs and it was here that I gained a true understanding of the meaning of the phrase, “living off the land”. Inspired by nature, she plans to grow food to cook and teach with. When she dropped us back at Tulum, we were armed with tips about where to buy indigenous ingredients, Mexican crockery and many a kilo of masa. She also kindly invited us to join her that night to eat at a taco spot favoured by the locals.

It was after dark when we found El Asadero restaurant in a little side street, hidden away from tourists. Lily introduced us to her friends and we were bumped to the head of the queue. After beer with spice in a salted glass, I ordered tacos with nopal (cactus), savouring each mouthful and moment, as our last night in this vibrant, colourful, must-see destination came to a fitting and flavoured end.

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