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Sugar skulls and 'rotten' bananas: Mexico's surprising tastes

Fermented banana (Copyright: 2012 Paolo e Sara Castiglioni) Chef Enrique Olvera creates a "distinctly Mexican" dish of fermented bananas

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Mexico's culinary traditions and new flavours are finding new audiences as people around the world celebrate Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

It's unlikely that the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Mexican food is a dish of fermented banana.

But this flavour is quintessentially Mexican, says chef Enrique Olvera.

Mr Olvera serves what he fondly refers to as "rotten bananas" at his restaurant Pujol, in Mexico City.

He says one of his strongest childhood food memories is that of his grandmother serving practically black bananas, and it is this distinctly Mexican flavour that he recreates.

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The combination of 25-day ripened bananas with banana vinegar-infused cream, cacao and Mexican spices is a recipe that encapsulates the meeting of old and new Mexican cuisine.

But rather than being one style of food, Mexican is incredibly diverse, argued Mr Olvera at the Terra Madre Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy.

"Mexican cuisine doesn't exist in Mexico," he says.

"There are just Mexican regional forms of cuisine, as there are in Italy.

"When I'm asked if I'm doing traditional or modern cooking, I say you can do both casual and elegant. You don't have to decide."

Pujol was the first Mexican establishment to enter the San Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant list in 2011.

Enrique Olvera's food is deeply linked to the philosophy of "milpa", a Mesoamerican farming method where beans, corn, squash and whatever else grows in the region, grow side by side in crop cycles.

This traditional farming system is considered sacred and deeply intertwined - the beans add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash tendrils keep out other plants that compete with the corn.

El Día de los Muertos

An altar to the dead in Bristol

The Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a festival of remembrance, celebrated in Mexico between 31 October and 2 November.

A unique version of the Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints' and All Souls' Days, it is an occasion to remember the deceased, and is famed for its elaborate, macabre and often joyous celebrations.

The flavour of the modern festival seems to emerge in the 18th Century, but it is believed to have roots in Pre-Columbian rituals such as the Aztec festivals of Miccailhuitontli and Huey Miccailhuitl (the Little and Great Feasts of the Dead).

Just as the Aztecs offered food and drink to nourish their ancestors on their journey to the underworld, Mexicans make ofrendas (offerings) of food and drink, music and flowers, to attract the souls of their loved ones to return briefly to earth and to sustain them on their journey back.

Mr Olvera believes in order to take diners on a journey one step further down the modernist route, the past must also be explained through traditional foods.

For many years people who had visited Mexico spoke of an "authentic" cuisine, tangibly different to the tacos and tortillas sold in supermarkets in the US or the UK.

Now, Mexico's food traditions have spread across the world, including those of the festival Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

Its vibrant imagery and tradition of honouring relatives that have died has captured the imagination of many Brits, with events all over the country this year.

In Mexico, food is central to Dia de los Muertos. Families honour relatives by placing their favourite food, drinks (often tequila and mescal) and other offerings in front of altars that are temporarily constructed in peoples' homes.

Sweet, brioche-like, orange-flavoured pan de muerto ('bread of the dead') is made into various shapes, often those resembling skeletons and bones.

Brightly painted sugar skulls are sold in the days leading up to the event, made with a sugar mixture that is pressed into moulds and set.

Louise Dark, part-owner of Bristol's Mexican shop Otomí is hosting a boat party for Dia de los Muertos this year and is cooking for about 100 people.

She says the interest in the UK started with the imagery.

"The skulls are such a big deal in Mexico. A lot of people who wouldn't know anything about Mexico, come at it through the imagery side.

"People are also beginning to understand what Mexican food is about. It's corn, fresh, colourful and healthy, lively food."

Corn-based and packed with beans, vegetables, peanuts, chilli, chocolate, meat, fish and a scant amount of cheese, Mexican food has been likened to the trendy "Paleo" diet, a predominately wheat-free, dairy-free, unprocessed diet based on the kinds of foods cavemen might have eaten.

Thomasina Miers' five ingredients:

  • Avocados: Enjoy in salads, soups, puddings and smoothies
  • Chocolate: Try roasted and ground in hot water with almonds and sugar, flavour stews with, or use chillies to spice it up
  • Pumpkin seeds: Gorgeous ground in salsas, toasted in salads, or dressed in lime and chilli for a healthy snack
  • Chillies: Where to start? There are a thousand recipes and more for this most diverse of fruits. I can't live without them
  • Tomatoes: Whether you like them sliced fresh in salads, roasted and smashed up to make mouth-watering salsas or pureed into wonderful aromatic sauces, Mexico... has many, many varieties

Mexico's ancient people the Maya were the first to discover chocolate.

Still a cornerstone of Mexican cuisine, chocolate is added to spiced hot chocolate or mole poblana, a rich meat stew made with many ingredients including a little chocolate.

Small amounts of chocolate have been celebrated as having a number of health benefits, most recently a Swedish study suggested that those who ate more chocolate were less likely to have a stroke.

Chilli, another staple ingredient of Mexican cuisine, contains more vitamin C than either lemon or orange.

Older UK perceptions of Mexican cuisine, in the Tex-Mex tradition, are of over-spiced, deep-fried, cheese-covered dishes, but Louise Dark suggests British consumers are realising that there is more to Mexican ingredients.

She says: "A long-distance runner came in recently and told me about a very good recipe for runners of Maseca corn flour and chia seeds and it's very good at slow-releasing energy."

Largely credited with changing the way Mexican cuisine is viewed in the UK, MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers opened her restaurant Wahaca five years ago, showcasing a lighter version of Mexican cooking.

She now has 10 restaurant sites, including two mobile kitchens, adding up to a 2011 annual turnover of £10m.

How does a food trend start?

"When the taco became popularised in the 1950s in the US, it was seen as an authentic food linked to a romantic image of street food.

Now that the taco shell is something that you buy in the grocery store, nothing novel, the search is on for something that will fill that image of native American Indian food or else of street food, something with an allure of danger.

"It's a search for a primitive authenticity that is driving a lot of the way Mexican food gets portrayed in countries like Britain.

It's really about how the food industry can take a culture and create a version of it that can then be transported to people and readily consumed.

There are several things involved in that: one is a toning down of the more extreme flavours and of course in this case that means the chilli peppers.

But after that version starts to become old and no longer seems authentic and new, then these different regional cuisines from Mexico suddenly seem more appealing.

They're novel and, because of the exposure to the taco shell, they're also less intimidating and less strange."

Miss Miers is clear about why the British are embracing Mexican food: "Being one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world means that Mexico has a wealth of ingredients to cook with: avocados, both large and small, over 200 types of chillies, vanilla, cacao, beans of all colours, corn in myriads of shades of red, white, blue, black and yellow, pumpkins and squash, wild greens, wild herbs and a kaleidoscopic collection of exotic fruit.

"Wandering around the markets in Mexico is an assault on anyone's senses, let alone a cook's."

Indeed Mexican food is one of just three world cuisines (the others being French and Chinese) that have been granted Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco.

But Thomasina Miers agrees that there are misconceptions that need overturning: "That it is unhealthy, full of fat and that everything is covered in cheese. The Mexican soups alone would belie this idea, broths flavoured with wild herbs and greens, home-made stocks and wonderful spices, one could write a book purely on the soups of Mexico."

Mexican food - or arguably Tex-Mex - is now the fastest-growing ethnic cuisine, according to market analyst SymphonyIRI's Grocery Outlets report, increasing by 9.8% annually.

In 2009, "there were 91 Mexican restaurants with three or more outlets" in the UK, says Peter Backman of food market analysis company Horizons.

"Currently this year there are 136 and we haven't finished the year yet. We reckon there'll be 144 by the end of the year, meaning an increase of about 60%," he says.

Make sugar skulls:

Sugar skulls on an altar
  • Sugar skulls are made by mixing sugar with meringue powder and water. Some people use egg whites and corn syrup instead
  • The stiff mixture is pressed in to skull moulds and the backs are smoothed off
  • The moulds are turned out and when partially dry hollowed out and the two parts stuck together
  • They are decorated with royal icing and given as gifts or used on altars to the dead

Mr Backman continues: "In the UK we have a niche market which is ethnic, spicy food and low cost. We call it Indian. In the States they developed the same thing, but with Mexican food.

"They picked it up as it's part of their culture in the south.

"Then they Americanised it, which made it difficult to export. Consequently, the style of Mexican food imported from the States has found it difficult to make headway in the UK.

"Recently I think the UK market has discovered authentic Mexican food and that's why we're seeing some growth in it."

Of course the Americanisation of Mexican food is deeply linked to both countries' history.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food says "the diversity of Mexican food arose as northern Mexican provinces of Texas, New Mexico and California became part of the United States (annexed after the US invasion of 1848)".

"So these territories which are still culturally very Mexican, grew up with a very different national history and the foods are really shaped by that. So there are many Mexican foods and that makes it confusing looking for authentic Mexican."

Blue cornmeal Blue cornmeal is a traditional ingredient that was at risk of extinction

Mr Pilcher says: "Mexican food in the US started out as being a lower class food and a dangerous one.

"The early images of the Chilli Queens of Saint Antonio [in Texas] were of street vendors selling hot, maybe contaminated, food to strangers.

"And so this was really a kind of bohemian experience for people 100 years ago.

"But as the food industry takes it over and starts selling chilli powder and canned tamales, it becomes a very lower class food.

"These lower class associations remain in the States today. But there are some chefs who have said, no, Mexican food can be fine dining."

And Enrique Olvera in Mexico City is one of them.

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