Authenticity, especially culinary, is a tricky topic. But it is one we choose to wrestle with for commercial purposes as well as for more personal reasons. Especially during our seven years in India, developing menus for visitors, we had to adapt local spice levels (leaning heavy on the Scoville scale) to a broader palette while maintaining tradition. The specific question in the article below is about an introduced ingredient into one of the world’s richest culinary traditions. I want to know the history, I respect authenticity, but I also prize adaptation. So, thank you to Aatish Taseer for the excellent details and to Stefan Ruiz for the stunning photographs in this story:
Having arrived in the country via the Spanish Conquest, the grain’s presence poses the question: What’s native, and what isn’t, when it comes to a nation’s culinary history?
I ARRIVED IN Oaxaca on a rainy afternoon in May. We flew over pleated hills that formed a girdle around the Oaxaca valley, one of the most fertile variegated soils in the world. The earth was stamped with cloud shadows that gave an impression both of movement and fixity — a rich, dark earth with an inner seam that showed red and metallic in places. The shadow of the plane, like a fighter escort, followed us as we descended, then was subsumed by the rain-drenched tarmac. The sky was full of light. Leaving the small white airport, we passed a palisade of organ pipe cactuses. There was blue-leaved agave in the traffic islands and, lining the streets, the trees of my childhood in Delhi — flamboyant, laburnum, jacaranda — were in flower. A nondescript modern town of brightly shuttered shops, auto repair and signs that read “aluminio y vidrio” gave way to a fully intact Spanish colonial town from the 16th century. “Downtown: local people,” my driver said, observing the change, “centro histórico for foreign people.”
We came along large-stoned cobbled streets and single-story buildings painted in warm shades of ocher and that famous Oaxacan color — a carmine, drawn from the cochineal, a cactus-dwelling insect, which, with the addition of a single drop of lemon juice, turns into one of the most seductive reds known to man. There is no place, not even India, where the use of color produces as beguiling a mixture of gaiety and melancholy as Mexico. The British writer Rebecca West, who was here in the 1960s, has a description in “Survivors in Mexico” (2003) that cannot be bettered: “Here these walls are painted colors that are special to Mexico, touching variants of periwinkle blue, a faded acid pink, the terra-cotta one has seen on Greek vases, a tear-stained elegiac green.”
Speaking of green, there is a green stone of otherworldly beauty known simply as cantera that is everywhere in Oaxaca. It appears as exposed quoins on the corners of painted facades. It forms the border of giant grill windows, which, Spanish-style, run the full length of the building. It is there as rustication and entablature — there, too, on one of the city’s main churches, Santo Domingo de Guzmán. On that first evening, I thought my eyes were deceiving me. The sky had turned half a dozen shades of pink and orange before grading into darkness. I walked among captivating scenes of city life — through a first-floor window, there were girls out of a Degas painting practicing ballet. Opposite was a mezcaleria with grizzled old men smoking outside. There were baroque theaters and stooped white saints in the tiny alcoves that appeared on high cornerstones. Outside Origen, which belongs to the renowned Oaxacan chef Rodolfo Castellanos — who still works in his restaurant — I pulled out my phone to inspect the exterior. It was not bewitchment, or blindness; it was that tender, mournful green.
Inside, in a grand courtyard, hung with dried maize whose twirling husks cast starry shadows over the whitewash, itself marked with the Jesuit monogram IHS, symbolizing Christ, I ate fried chapulines (grasshoppers) as a cocktail snack. A line from Hugh Thomas’s “Conquest,” his 1993 history of the subjugation of this land by the Spanish five centuries ago, returned to me. “Almost everything which moved was eaten,” he wrote of pre-Columbian Mexico. Then, as a tasting menu of several courses unfolded, each bringing with it flavors that were utterly new, I felt intimations of that pre-Columbian past.
We speak so easily of earthiness, of terroir and rusticity, but we do not know the meaning of these words until we come to Mexico. In chintextle — a paste made from pasilla chile — that had been smeared onto a tostada of blue corn, I could taste the flavors of the deep earth. It was there again, that volcanic smokiness, in the mole manchamanteles, which, smothering a duck breast, was as red as the soil I had seen from the airplane. Death, smoke, desiccation. It was there, too, in the purée of mangrove mussels upon which a piece of striped sea bass appeared. It was as if a portal had been opened to an underworld from which the savor of Mictlan itself (Hades to the Aztecs) flowed out, endowing everything with chthonic force. I half-thought I was losing my mind until a few days later, when Olga Cabrera Oropeza — the chef and founder of Tierra del Sol, a restaurant specializing in moles — confirmed the feeling I had had on that first night in Oaxaca. “For me,” she said, on a terrace with sweeping views of the emerald city, “a mole is the presence of dead ingredients that bring a dish to life.” These were pre-Hispanic ingredients — old Aztec flavors, one imagined — many new to me in texture and taste, and, as such, they felt like an emanation of the culinary history of the land…
Read the whole article here.