We speak here of a cuisine that is hot, colourful, with a wide range of tastes and that made its first breakthrough in the 1980s. That was the glory period of Corona and the triumph of the Margarita. Once the party passed, the pleasure diminished. But this time, it's a complete armada hitting our shores. The music is intoxicating. After Ricky Martin and Cesaria Evora, we have been shaken by Marc Anthony and Shakira. The language is sweet and the cuisine is always caliente.
Even large restaurant chains now offer Mexican fajitas. I confess it's not always a high-wire act of haute cuisine, but it's still a sign of the Mexican influence over our daily culinary culture. The Mexicans have always known how to infuse their cuisine with a party flavour, which is not the case with several other ethnic cuisines. The table rituals are simple and devoid of snobbery.
When we speak of Mexican cuisine, we often confuse it with "Tex-Mex." The two types certainly have their similarities owing to climate and geography. Tex-Mex, as the name indicates, is a melange of Texan and Mexican cuisines.
Just like the border between them, many of the ingredients are common to both cultures. However, even if they both use the tortilla or may be spicy, the burrito and chili con carne, both often associated with Mexico, are actually of Texan origin.
As for peppers, this is where Mexico excels. They are among the oldest known condiments. They have been found in Mexico's archaeological sites that date more than 7,000 years before Christ. The jalapeño, the little green pepper, is the most well known in North America. As for bird pepper or serrano pepper, they are among the strongest whether they are fresh, dried or in sauces. A general rule holds that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is.
It's hot! It's really hot!
When eating a hot and spicy meal, we often have the reflex to drink to reduce the burning sensation. But drinking water, beer or wine only worsens the situation. It's better to eat a piece of tortilla or bread because they act as a compress for the tongue. Another solution is to drink milk products because they contain casein, a protein that diminishes the burning feeling. That's one reason why we often find a lot of sour cream in Mexican cuisine.
The incendiary taste of peppers comes from capsaicin, a substance that stimulates digestion and that, according to recent studies, acts as an appetite suppressant. If peppers burn the mouth, they also refresh the body. When we eat really spicy meals, it makes us perspire. When the sweat evaporates, it has a cooling effect on the body that could explain the popularity of peppers among Mexicans. If you'd like a less spicy pepper, simply remove the seeds and white membranes.
In Mexico, peppers are the stars, but it's wrong to believe that everything is burning hot. Peppers are primarily used for their flavour and then for the great "high" that they produce. To try them is to adopt them. Ay caramba!
You enjoy travelling to Florida, Cuba or Mexico? I have concocted a menu that is inspired by the menu of these three destinations: a cocktail and a Cuban soup - a Mojito and a cream of sweet potato, ginger and rum soup, a lime pie, and a few Mexican-flavoured meals such as fish fajitas, a guacamole, a corn and black bean salad and a tequila-marinated chicken with chocolate sauce.