If you've ever seen a collection of alebrijes carvings from the Oaxaca region of southwestern Mexico, you'll be sure to remember. Creatures from land, sea and air are combined and redesigned into a kaleidoscopically colorful alternate zoological reality. Even those animals in their original shape are given unique coats of lively, sometimes complicated patterns. The sculptures are a nearly limitless diversity of hue, shade and shape, every one unique yet immediately identifiable as alebrijes. They are, you might say, an apt metaphor for the country they come from.
The sitting room at the residence of Mexican Ambassador to Japan Carlos Almada is not quite that colorful, but there are hints. Mesoamerican clay statues look out from bookcase perches. In the same room, there are examples of Mexican decorative tiles reminiscent of those adorning the Arab palaces of Spain -- all signs of a multifaceted diversity that will reveal itself a dimension at a time over the course of a long lunch in the company of the ambassador, Madame Mara Madero, and Mexican Embassy Third Secretary Miguel Escalante.
There will be no chili con carne, fajitas, or any of their Tex-Mex brethren on the table today, as these powerfully flavored favorites are not in fact from Mexico but -- as the name suggests -- primarily Texas. No, the meal by embassy Chef Victor Alonso Vazquez Campos will be a symphonic balance of flavors -- rich with fresh, sharp with creamy, prickles of spice on the tongue to enhance waves of mellow smoothness.
"Usually, we like food to be very flavorful," comments Miguel.
Case in point, the Enchiladas Queretanas, a dance of vivid reds and greens and bright whites that light up the table. A soft corn tortilla envelopes a core of potato, carrots and cheese, the whole dressed in a mild chili-based sauce, plus a generous dash of crumbly white cheese similar to feta. It is an eye-popping piece of culinary art; one that draws in the diner, fork at the ready.
The first flavor impression is of corn; rich, smooth, and giving easy way to the full-bodied interior of silky potato. The crumbled cheese give the entire package a baseline creaminess, laced with sharp yet subtle chili accents from the sauce. And while all this is going on, lighting off fireworks on the tongue, the whole package is kept balanced and all the more beguiling by a side of fresh vegetables -- bright notes in a baseline of full flavors.
The vivid colors and tastes continue with Aguachile Verde de Camaron y callo, so green it nearly glows in its bowl beneath a pair of tortilla chip sails (see recipe below). A citrus- and vegetable-fresh bouquet rises from the concoction of thick avocado slices and fat shrimp. Take a bite, and the freshness is redoubled, a powerful wave of lime and finely chopped onion given body and richness by the avocado and shrimp.
The meal rolls through a light tomato soup called Sopa de Fideo animated by the scent of cilantro before arriving at a dish that would challenge those with even the most finely tuned sense of taste trying to unravel its secrets: Pollo con Mole. According to the ambassador, "mole" is "sauce" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, so "Pollo con Mole" simply means "chicken with sauce." Though factually accurate in every way, this cannot hope to describe what has just appeared on the table. In the middle of a white plate is a piece of boneless chicken, entirely hidden under a layer of glossy chocolate-brown sauce dappled with sesame seeds. A full-bodied aroma of cocoa, chili, and other, mysterious seasonings rises from the plate.
The chicken parts easily under knife and fork, dark sauce-clad surface revealing tender white meat beneath. Take a bite, and full, deep flavor blossoms in the mouth. There is a backbone of dark chocolate, a hint of spice and, just like the fragrance, an entire galaxy of taste the breadth and depth of which are impossible to discern.
Asked what the magic ingredients are, Chef Vasquez reveals a few, but not all. Yes, there is chocolate, as well as pasilla and mulato chili peppers, cinnamon, peanuts, banana and tortilla. In fact, this mole sauce is composed of more than 100 ingredients. It takes a couple of moments to absorb what he's said. More than a hundred? All in here? Really? Yes, really, he confirms with a shy smile.
There is no vocabulary, no metaphor sufficient to fully communicate what over a hundred ingredients is like on the tongue, their tastes and aromas. The diversity of flavors, all working together to make the whole, is simply a wonder to experience. And Ambassador Almada says there are a multitude of other versions in reds, greens and black being made in kitchens all across Mexico, drawing on what must be a staggering list of possible ingredients. "I couldn't dare say how many moles we have, but many," he declares. But where do the ingredients for all these come from? What makes such a thing possible?
"The diversity of climates and altitudes make different foods," Ambassador Almada says. "And I think the quality and diversity of the Mexican cuisine comes from first the biodiversity -- which is one of the highest ranked countries in biodiversity -- and a long history."
We don't often think about what is, given a second or two of consideration, an obvious truth: We make our food from whatever our environment can give us. The more diverse and fruitful the environment, the more we can choose from; the more things we can shape and combine to create a multiplicity of flavors true to a particular place.
And as the ambassador suggested, Mexico is, without any fear of exaggeration, one of the most biologically and ecologically diverse places on Earth. According to the OECD's 2013 environmental review of Mexico, the country is home to over 200,000 species of plant and animal -- fourth most in the world -- and accounts for 10-12 percent of the world's biodiversity, making it one of 17 "mega-diverse" nations. For example, "it ranks first in biodiversity in reptiles with 804 known species, second in mammals with 535 species, fourth in amphibians with 361 species, and fourth in flora with 26,000 species." In short, the report states, "Mexico has a role in global biodiversity and ecosystems that cannot be overemphasized."
Indeed, can you imagine what our cuisine would look like without Mexico's contributions, relayed across the globe through Spain and Spain's colony in the Philippines? Can you imagine a world without tomatoes or sweet potatoes, without chocolate or chilies or any other kind of capsicum, without corn or avocados or vanilla? Just about every culinary tradition on our planet has been touched and enriched by Mexico's native biodiversity.
And atop this biodiversity is laid a rich layer of ethnic and cultural diversity, translating ingredients into an even more multifaceted menu that is one of only a handful of cuisines to be listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The UNESCO listing states that "traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain, from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating," including unique sustainable farming methods such as "milpas" (a type of crop rotation) and "chinampas" (islets in lakes built for farming). As Miguel adds, the listing isn't just for what appears on the plate, but because Mexican cuisine is "intertwined with a traditional lifestyle, a traditional way of life."
Arguably the most famous of the native peoples of Mexico are the Aztecs, as it was their empire that the conquistador Hernan Cortes subjugated for the Spanish crown. But there is so much more to the native Mexican cultural landscape than that. Even at the time Cortes arrived, Mexico was a garden of vibrant peoples and cultures -- Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Purepecha to name just a few -- that had developed and evolved over centuries of history; history that was completely unrelated to anything happening in Asia, Africa or Europe. Mexico is, after all, one of only six places on Earth to originate a civilization, along with Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Andes. Pre-Columbian civilization, starting with the Olmecs about 3,500 years ago, is about as unique as unique can get. And, Miguel believes, that native vibrancy continues to be the source of what makes Mexico different from any other place.
According to the Embassy of Mexico, there are officially 62 ethnic groups in Mexico today, speaking 68 languages in a staggering 364 linguistic variants. And mixed with all the native peoples are, of course, the Spanish, but also the descendants of African slaves as well as immigrants from across the world, points out Ambassador Almada.
"I think one of the things that helped Mexico to be so diverse is that we are a mixture of cultures, and the European culture we are mixing in Mexico is Mediterranean culture," he goes on with obvious enthusiasm. "So we have this already rich culture, this Spanish Mediterranean culture, with an original civilization that existed in Mexico. And then you add some things of Africa, because of the African presence of slaves, and also of Asian ingredients, Asian touches, because of these relationships that existed between Mexico and Asia through Manila," he adds, referring to the strong trade and other links between Mexico and the Philippines when both were Spanish colonies.
Culture, reaching across oceans and back in time, for as the ambassador points out, the meeting with the Spanish in the 16th century was a meeting with all Spain was and ever had been -- Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Jewish, Visigoth, and most recently at the time, Arab.
"Arab (culture) has been extremely important for us, because the Arabs occupied parts of Spain for 800 years. So for instance my name is Arab. 'Almada' is an Arab name," says the ambassador.
"Strong Arab influence" is not likely the first phrase that pops into your head when you hear the word "Mexico," but it is one of nearly countless subtle cultural currents running through the country. Arab influence, and the influence of all the diverse cultures that have been mixed and reinvented to create modern Mexico.
"To be Mexican can be a lot of things," Miguel says a little later, adding that the country's diversity -- biological, cultural, linguistic -- is one of the things he liked most about it.
Lunch is traditionally the main meal of the day in Mexico, and this one has a little ways to go. A fish dish called Pescado a la Talla and seasoned every possible shade of red arrives, accompanied by small portions of black beans, rice mixed with corn, fresh vegetables and a lime wedge. Despite its vivid color, the tender flesh is just a touch piquant, the taste a subtle and complex mix of spices edged with lime tartness -- yet another wonder of balance and flavorful sophistication.
Dessert is Calabaza en Tacha, and true to Miguel's comments on the Mexican love of strong tastes, the stewed pumpkin dish is a flavor punch par excellence, though with the same level of complexity that has marked every course so far. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a spice extravaganza wafts up off the plate like a thousand Christmases rolled into one. The scent presages a flavor wave that fills the entire mouth with strains of vanilla, cinnamon, lemon, and a whole spice cupboard of other tastes. The pumpkin itself is rich and smooth, melting away in a stream of caramel-sweet delight.
Yet another explosion of diverse tastes woven into a single dish, making the whole hard to fully describe but all the more beguiling for it. This flavor, all the flavors of the day, pull you in, make you wonder at their balance, at the creativity that must have gone into such complex creations. They are culinary treasures born of the staggering variety that animates Mexico, from its native roots through the additions of the Spanish and other newcomers, and rooted in the biodiversity that makes the country one of the world's natural paradises.
Ambassador Almada says that he thinks "you have to feel very happy with what you have, be proud of your origins, but not being exclusive." This philosophy is perhaps what makes a place as diverse as Mexico thrive, spinning new forms and new tastes out of the multicolored threads of the country's history, ecology, and people; creating a place of beauty, wonder, and nearly limitless new experience.
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Recipe: Aguachile Verde (Courtesy of Embassy of Mexico Chef Victor Alonso Vazquez Campos)
Ingredients (serves 6):
- 1kg of large shrimps
- 15 limes
- 1/2 bunch cilantro
- 7 chiles de arbol
- 1 avocado
- 1 cucumber
- Salt, to taste
1) Wash, shell and butterfly the shrimps. Place them in a row in a pan.
2) Grind the lime juice (without seeds), the coriander (already washed), the chiles de arbol, and salt to taste, until everything becomes a liquid green sauce.
3) Cover the shrimps with the sauce and marinate for 30-45 minutes (the shrimps should turn a color between orange and white).
4) Peel and slice the cucumber and avocado. These will serve as the "canvas" for the shrimps. Serve with tostadas.
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Embassy Eats is a column designed to explore the breadth and depth of food culture from around the globe. To do that, we've gone to the source, getting to know the staff at the foreign embassies in Tokyo to find out what they eat when they want a genuine taste of home -- and connect readers to places and people that may, at first, seem far away. So to anyone looking for a bit of food fun and a tasty introduction to the cultures of our world, have a read!