If you want to give your taste buds a gustatory tour of Mexico, then Margarita Carrillo is ready to be your guide.
The Mexican chef and food activist has spent years gathering hundreds of recipes from every region of the country for Mexico: The Cookbook, her new, encyclopedic take on her country's cuisine.
With over 700 pages and 600 recipes, the book, at first glance, can be daunting. But most of the recipes are just a paragraph long, with prep and cook times under 20 minutes. That emphasis on simplicity was a deliberate choice: Carrillo wrote her book in hopes of encouraging American home cooks to explore Mexico's vast and varied, "labyrinthine" culinary bounty.
"Cook the simpler dishes first," she encourages readers in her introduction, "and then challenge yourself with the more elaborate ones."
Carrillo is hardly the first cookbook author to try to document Mexico's regional cuisines exhaustively. Indeed, perhaps the best-known authority on the topic is Diana Kennedy, a British cookbook writer whose work has been recognized by the Mexican government with the Order of the Aztec Eagle.
"They've done it well," says Gloria Lopez Morales, president of the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomical Culture, of the American and British food writers who have come before Carrillo. "But I think that now it's time for a Mexican cookbook of this caliber to be done by Mexicans."
The book includes recipes for 40 different salsas, 15 egg dishes and lots of street-food favorites. When I visited Carrillo recently at her home high in the hills above Mexico City, we decided to make a baked fish dish with a spicy, nutty marinade paste on top.
I asked Carrillo to slowly pronounce the name of the sauce — a smoked chili paste from Oaxaca made with nuts, dried shrimp, garlic, pumpkin seeds and dried avocado leaves. Chintextle, she repeats — "it's one of the energetic pastes," by which she means it's full of proteins.
All of the ingredients are dry-roasted in either a frying pan or a flat, cast-iron disk known as a comal.
She tosses the seeds into the hot frying pan. What about oil or water? I ask. She says, "You just want the frying pan with nothing, nothing at all on it."
One of the misconceptions Carrillo battles about Mexican food is that it is greasy and oily.
"In all of Mexico, there [are] the traditional cooking techniques — there is comal, steaming, boiling, hot stones and the pit," she insists. Oil and deep-frying, she says, are modern imports. Frying, she notes, "wasn't ours. It was brought to us by the Spaniards."
Carrillo is the real deal. In a growing field of Mexican celebrity chefs, she insists on keeping it simple. There is no Asian or Mediterranean fusion in her cooking, no foam or fancy layers.
When editors with New York-based publisher Phaidon were looking for someone to add to their line of authentic, country-specific cookbooks, they went straight to Carrillo.
Lopez Morales says Phaidon had many great Mexican cooks to choose from. "But I believe that Margarita is one of the people with the most qualities necessary to write a truly authentic book about Mexican cooking," says Lopez Morales, whose nongovernmental agency is charged with promoting Mexican food as an "intangible cultural heritage" as designated by UNESCO.
Until recently, Carrillo owned restaurants in San Jose de Los Cabos and Mexico City. She has a popular cooking show on the Latin American Gourmet cable channel, and Carrillo was part of the decade-long campaign to get Mexican cuisine listed on the UNESCO cultural heritage list.
Carrillo says she wants everyone, Mexicans included, to appreciate the food and techniques that have survived generations and "made traditional Mexican cuisine an invaluable representation of a nation with a rich cultural identity."
"You know, it is really, really outstanding the way this food, this cuisine, has survived through the centuries. Of course, it evolves, but you can eat the same tortilla that Moctezuma ate 500 years ago," she says as she throws all of the dry-roasted ingredients into a food processor.
She adds some apple cider vinegar to smooth it all out. And in a clay baking dish, she lines the bottom with a splash of olive oil and some sliced onions, then places a fresh chunk of local robalo, or snook, a firm, flaky white fish. Carrillo says she gets riled that most Mexican restaurants serve imported salmon, when Mexico has thousands of miles of coastline.
"Why would we have to import fish? It is absurd," she says. "I think that Mexican cuisine is designed for Mexican products."
Smoked chili paste
Adapted from Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
- 5 Oaxacan pasilla or other smoked dried chilies, dry-roasted
- 3 1/2 oz/100 g dried shrimp (prawns)
- 6 avocado leaves
- 1/2 head garlic, roasted
- 1/2 cup (4 fl oz/120 ml) pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup (4 fl oz/120 ml) olive oil
- sea salt
Preheat the broiler (grill), then broil (grill) the chilies, turning frequently, for 5 minutes. Remove and set aside. Broil the shrimp (prawns) under low heat for 2 minutes — broiling for longer will make them bitter. Remove and set aside.
Dry-roast the avocado leaves in a heavy frying pan or skillet over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are a little shiny.
Put the chilies, shrimp, avocado leaves and garlic into a food processor or blender and process until thoroughly combined. With the motor running, add the vinegar and enough oil to make a spreadable paste. Season with salt.
Variation: You can add dry-roasted pumpkin seeds, pecans, almonds, guajillo chili, and cooked black beans.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I have a feeling someone is going to eat well during this next story. It takes us to Mexico City, where chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte wants to inspire you with Mexican recipes. Forget the nachos and refried beans and burritos, Carrillo has more, she says. She spent years gathering hundreds of simple recipes from every region of the country for her cookbook, which is now being described as the Bible of Mexican cuisine. NPR's Carrie Kahn visited Carrillo in her kitchen.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On a chilly morning, Margarita Carrillo warmly greets me at her home high in the hills above the capital. I brought a pot of Mexican hot chocolate and some sweetbread to share. Sitting at her kitchen table, we quickly dive into the treats and her thoughts on cooking.
MARGARITA CARRILLO: It's delicious. It's very, very good. I have a slice of maca bread.
KAHN: Carrillo says, at its core, Mexican cooking is simple and easy. She says her book reflects that philosophy.
CARRILLO: And I tried to give simple instructions. I wanted to just one day read it, it's - oh, I'll just do it like that with no stress, no worry.
KAHN: With over 700 pages and 600 recipes, the book at first glance can be daunting. But most of the recipes are really just a paragraph long with prep and cook times under 20 minutes. There are 40 different salsas, 15 egg dishes and lots of street food favorites. We decide to make a baked fish dish with a spicy, nutty marinade paste on top.
CARRILLO: OK, Chintextle.
CARRILLO: Yes, it's one of the pastes, energetic pastes.
KAHN: It's made with smoked chilies, shrimp, garlic, pumpkin seeds and dried avocado leaves. All the ingredients are dry-roasted in a frying pan or a flat cast-iron disc known as a comal.
CARRILLO: Now the seeds. We'll dry-roast the seeds.
KAHN: So you just have a frying pan?
CARRILLO: Yeah, just...
KAHN: Nothing on it?
CARRILLO: Nothing. Nothing.
KAHN: One of the misconception Carrillo battles about Mexican food is that it's greasy and oily.
CARRILLO: In all of Mexico, there's the traditional cooking techniques is comal, steaming, boiling, hot stones and the pit.
KAHN: Oil and deep frying, she says, is a modern import.
CARRILLO: This technique wasn't ours. It was brought to us by the Spaniards.
KAHN: Carrillo is the real deal. In a growing field of Mexican celebrity chefs, she insists on keeping it simple. There's no Asian or Mediterranean fusion in her cooking, no foam or fancy layers either. When New York-based publisher Phaidon came looking for someone to add to their line of authentic, country-specific cookbooks, they went straight to Carrillo. Gloria Lopez Morales, president of Mexico's Gastronomic Conservatory, says Phaidon had many great Mexican cooks to choose from.
GLORIA LOPEZ MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: But she says Margarita is the most authoritative to write such a book. Until recently, Carrillo owned restaurants in San Jose de Los Cabos and Mexico City. She has a popular cooking show on the Latin American Gourmet cable channel. And Carrillo was part of a decade-long campaign to get Mexican cuisine listed on the UNESCO cultural heritage list. Carrillo says she wants everyone, Mexicans included, to appreciate the cuisine and its techniques.
CARRILLO: You know that it's really, really outstanding the way this food has - this cuisine has survived through the centuries. Of course, it evolves, but you can eat the same tortilla that Moctezuma had 500 years ago.
KAHN: After dry roasting the chilies, garlic, dried shrimps and pumpkin seeds, Carrillo mixes everything in a food processor and adds some apple cider vinegar to smooth it all out. In a clay baking dish, she lines the bottom with a splash of olive oil, some sliced onions, then places a fresh chunk of local robalo fish. The whole thing is topped with herbs, covered with aluminum foil and slid into the oven. After a few minutes, we get to sample.
CARRILLO: It's delicious. Congratulations.
KAHN: I didn't make it, you did. I just watched.
CARRILLO: It's very good, very good and so easy and so healthy. So be adventurous.
KAHN: Carrillo says you will be surprised at how easy authentic Mexican cooking can be. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.