The once and future Mexican cuisine. Two Wednesdays ago, the homespun side of Mexican cooking -- family style -- appeared on these pages. Today, we look at a very different face of this important country's diverse and tumultuous table: a high style of cooking that draws on Mexico's prodigious culinary past and brings to it a fresh sense of taste and presentation.
`WE do not not yet have a Mexican Julia Child,'' says Patricia Quintana, speaking of the absence of a celebrity cooking instructor on Mexican television. But when Mexico does, it may very well be Ms. Quintana, the strikingly attractive cookbook author, cooking teacher, and executive chef for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, who will play that role of lifting a country's cuisine to a more appreciative and elegant level.Skip to next paragraph
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Mexican cooking today is very much in the process of discovering its own roots. As can be seen by any visitor to Mexico City or any of this ancient country's distinct regions -- from Baja California down to Oaxaca on the South Pacific Coast and across to the Yucatan Peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico -- Mexicans are profoundly fascinated with their past.
For several thousand years before the European colonial period, the peoples of the region developed an array of cultures in which corn, chiles, fish, and other native produce became the staples of a cooking that later was embellished with Northern and Southern European influences.
To begin to understand Mexican cooking, one should spend the day at the National Museum of Anthropology here in the capital, following the early migration of the country's Asian ancestors across the Ice Age land bridge in the North Pacific and the development of its often warring civilizations.
Then have dinner at one of the popular Mexican restaurants, like the Fonda de la Refugio in the Zona Rosa, to sample traditional dishes like chiles en nogada (stuffed chiles in walnut sauce) or empanadas (zucchini blossom-stuffed turnovers), or dine at one of the newer resaurants like Estoril, which, like their counterparts in the United States and Europe, treat traditional Mexican elements in a lighter, more attractive manner.
At this moment, Mexican cooking is poised between its future and its past, while at the same time it is troubled by the country's austere economic present. Young chefs, including women chefs, encouraged by enterprising restaurateurs in Europe and the US, now cater to an educated middle class.
``We are trying to establish a new wave in Mexican cooking,'' Ms. Quintana says. ``We are presenting traditional dishes more artistically, combining ingredients in new ways. We are striving for a more aesthetic presentation. We are cooking in a lighter way, with less grease; we are cooking vegetables and meats. . . . But we cannot change the basics.''
Typical of this effort is the formation of the Circolo de Arte Culinario, a small group of cooks, writers, artists, and historians, who have an interest in food. In January, they are planning an exhibition of foods as prepared in old Mexican paintings.
``Everybody talks about food in Mexico,'' Quintana says. ``They talk about it a lot: what they ate yesterday, what they're planning to eat tonight. Now, younger professional women, after studying other things, still want to know more about cooking. They want to know more about the management of cuisines.''
Hence Quintana's cooking school, in the handsome Bosques de las Lomas section of Mexico City, has become quite busy. She emphasizes the basic techniques of Mexican cooking, using the mortar and pestle.
``We still use our hands in cooking,'' she says, referring to the US fascination with new gadgets and equipment. ``Many Mexicans still use the stone grinder,'' she adds -- although the visitor to her school will also notice, among the stone, clay, and wooden utensils, such modern accessories as convection ovens.
Apart from her teaching, and the presentation of Mexican foods in the Ministry of Tourism's private dining room, over which she presides, Quintana's major contribution to Mexican cooking is her new book, ``The Taste of Mexico'' (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $35).
This is a spectacular volume. The recipes have been collected by Quintana from all parts of Mexico -- culled from her files of more than 7000 recipes kept in her school library. Some are from restaurants, others are for traditional foods served by vendors or in homes. Most are gorgeously illustrated in color photographs by Ignacio Urquiza, set against striking Mexican seaside and countryside backgrounds, in old towns, alongside art works, or amid richly colored arrangements of chiles, seafood, and breads.
For authenticity's sake, there are some real palate-testers: How about ant eggs, or Maguey worms, Pachuca style, or corn fungus?