Mexican food is often liked more than it is appreciated, enjoying more popularity than respect.
That's starting to change as we learn more about the diversity of the country's regional cuisines and the layers of flavor that exist in authentic cooking.
Two new books should both serve to increase our understanding, though one centers on gastronomy while the other remains rooted in the streets.
First up is "Mexico From the Inside Out" ($59.95/£39.95), by Enrique Olvera, one of the most respected chefs not just in Mexico but also in the world.
Olvera is classically trained. He was schooled in French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. When he opened Pujol in Mexico City 15 years ago, he had no in-depth knowledge of his own country's gastronomy. He'd learned about rich sauces rather than salsas, more about pate than pibil.
Pujol has gone on to become Mexico's most exciting restaurant, and Olvera the star chef. Pulol is ranked No. 16 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. He achieved this by connecting with his country's food traditions: respecting the simplicity of street food while pushing culinary boundaries.
"Tacos, tamales, tortas, tortillas: If it starts with the letter T, it's like a vitamin to us," he writes in "Mexico From the Inside Out," which tells the story of his engagement with Mexican cuisine and features 65 recipes.
If you are trying the recipes at home, you might need to substitute the occasional ingredient. You probably won't need the detailed description of four types of worm, and you will be lucky if you can source many of the 24 varieties of chile.
One of Olvera's achievements at Pujol has been to elevate the taco from the streets to fine dining, starting with a better tortilla. He tried about 20 different types of corn, worked out the exact amount of dough for a flat, uniform tortilla and deduced the precise number of seconds it should fry.
"At Pujol, we don’t see the tortilla as a mere base for the taco, but as edible tableware, tailoring the tortillas to what we will top them with," he writes. Olvera will be serving his tacos in London next month at the Day of the Dead Festival with chef Thomasina Miers of Wahaca.
Your needs might be simpler. (I enjoy the taco tray at Mestizo restaurant in London, I like Lupita and I'm irritated when people criticize Wahaca.) Mexican food in London is getting better. If you just love the food, Tacopedia ($29.95/£19.95) by Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena may be for you.
This colorful book, originally published in Mexico, is based on five years of research. It's got just about every scrap of information you might want on tacos. But while it's encyclopedic in that sense, it's certainly not dull.
It's a celebration of the taco, almost comic book in style, with more than 100 recipes. There's history, there are restaurant recommendations, and the book is stuffed with facts like an overfilled tortilla. But most of all there is fun. The book even features an illustrated guide on how to eat a taco.
Enough words. Here are some recipes from the two books, starting with a salad from "Mexico From the Inside Out" and then two from Tacopedia.
Green Salsa Salad (Ensalada de salsa verde).
4 scallions (spring onions)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
3 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, roasted and brunoised
1 chile serrano, roasted, seeded, and brunoised
1 tbsp fresh key lime juice
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups (80 g) purslane sprouts
1 chile serrano, seeded and brunoised
1/4 cup (40 g) brunoised white onion
3 tbsp fresh key lime juice
1 tsp chile powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and sliced
16 small tomatillos, roasted
12 scallion rings
20 cilantro criollo sprouts
- Fried Scallions: Trim the scallions and remove the outside layers of the scallion bulbs until they are 1/4 inch (0.7 cm) in diameter. Bring 1 cup (about 250 ml) water to a boil in a small pan and season with the salt. Blanch the scallions, drain, and dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and fry the scallions until crispy. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
- Garlic Mojo: Place the olive oil and garlic in a pan over medium heat until the garlic begins to brown. Remove from the heat and add the chile, lime juice, and salt. Transfer to a blender and puree.
- Salad: In a bowl, toss all the ingredients together until combined.
- Plating: Spread some of the garlic mojo in a circle over 4 plates. Divide the salad among the plates. Garnish with the raw tomatillo slices, roasted tomatillos, scallion rings, and fried scallions. Finish with the cilantro sprouts.
3¼ lb (1.5 kg) pork (leg or loin), coarsely diced
2 tablespoons lard or shortening
3 dried ancho chiles, seeded
2 dried guajillo chiles, seeded
5 cloves garlic
4 sprigs parsley
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
½ tablespoon ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
12–20 4 1⁄3-inch (11 cm) corn or flour tortillas
- Place the meat in a large pot with enough water to cover, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until very soft, about 30–45 minutes.
- Let the meat cool in the pot, then thinly shred on a cutting board into a bowl. Reserve the broth.
- Melt the lard in a large skillet over low heat. Fry the shredded meat until it begins to brown.
- Bring 1 cup of the broth to a boil in a small pot. Add the chiles and boil for 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, parsley, oregano, vinegar, and cumin.
- Add the chile mixture to the meat, cover and cook for 1 hour on low heat, making sure that the meat doesn’t stick or burn.
- If necessary, add more of the reserved broth. The meat should be cooked to the point where it easily comes apart with a fork, and the sauce should be thick. Stir it into the meat to fully incorporate.
- Serve with tortillas and accompany with the usual garnishes.
Mexican Style Shrimp Tacos
2 tablespoons corn oil
1/4 medium onion, finely chopped
2 green serrano chiles (or to taste), seeded and thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
9 oz (250 g) cocktail (or fresh) shrimp, peeled and cleaned
3 sprigs cilantro
8 4 1⁄3-inch (11 cm) corn tortillas
- Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and fry for 2 minutes (do not let it brown).
- Add the chiles and cook for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, and cook for 3 minutes.
- Add the shrimp, then cook for 1 minute, until the shrimp are just opaque and pink.
- Add cilantro and salt to taste. Remove from heat and serve hot in the tortillas.
Richard Vines is Bloomberg's chief food critic. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines