Un guia: Comida MexicanaPerhaps one of Kathmandu’s newest fashionable cuisines is Mexican, with restaurants opening up around the city—albeit a little despacito.
Spicy, salty, sour; garlic, onion, tomatoes; rice, corn and flatbread—these are all recognisable to the Nepali palate; but this story is not about Nepal, it’s about Mexico.
These are all ingredients and facets of Mexican cuisine, of which Nepalis are able to taste in more and more places around the city in various forms.
One of those restaurants, Casa Mexicana, now has two branches and is doing good business selling its chilaquiles, tingas, tacos and pambazos, among other things. Casa Mexicana’s first branch, in Naxal, opened in early 2017; its second in early 2018, in Bakhundole. Run by a group of Mexican natives, the restaurants’ aim is to provide the most authentic taste of the country as possible.
Ingrid Cruz Armendaris and Monica Ramirez of Casa Mexicana are both from different walks of life, and don’t really have any prior restaurant experience, but they both love food. “For us Mexicans, it’s food that brings us together; food and football,” Armendaris told the Post.
Now they are both in the habit of cooking their cuisine for a country that doesn’t have much exposure to their nation’s food. But it doesn’t take much convincing for the local population, who seem to really enjoy the food from central America. Both have familiar central ingredients, and both have a gastronomy that takes influences from around the world.
“India, Mexico, Nepal—we are all very fond of our food, it’s part of our social life and our identity. Nepali society seems to be open to ours too; Nepalis are open to trying new things,” said Ramirez.
The Casa Mexicana menu certainly contains some of the usual suspects—yes, tacos—but there are some lesser-celebrated plates on the menu too.
The foundation of Mexican cuisine, perhaps akin to the contemporary importance of rice in Nepal, is corn. Corn, following a process called nixtamalisation, where it’s combined with a lime solution (the mineral, not the fruit). It can then be pounded into a paste called masa, which then can be used to make tortillas—akin to Nepal’s rotis—or can be soaked further to become hominy. These are just two examples of how corn is used, and a small example of the staple’s importance. Casa Mexicana doesn’t serve corn tortillas all the time, given it needs white corn to create masa, but Ramirez hopes one day the restaurant will be growing its own.
While tomatoes are extensively used in the cuisine, and hail from this part of the world, another important element is chilli. Mexico has long mastered this ingredient, which is native to the region, and the country has several different types, and several different ways to use them. There are chillies like jalapeños, which become chipotles when smoked and dried; poblanos, which become anchos; mirasol chillies, which become guajillos—the list is as extensive as their uses. These chillies play a part in many different recipes but, according to Ramirez, Mexican cuisine is not as hot as people might believe—it’s actually the salsa that typically provides the heat quotient. These things considered, Ramirez and Armendaris told the Post some dishes they believed could help explain the cuisine.
When corn is processed and becomes masa, the foundation of the traditional tortilla is born. The tortilla, according to Armendaris, is eaten at just about every single meal. Tear and dip, or wrap it around some other ingredients, there are many uses. The most famous of which is the taco.
At Casa Mexicana, and generally Mexico in its entirety, a hard shell taco is hard to find. “Some customers are really disappointed that we don’t have hard shell tacos. I tell them it’s good food, and we might like it too, but it’s not Mexican,” said Ramirez. Tortillas for tacos, made with flour in the north and corn in most other places, are generally soft and pliable canvases for their fillings.
Armendaris says taco consumption in Mexico is akin to dal-bhat here in Nepal, as in it’s eaten everyday in several forms for snacks or meals.
This hominy and chicken laden soup, sometimes with vegetables, is a dish often served during celebrations, whether that’s Mexican independence day, birthdays, parties or during Christmas.
Hominy is a form of corn that has been through nixtamalisation, which renders the kernels meaty and bean-like in their consistency. This dish hails back to pre-colonial times, according to Mexican newspaper El Universal. According to El Universal, missionary and priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote in his General History of the Affairs of New Spain that native high-class elites included human flesh in the recipe—or turkey. Following colonisation, and the outlawing of cannibalism, pork was used as a substitute.
While pork is now the most common meat used in the dish, Casa Mexicana uses chicken. Like dal bhat, pozole can be found in many different forms and garnished with a variety of ingredients, such as radish, coriander, thinly sliced lettuce, onion or a squeeze of lime, among others.
One cannot talk about Mexican gastronomy without considering its drinks. There’s agua
fresca, horchata, hot chocolate—the list is as long as the country’s history. Agua fresca, essentially a blend of sugar, fruit and water, literally translates to “fresh” or “cool” water—the list is as long as the number of fruits you can imagine.
One other traditional elixir is in the form of chocolate—the ancient Aztecs apparently invented it thousands of years ago. Traditionally used in various ways, and not necessarily in a sweet form, one of the most common forms is as chocolate de mesa, where sugar, almonds and cinnamon are added together to make the drink.
Finally, there’s horchata—another drink that Casa Mexicana serves up. It’s a simple rice- and dairy-based drink spiced with cinnamon and enjoyed cold.
This dish is particularly popular in the south of Mexico, and is quite simply a bun filled with various fillings—the most common of which is chorizo and potatoes, or potatoes alone.
Pambazo is essentially a sandwich soaked in a special sauce of red guajillo peppers. Casa Mexicana’s home-baked bread is soaked in imported pepper sauce and stuffed with a variety of fillings, such as the special pambazo which is filled with homemade fresh cheese, chicken and a dose of creamy refried beans. While it’s a big, filling dish, there’s absolutely no doubt it’s not the prettiest out there. It’s not to be confused to tortas ahogadas, however, which is not as drenched in sauce and contains several ingredients—not just carb-on-carb goodness.
Ramirez says the dish hails from the south of the country, in the Capital Mexico City, while tortas ahogadas come from Guadalajara, a little further north. Generally speaking, the dish has been a hit in Kathmandu.
“We find Nepalis love stuff with a bit of jhol,” said Ramirez.
While tacos and other savoury and spicy foods certainly take the gong when it comes to Mexican cuisine, there’s no doubt the country has a sweet tooth. There are several famous desserts in the country, that may be recognisable to many, such as flan and churros, but there are two cakes that are worth trying.
The Carlota cake is the first, which is a very simple lemon-based cold dessert. It’s a relatively simple recipe, and could be called an ice-box cake, considering its chilled rather than baked. Typically it’s simply a mix of three types of milk and a few biscuits for crunch, and is a fitting way to end a heavy meal.
The final postre is tres leches, which literally translates to ‘three milks’. And, you guessed it, its constitution relies entirely on evaporated milk, condensed milk and regular milk. The mixture of the three is soaked into the sponge, and leaves a deceptively light dessert, which is definitely for those with a sweet tooth.