I was midway through my latest trip, a multi-city, multi-country episode involving both business and pleasure, when this conversation between Francis Lam (editor at Gilt Taste) and Eddie Huang (chef and all-around funnyman) lit up my Twitter feed. Their exchange was spurred by an article Lam had written for The New York Times, which explored the growing number of American-born chefs cooking foreign cuisines.
And it got me thinking.
What is authenticity? And why are Americans so obsessed with it?
Is authenticity the mole negro I had at Doña Ofelia Toledo Bacha Pineda’s restaurant, Yu Ne Nisa, in Oaxaca? She’s one of two culinary anthropologists in the area who recreates dishes from the Istmo region of southern Mexico, including pre-Hispanic food, like iguana meat.
Or what about the cabrito – suckling goat – that I had in the north of Mexico the week before, where it is celebrated and esteemed? Was the roasted cabrito I had at the eighty year-old El Tio restaurant in Monterrey – bone-in, with blistered skin – authentic?
I don’t think anyone would argue that most of what I ate in my two weeks in Mexico was the real deal. How does it get more authentic than finding an abuelita in her own kitchen grinding mole from scratch and braising meat for fourteen hours to make a traditional wedding stew? That’s just two of the dishes that Doña Deyanira Aquino made for my friends and me at her home in Oaxaca.
Yet, much of what I ate in Mexico was Mexican, just like much of what you’ll find in the United States is “American”* – a mash-up of the ingredients and cuisines of different cultures. Except, in Mexico (and most of the world, for that matter), foreign cuisines (and their ingredients) were incorporated into the local, traditional foodways over time (notice, I used the term “pre-Hispanic” earlier), whereas, in the United States, foreign cuisines replaced, almost in entirety, the native culinary culture.
And maybe that’s why the United States is so obsessed with chasing authenticity. Unlike most other cultures, ours is young, and has no trace of what was here before us. Moored to nothing but outside influences, we feel adrift. Culinary refugees, we are “heimatlose,” as my Swiss friend would say.
But why does it have to be that way? Why can’t our American cuisine be a happy mix of flavors, just like almost every other cuisine in the world? Instead of embracing cross-pollination and making our own authenticity, why is America preoccupied with labeling its constituent cuisines as either authentic or not and dismissing what we consider to fall short of the ideal (whatever that is)? Of course, it is important to distinguish the latter from the former, to know the foreign import apart from the modified, local version. Eddie Huang was absolutely right about that. But why can’t we appreciate each for what it is? Doing so made my recent dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties – a meal almost entirely comprised of purposely bastardized immigrant food – particularly meaningful (those who still accuse Torrisi of serving “red sauce” might want to revisit, or they might be confusing it with its sister restaurant, Parm, next door).**
The “traditional” Taiwanese food that Huang is so passionate about sharing with others (at his restaurant Baohaus***) is just as authentic or inauthentic as crab rangoons and fortune cookies, a hot pot of ingredients and influences from local, Taiwanese aborigines, Chinese immigrants from the mainland, and the Japanese (who occupied Taiwan for the fifty years straddling the Second World War). I know this not only because I’ve been to Taiwan, to eat and learn the culture, but also because both of my parents, though not Taiwanese, were raised in Taiwan. These, too, are the flavors of my childhood.
But, Taiwanese food is Taiwanese food and it doesn’t claim to be anything else, comfortable with its own diversity. The United States, on the other hand, remains largely segregationist. I’d argue that this is because most of the world operates on a class-based platform, whereas Americans tend to see things in shades of race.****
And so, we remain adrift, chasing a Holy Grail that might be right in front of us.
The United States DOES have its own culinary identity, with foods that have become uniquely American by tradition, even if borrowed or adapted, and often attached with an activity or holiday. We have turkey at Thanksgiving and hot dogs at the ballpark. We pull out the grill and throw on some meat for the summer holidays; sometimes it’s hamburgers, sometimes it’s barbecue. Fried chicken, candy bars, clam chowder, fast food, crawfish boils, movie popcorn, shrimp and grits, frozen pizza, donuts, and energy drinks. Are these not all foods that any foreigner would be expected to know if they wanted to master the American culture?
Consider the Portland Malt Shoppe, a tiny, walk-up overlooking the rocky shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, where I spent the last four days of my recent trip. What’s more American than ice cream, frothy malts (with a wafer cookie and cherry on top), and a Brown Cow (root beer with chocolate, milk, and ice cream)? It was like a scene out of the Saturday Evening Post. (I need to pause and mention the honey malts at this place. They are great. In between the sweetness of the honey and the toastiness of the malt, the flavors of the two meet brilliantly. It sounds like overkill, but the pockets of cold honey swirled throughout the frothy drink, gritty with sugar, were thrilling.)
Or, how about a hubcap pancake at a diner with maple syrup and a pat of butter? My friend Ricky happened to pass through Duluth on his way up the North Shore from the Twin Cities, so we met for breakfast at the Duluth Grill, a local favorite since the seventies. Never mind Guy Fieri’s face in the window (yes, he ate here), the caramel pecan rolls the size of your head are pretty great. And where else but in kitschy America would you find an old Wurlitzer once owned by Al Capone (and a dish called the “quack and cluck” – an omelette with duck confit)? It’s sitting there, between the hostess stand and the kitchen door.
Is Duluth hyper-American, or did it just seem that way to me because I was eating tlayudas (a popular Oaxaqueño antojito that’s essentially like a giant tostada) off of a comal just hours before in the labyrinthine Mercado Abasto in Oaxaca (the place is so large, so riddled with alleyways veering this way and that, that my friend Adam and I needed a leash to prevent us from inadvertently wandering apart).
I was in México for two weeks.
The first week, I was teaching a food styling class at the Culinaria Pangea, a culinary school in Monterrey, the industrial center of México and the seat of the border state of Nuevo Leon in the north. It’s a course that I’ve taught for two years in Kansas City, and Roberto Navarro, an instructor at the school invited me to teach it to his students. (That week, my students learned how to make inedible food look delicious, like this hamburger, and these scoops of ice cream, which aren’t scoops of ice cream at all.)
Between classes, Navarro and the Culinaria Pangea team introduced me to the cuisine of El Noreste (the northeastern region of the country) at lunches and dinners, with snacks in between.
A landlocked state with a particularly hot climate, Nuevo Leon focuses on meat.
Beef is big here. You’ll find the tongue, braised until tender and served on tlacoyos (an elongated masa cake, sometimes filled with beans or cheese); the tail simmered and served in a tomatoey soup; and the meat dried and shredded (“machaca”), scrambled with eggs for breakfast (“machacado”), or reconstituted with a tomatoey sauce and wrapped in tortillas (they call this “atropellado,” or “road kill”). You’ll find marrow (“tuétano”), served in a hot stew, or glazed with spicy salsa and served on the bone. And you’ll find all the usual cuts of cow, large and small, steak for the everyman.
We had léchon (suckling pig) and cabrito, which, as I mentioned earlier, is particularly prized here (returning for a moment to the issue of authenticity, goat was brought to this region by the Spaniards). In fact, you’ll find blingy palaces built to its cause, touristy traps for those looking for a local taste of it.
But I had the blessing and benefit of local guides.
We went to El Tio and La Catarina, two Monterrey classics serving traditional Mexican food, mostly from the region.
La Nacional is an old cantina, or bar, where men traditionally go to drink alcohol and graze on botanas (appetizers). Women were not allowed in most cantinas until recently. Due to the success of La Nacional, owner Felipe Chapa opened a second location, this one a more upmarket version, serving steakhousey versions of Mexican food, like thinly sliced rib eye “aguachile,” (called “chile water,” it’s a way of cooking raw seafood with acid, akin to ceviche), and whole cobs of huitlacoche, grilled and carved table-side.
And we visited Guillermo González Beristáin, chef at Pangea, one of the city’s few fine-dining restaurants. There, he revises classical Mexican dishes and pairs them with some fantastic Mexican wines. He also offers a board of local, Mexican artesanal cheeses, both young and aged. That was pleasantly surprising.
My hosts showed off Monterrey’s culinary diversity as well.
Our first stop was at the beautiful Habita hotel, where American-born Marc Eceves is sculpting modern plates with Mexican ingredients, like cobia tiradito with wild chiles and avocado, and borrego (mutton) tacos deconstructed in a beautiful bowl. It’s reassembled with freshly made masa tortillas, served on the side.
Adrian Herrera is experimenting with Chino-Latino cuisine, suffusing my people’s food with his at his new restaurant, Chef Herrera. A Poe fanatic with a morbid sense of humor, he’s sort of a shock jock, offering drinks like the “Black Tumor,” and “Venereal Disease” (this one with white port, grapefruit soda, and a cherry). But don’t be distracted by his antics. His Mexican dishes, like an offal stew, smoky with cumin, are quite serious and delicious.
Francisco Javier’s Señor Mostaza has a somewhat clubby vibe, with playful dishes like fried shrimp breaded with chicharron, macaroni and Brie, and huitlacoche risotto with Parmesan cheese. That was a fun night.
And we stopped in Theurel & Thomas for macarons and chocolates, an unexpected diversion from the avalanche of Mexican candies that Navarro unleashed on me that week, including my beloved mazapán (his wife works at the University of Monterrey, where local women sell homemade mazipan, some with pecans – my favorite – some with walnuts, and some with Oreo cookies), glorias (cajeta and nuts), and obleas (cajeta sandwiched between two communion wafers).
Not surprisingly, some of the loveliest moments of my time in Monterrey were spent with friends at their homes.
I spent a couple of balmy evenings up in the mountains. One night, we ate sincronizadas (think flour tortilla quesadilla with a ham and cheese filling) on a stunning garden terrace overlooking the city. The next night, my friends staged a traditional carne asada (meat on the grill), a potluck by the pool with nopal salad; stuffed jalepeño peppers (apparently, they have those in Mexico too); calçots, grilled until silky; stretchy queso Oaxaca melted with chorizo; and lots of wine.
My hat’s off to Navarro and Culinaria Pangea for being great hosts. Thank you for being proud Méxicans, and for generously sharing your culture and homes with me.
From Monterrey, I headed south to Puebla, where I met up with my friend Mala Mexicana for a couple of days of eating.
I had visited Puebla last October, so I knew where I wanted to go first.
We hit the market at San Pedro Cholula fast and hard, clearing a cemita Milanesa, two quarts of aguas frescas (she wanted papaya, I wanted guava, and they didn’t sell them in a smaller size), borrego tacos, and a bowl of borrego soup within an hour. I love that market.
We went back to El Mural de los Poblanos, which didn’t thrill me the first time I ate there. But I like it much better this time. We had creamy gusanos de maguey (fat worms from the maguey plant), and a spicy chipotle stuffed with a sweet mix of beef and almonds. Both were great, as was a salad of purslane with chopped walnuts, tomatoes, and avocado.
At La Noria, we had a lovely dinner on the patio, cooled by a passing rainstorm. I really liked the mole Poblano here. It’s probably my favorite one of the few versions I’ve tasted so far. It’s less sweet, than others. I also liked the mole pipián here, which seemed almost whipped, much lighter than others I’ve had. It was ladled over fritters stuffed with minced huauzontle, the stalky buds of a local plant. And we had escamoles, the larvae of ants, served in a beautiful corn husk boat.
Before boarding a bus to Oaxaca, Mala Mexicana and I stopped at a road-side stand for quecas and gorditos. We had them stuffed and topped with everything from squash blossoms to chicharron, steak to nopal. And, as with everything in that area, they were smothered with stringy quesillo (which they sell in ribbons, rolled like a giant rubber band ball, in the markets).
You’d be amazed how great the long-range bus system is in Mexico. My friend Adam and I have used it to shuttle between Mexico City and Puebla, and Puebla and Oaxaca. Included in the fare is a goodie bag with snacks and a drink, earbuds for the movie, which plays on high-definition screens (it was “Captain America” on the way to Oaxaca, “Cinema Paradiso” on the way back), and complimentary wifi. Unconcerned with negotiating the winding, mountain roads by myself, I napped a little, edited photos a little, caught up on email a little, and managed to revisit some of my favorite scenes from that magnificent story of Toto and Alfredo by the Italian sea.
Oaxaca was a dream. Perhaps foolishly (and terribly narrow-minded of me), it’s what I wish every city in Mexico would look like.
The central part of the city is picturesque, every block a scene, every building a story. The colors, the textures, the people, the churches: you could point your camera in any direction and find the perfect frame. Even our hotel, housed in a 400 year-old Dominican convent, was stunning, rich with character.
One night, I took a short walk with my tripod. The diversity of scenery I found within five blocks was unbelievable. I saw hot dog carts; couples down cobblestone lanes, hand-in-hand; and candy vendors on foot, with a rainbow of sweets strapped to their shoulders. Imagine if I had month, or even a week. I’d photograph it all.
But most people go to Oaxaca for the food. That’s because it is amazing.
I was very fortunate to have my friend Adam of A Life Worth Eating as my guide. He’s not a local, but he’s fast becoming fluent in Mexican cuisine and culture.
He packed our two days in Oaxaca with eating and touring, a short but weighty introduction to a vast micro-culture that seemed embodied in that horizonless market – Mercado Abasto – where we had that tlayuda off the comal. That was one of four markets we visited that day, all within walking distance of each other.
We went to Café Casa Oaxaca for a tasting of local moles. The mole negro Oaxaqueño here looks like mole Poblano. But it’s different. It’s less sweet, more tannic. I prefer it. The mole verde here is herbaceous, more runny than thick. And the mole amarillo isn’t amarillo (yellow) at all. It’s decidedly orange in color. It too is more soupy than saucy.
We we dropped into Casa Oaxaca, briefly, just to try the mole negro there. Casa Oaxaca is the place where everyone goes first, the place people recommend the most. But, I found its mole negro sadly wanting. It wasn’t bad. But it seemed terribly uninteresting after having had the mole negros of Doña Ofelia and Doña Deyanira. Theirs were truly amazing.
I don’t know why more people don’t talk about Yu Ne Nisa, Doña Ofelia’s little eatery in the Colonia Reforma district of Oaxaca. Adam and I were the only two people in the dining room during our two lunches there. And yet, I’d say it’s two of the best meals I had on this trip to México. Her moles were amazing. I brought some back with me. In fact, I’m having it for dinner tonight.
Nearby is Doña Deyanira’s La Teca, a supper club that she runs out of her home. Adam gathered a group of friends, who all happened to be in town one day, and we had a cheery night of garnachas (little gorditas topped with pulled pork and cheese) and tamales (a variety of fillings), mezcal and wine.
I will write about these two dinners. I promise. I must.
By the way, although mole’s origin reaches past the Hispanic era in México, many of the ingredients in modern-day moles are not indigenous to México, brought to the New World by the Spaniards.
It was Adam’s birthday. So, our last day in Oaxaca was a gluttonous run. We had two breakfasts, including antojitos at Itanoní, a tortilleria in the Colonia Reforma (that really is a great neighborhood for eating), and two lunches, before heading back to Puebla for dinner at Angel Vazquez’s Intro Restaurant.
My last morning with Adam and Mala Mexicana was spent back where I first fell in love with Mexico – at that little covered market in San Pedro Cholula. Adam and I had two cemitas and headed for the bus station. I didn’t want to leave.
Thank you Adam, Mala Mexicana, Roberto, Maria Teresa, and the rest of the Culinaria Pangea group for making my time in Mexico so wonderful. I’ll be back. Thank you, Solveig, for having me back up to Duluth, and for the daily malt runs by the lake.
Here is where I ate on this last trip to Mexico and Minnesota. Until I write about these meals, you’ll find them linked to their photo sets on Flickr below.
Café Casa Oaxaca (Oaxaca)
Casa Oaxaca (Oaxaca)
Cemitas Lupita (San Pedro Cholula) (once, twice)
Cemitas Sandy (San Pedro Cholula)
Chef Herrera (Monterrey)
El Mural de los Poblanos (Puebla)
El Tio (Monterrey) (once, twice, thrice)
La Catarina (Monterrey)
La Felix (Monterrey)
La Nacional (Monterrey)
La Noria (Puebla)
La Teca (Oaxaca)
Mercado Abasto (Oaxaca)
Señor Mostaza (Monterrey)
XBox Café (Monterrey)
Yu Ne Nisa (Oaxaca) (once, twice)
* To clarify, here I am referring to the United States of America, as I was reminded recently by my Mexican friend, malamexicana, that the rest of the countries in the continental Americas are taught that both North and South America (as we know them in the United States) are one continent called “America.”
** I use the word “accuse” Why is “red sauce” a derogatory term? Why can’t it simply refer to an adaptive genre of cooking by Italian-Americans?
*** Wait, Mr. Eddie Huang, is that lemon aioli I see on the “Oyster Po Bao” on your menu?
**** When I was a kid, my parents kept two separate rice cookers in our home. My mother, from a more affluent family, grew up eating softer, shorter grained rice. And that is what she insisted eating as an adult. My father, prefers the harder, long-grained rice of his impoverished childhood (his first pair of shoes came at the age of twelve). Since moisture shortens the shelf life of cooked rice, and his family couldn’t afford to have rice go bad, he always kept it particularly dry, even though such spoilage was no longer a problem with a modern rice cooker. That’s how he had it as a kid, and that’s how he’d wanted it as an adult. (It was horrible. I ate my mom’s rice.) To this day, neither is willing to eat from the other’s pot.
Yet, divided in class by rice, neither my mom nor dad has a problem calling tempura and ramen “Taiwanese,” even though they know that both were introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese during the occupation. It’s not the same type of tempura and ramen that you’d get in Japan, of course. But there are no accusations that the versions they know are inauthentic. That’s why the tempura and ramen of my parents’ childhood are Taiwanese and not Japanese.
p.s. If Francis Lam is reading this: Regarding your article in The New York Times, I think the most deciding/dividing factor is that American-born cooks have the luxury of cooking out of passion and research, whereas the vast majority of immigrant cooks do so out of necessity, and often have little to no culinary training.
Photos: The view of “el mitre” from the Habita, Monterrey; mole amarillo at Yu Ne Nisa, Oaxaca; a bike at a locksmith stall inside the market at San Pedro Cholula; the Portland Malt Shoppe, Duluth; the asta bandera in Monterrey; calçots on the asado, Monterrey; server shaving the huitlacoche off of the cob at La Nacional, Monterrey; the view from the rooftop bar at Habita, Monterrey; a garden terrace in the hills of San Pedro above Monterrey; borrego food stall at the San Pedro Cholula market; night riders in Oaxaca; candy vendor at night in Oaxaca; a couple walking down a pedestrian lane in Oaxaca; fillings for antojitos at Itanoní in Oaxaca; Hotel Camino Real in Oaxaca; and the church of San Domingo in Oaxaca.