Mexico's Tasty Mix of Cultures

Chef Susanna Palazuelos urges people to explore her country's New- and Old World flavors. Mexico's Cuisine Blends Old and New

HERNAN CORTS never could have predicted it. When he arrived in the New World in 1519, the Spanish conqueror marveled at the markets filled with thousands of people and beautiful produce.

Little did he know that those indigenous foods of Mexico would marry Spanish ingredients to make one of the most important cuisines in the world.

"The grandeur impressed people who came from the Old World. Mexico was a country that had a fantastic culture already," says Susanna Palazuelos, one of Mexico's premier caterers.

In a Monitor interview, Ms. Palazuelos talked of Mexico's historic cuisine, which she bills as "one of the world's most intriguing and least understood." Accompanying her this day is a large, colorful book that will help her in her mission to educate people: xico the Beautiful Cookbook" (Collins Publishers, $45), for which she did all the recipes.

A recently named member of the Circulo Mexicano de Arte Culinario, a group honoring the distinguished women chefs of Mexico, Palazuelos is a logical booster for Mexican food and culture. A classy and astute woman, she articulates her knowledge of her homeland's cuisine and customs with confidence. Her experience of catering for thousands at a time and entertaining for dignitaries has made some regard her as the Martha Stewart of Mexico.

Palazuelos says that Mexican cuisine is among the five most important cuisines in the world, a weave of New and Old World influences. Without Mexico, the Swiss wouldn't have chocolate (Aztec ruler Moctezuma II sometimes drank 20 cups of hot chocolate a day, says Palazuelos), and the Italians would not have had tomatoes - or zucchini, for that matter. The ancient Mayans also domesticated turkeys.

Corn, beans, and squash were (and still are) important staples, as well as chilies, seafood, peanuts, sweet potatoes, papayas, pineapples, avocados, guavas, and more. When Old-World settlers came over after the Spanish conquest, they brought livestock, (cows, chickens) dairy products (milk, cream, cheese), other grains (wheat, rice), as well as almonds, garlic, herbs, and other goods.

Then the stoveside experimenting began. Soon Mexico's cuisine profoundly changed with the introduction of Spanish goods, especially meats, dairy products, and eggs.

A dish that epitomizes the joining of the two cultures is Mole Poblano, says Palazuelos.

Although the original recipe for the festive food, invented by a Dominican nun from the Santa Rosa convent, is said to contain more than 100 ingredients, most modern-day recipes call for meat, tomatoes, garlic, onion, chilies, almonds, peanuts, peppercorns, cinnamon, anise, raisins, chocolate, sugar, and sesame seeds.

One can detect Old-World/New-World meshes in modern dishes, too: Mexican beef stew, crab and vegetables with cheese, pot roast stuffed with bacon, meatballs.

This is Mexican food?

"People tend to think we eat tacos every day," says Palazuelos. Sure, there are the burritos, enchiladas, salsas, huevos rancheros, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, "but we have so much more - fish, lots of vegetables....

"My whole idea was to give people a whole outlook of what our food is all about: not just chilies, not greasy," she says. "There is a whole misconception about Mexican food being hot. We don't eat chilies to burn our mouths, we eat them just to spice things up."

What does she think of Mexican food franchise restaurants in America? "Well," she says politely, "I try to avoid them."

Like the United States, Mexico has regional cuisine, with every state having its own flavor.

The Yucatan, for example, naturally has an abundance of such seafood as shark, octopus, snook, red snapper, and squid. Pan de cazon - shark's bread - is a popular tortilla layered with a sauce of tomatoes and a very hot chile.

Other cultures have influenced Mexican cuisine. The brief French occupation in Mexico (1864-67) brought a broader variety of panes y postres - breads and pastries - into many homes, especially those of the upper class. European influence made soup an integral part of the Mexican meal.

For Palazuelos, researching, obtaining, and testing the 250 recipes for the book was time-intensive. For months she told her husband to invite anyone over for meals and taste-testing. Sometimes she would make eight meals a day. "I worked very very hard," she recalls.

Some of her favorite recipes include: Fish in Parsley and Cream ("That is always a winner"), Chicken Breast in Poblano Sauce, Hen in Mango Sauce, and Fish in Almond Sauce. ve based my whole business around these recipes" in the book, she says. "I never did a recipe I didn't like."

Palazuelos says she has been researching Mexican food since she was 17, talking to grandmothers, ladies in their 90s. Some chefs may not like the idea of sharing secret recipes, but for Palazuelos, it's a quest to open the door to Mexican cuisine.

She views it as showcasing a legacy. "I have a heritage of something that has given me great pleasure," she says, noting that each good recipe for her is like a jewel and it needs to be documented. And there's an urgency. With the borders opening, McDonald's will be arriving and the "invasion of frozen foods," she says.

"It's very important that people will see the beauty this country entails and the variety it has," says Palazuelos.

"I hope we can open minds to what our country is really like." In cuisine, "we can compete with the French," she adds.

"I have been opening the door. To me, that is the greatest satisfaction."

She encourages people to shed their misconceptions about Mexican food and Mexico in general, to come visit.

"They will discover a new world."

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