A couple of days ago, I had a sharp “oh no!” reaction to a Facebook thread where lots of people I respect were enthusing over the prospect that the famous Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià, was thinking about opening a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. And since I’ve been trying to figure out why my first reaction was so negative.
After all, I am an enthusiastic advocate of fusion cuisine. I am ready to say that cuisines rarely map on to nations and that, in any case, nations don’t own cuisines. Althought I never ate at El Bulli, Adrià’s restaurant, I have in the last four years lived in both Barcelona and Girona (sixty miles away and capital of the province in which El Bulli was situated) so I have had a chance to enjoy the markets and restaurants. And I have no reason to question Adrià’s culinary intelligence.
I think I am working my way to an answer. It goes something like this. At the heart of every cuisine lies a series of techniques, usually associated with the making of sauces. Often these depend on particular ingredients but it’s the way of treating those ingredients that really matters. This creates the character of the cuisine and is the contribution it can make to the world’s culinary heritage.
So, to take a somewhat dated but probably familiar example, at the heart of classic French lies the use of emulsions, gels, and starches to make sauces, combining meat stock, fat, flour, and acids in a huge variety of ways.
Now perhaps what bothers me most about the “Mexican” cuisine that I have encountered in the United States, in England, and in Girona is that it fails to capture the techniques used in Mexico. Although I have lived in Mexico for the past fifteen years, I venture the following characterization with some trepidation because my Mexican friends may just say I am talking through my hat. But I will plough ahead anyway.
Mexican sauces, of which there are an enormous variety, are pureed vegetable sauces that play on the flavors, the textures, the colors (and to a lesser extent the piquancy) of an extensive range of fresh and dried chiles combined with the acidity and textural additions provided by tomatillos, tomatoes (and to a lesser extent by other ingredients such as lime, vinegar, xoconostle, etc.) plus onions, garlic and often cilantro. The more complicated of these sauces also employ other thickeners and spices including the notorious chocolate, but also allspice, cinnamon, fresh ginger, raisins, capers, toasted tortillas, and a host of others.
To become a really competent cook in the Mexican tradition is to become quite at ease with all the implicit rules of combination of these basics.
In my opinion, these sophisticated sauces can make a huge contribution to the world culinary heritage. Delicious, with a huge range of applications in the kitchen, as well as inexpensive and healthful, they are unappreciated gems that go way, way beyond the better-known pureed tomato sauces.
So, if Adrià could capture this repertoire and showcase its virtues, he would be doing all of us a huge favor. If not, then for my money however great the food it would be an opportunity lost, one more of the exploding number of “Mexican” restaurants worldwide.
Update Sunday March 18th.
Thanks to all those who have picked up on this. Following up Elatia Harris’s comparison to Indian food, Mexican sauces are not just tomato sauces with chilies added any more than Indian sauces are bechamel sauces with curry powder added (as happened in nineteenth-century France and England). Nothing wrong with tomato sauces with chilies, nothing wrong with bechamel with curry powder. Both can be just fine. But neither introduces new culinary techniques.
The one description I have seen of the mooted restaurant seems vague and not reassuring. (Carmen “Titita” Ramírez’s El Bajio is terrific by the way but it’s not a taco spot).
“Albert [Ferran’s brother] has mentioned before that the team has considered opening an outpost of the traditional Mexican restaurant El Bajío or at least collaborating with its owner Carmen “Titita” Ramirez, but nothing to that effect is confirmed. He told Eater last year, “It won’t happen next week, but maybe I’ll open an authentic ceviche bar in the neighborhood, or a taco spot with the lady from El Bajío. Who knows?””