Cocina Mexicana for the London food bloggers and friends


20060923mexicancooking30ebloggers1b From left to right, we have Keiko, Shuna, me, Johanna, Iliana, Xochitl and Jenni, with Vanessa kindly taking the photo!

Aaaah, Mexico.  One of the many places I have visited, loved… and not yet blogged!!  :o)  But I can tell you that it is a simply fabulous country, full of friendly people, vibrant colours and unmistakably flavoured food.  Aaah, yes, the food.  Of course, everybody is familiar with Mexican food, right?  Those cheesy nachos, chicken fajitas, stodgy heaps of refried beans – and chiles so hot they take the roof off your mouth – that pretty much sums it up, right??

Erm, no.  I think you’ll find that a lot of that is Tex-Mex, a fusion of American and Mexican cuisines, forged in the southern states near the US-Mexico border.  Not that I’m knocking Tex-Mex – good Tex-Mex can be a lovely thing all of its own.  But it’s not Mexican, and a lot of Mexicans will get quite hot under the collar if you assume you know all about their cuisine after a visit to the endlessly awful Texas Embassy.  My first experience of Tex-Mex food was at the (now defunct) Maverick Spur in the Kine Park cinema complex in Port Elizabeth – in fact, I can’t think that there’s anybody who grew up in PE that didn’t go on at least ONE first date at the Spur! 😉  Man, back in those heady days, they had to print pronounciation guides on the menus for quesadillas and fajitas – and I remember an ex-boyfriend asking for extra jala-pee-no’s (with the J as in "jam"!).  It was the height of culinary exotica.  How far we have come! 

Or have we?

What passes for Mexican cuisine in London can be quite scary.  There’s Chili’s, but even though its food is generally yummy and its portions American-style supersize (not to mention its totally addictive jugs of strawberry daiquiri…), it’s Tex-Mex all the way.  Then there’s the Texas Embassy (as mentioned above) near Trafalgar Square which, to my mind, plumbs new depths of mediocrity.  My solitary visit was last year and everything about the place was off-putting.  The service was indifferent and you struggled to get any waiter’s attention, even though the place wasn’t particularly full when we visited;  the food was decidedly average Tex-Mex (and expensive!); and you got the feeling that the lights were dim because they were trying to conceal that practically all the fixtures were scuffed and cracked.  Blech.  Things were looking grim on the London Mexican food front.  But then… Mestizo appeared – proper Mexican food at reasonable prices and a little shelf of groceries to boot!  My two visits there are still to be blogged, but suffice to say Johanna and I were both very impressed.  And now I hear that the Green and Red Cantina is also The Real Deal – I’ll be going at the end of the month and will let you know. 

But there is another way to get good, authentic Mexican food in London:  you simply invite three enthusiastic cooks who respectively grew up in Mexico; had a Mexican parent; or lived there for a while – and get them to cook for you!  And that’s exactly the idea Johanna and I hit upon recently for a London food blogger event.  Johanna spent a year in Mexico as an exchange student when she was younger.  Xochitl was born in Tijuana and grew up in a Mexican home in the USA.  And my dear friend Iliana is a 100% no-artificial-additives-or-preservatives Mexican girl.   So who better to lead an afternoon of Mexican cooking and an evening of Mexican feasting?  Plans were drawn up, groceries were bought (largely ordered from Lupe Pinto’s –  Mexican store in Edinburgh, of all places – but also a few Cool Chile Co. products) and bloggers were invited.  You can read more about the sourcing of groceries on Johanna’s blog here.

20060923mexicancooking03eilianabOn the appointed day, Iliana (on the left) and I arrived at 20060923mexicancooking05exochitlb Johanna’s house and were joined in no particular order by Xochitl of Xochitl Cooks (seen here on the right), Jenni of Pertelote, Keiko of Nordljus, Vanessa (who doesn’t have her own blog – yet!) and our visitor from San Francisco, Shuna of Eggbeater.  Both Iliana and Xochitl brought us some ingredients from their private stash of Mexican foods, lovingly replenished each time they visit Mexico, so we probably had the best selection of Mexican ingredients available in London that day 😉  After introductions and some chatting, we got down to the task at hand:  cooking Mexican! I have made a comprehensive photo album of the day’s people, activities and feasting, so feel free to see the day in pictures as well as words.  You may also want to check out the recipes and other perspectives  in Johanna’s write up in three parts; Shuna’s write ups; Xochitl’s write up in two parts; and Jenni’s write up.

20060923mexicancooking08etortillapressbThe first order of business was a spot of liquid refreshment, and seeing as there was going to be much chopping and slicing, we thought it better to keep matters alcohol-free for now!  The appropriate solution was agua de Jamaica – an infusion of hibiscus flowers which makes a refreshing, intensely coloured purply-red drink.  To get the ball rolling, Iliana and Xochitl supervised the making of sopesThese are little cornmeal patties that are made by hand – first kneaded by Iliana, then shaped into little balls by Iliana and Xochitl, and finally pressed flat in Iliana’s beautiful tortilla press and shaped by Jenni, Vanessa, Keiko and me.  While this was in progress, Xochitl, Iliana and Johanna discussed the various types of beans used in Mexican cuisine, which varies from the north to the south of the country, and the finer points of cooking the beans (scooping off any "floaters" and discarding them in case their flesh has been eaten away by bugs!).  Like many other Mexican women, Iliana’s mom had an earthenware bean pot reserved only for the long, slow cooking of beans, but most homes use slow-cookers these days.  Legume lesson over, sopes were cooked, refried beans were mashed and we sat down to some snacks and to discuss the rest of the day’s events.

20060923mexicancooking10esopestoppingb There were bowls of potato crisps, drizzled with lime juice and served with a handy bottle of chile sauce on the side, just like I had in Mexico.  There were the lovely little toasted sopes which we topped with frijoles (refried beans), shredded lettuce, salsa verde and crumbly Lancashire cheese (a near-perfect substitute for queso fresco, we were assured by Xochitl!).  This makes for a heavenly bite – the blandness of the sope itself v the spiciness of the salsa; the squidginess of the frijoles v the crispness of the lettuce – it’s just perfect and potentially very addictive! The third snack was something I was unfamiliar with:  jícamaThis is also known variously as the yam bean, Mexican potato/turnip; or the Chinese potato/turnip.  Although it looks like the second cousin of a turnip, it is in fact a member of the legume family and is more closely related to beans than turnips.  The plant is mainly grown for its fleshy tuber and in fact, much of the rest of the plant is poisonous!  Once peeled and sliced, the jícama is crisp and refreshing, tasting like a cross between an sweet apple and a water chestnut, and is apparently packed with Vitamin C.  We had our jícama sliced into matchsticks and accompanied by lime wedges and a little bowl of chile piquín, a powder made from piquín chiles.  These tiny, fiery chiles are cultivated, but still grow wild (in which case they are called chiltepins).  In fact, the Tarahumara peoples of the Sonoran desert in Mexico believe that chiltepins are the greatest protection against the evils of sorcery and according to an old proverb, the man who does not eat chiles is immediately suspected of being a sorcerer!

20060923mexicancooking17eshunachopsonion_1 The discussion around the table centred mainly on the dishes we were planning to make (more below), historical background from Iliana and Xochitl, hints and tips from Johanna, and astoundingly detailed information on everything from knife skills to preventing onions from making you cry from Shuna (the person I would most want on my Trivial Pursuit team next time I play!!).  After the brief respite, it was back to the kitchen where Iliana, Xochitl and Johanna continued to supervise operations and the rest of us developed our knife skills by dicing vegetables into impossibly small bits for salsas and ceviche; tested our attention to detail by peeling every last hint of skin off charred poblano peppers; 20060923mexicancooking15epoblanospeeled2 shredded chicken to within an inch of its life; and got a fascinating lesson on making caramel from Shuna (apparently one of the most dangerous things you can do in a domestic kitchen, owing to the high temperature of molten sugar). It was quite an intense afternoon, in terms of learning stuff, debating things, attention to detail etc, but also a very rewarding one, and we all got to know each other a lot better.  Oh yes, and we laughed.  A lot.

Finally (only 90 mins after we had hoped!) we sat down to a true Mexican feast. I’m afraid I didn’t get pictures of everything (some things just Do Not Photograph Well!!), but here is the run-down of our spectacular table with the pictures I did get.

20060923mexicancooking12epicodegallobFirst, let’s talk about the salsas – the dips, sauces and relishes without which Mexican cuisine just wouldn’t be the same.  I have to say that when I visited Mexico and saw for the first time that a waiter was making fresh salsa tableside with a pestle and mortar, I realised we were in uncharted culinary waters.  The salsas on Mexico have a fresher taste than anything I have tasted in London (or South Africa), but I have to say that the London food bloggers gave them a run for their money.  We had the ubiquitous and often (badly) copied guacamole (from the Nahuatl words ahuacatl {avocado} and mole {sauce}) – mashed avocado with a dash of chile, lime or cilantro, depending on your taste.  The green sludge with the chemically aftertaste that you buy ready-mixed in supermarkets is just not the same thing at all – don’t go there.  If you are going to make your own, try to find Hass or Gwen avocados – you don’t want anything too stringy or too watery.  And woe betide the man who tries to make guacamole with underripe avocados!! Unsalvageable.  Another salsa we made was pico de gallo (pictured above) – literally meaning "rooster’s beak", presumably because after you’ve eaten it your tongue feels as if it has been pecked by a rooster?!  It is more of a relish than a sauce as there’s not much liquid and the principal ingredients are tomato, onion and jalapenos, although cilantro can also be added.  The colours of the ingredients give this relish its alternative name of salsa Mexicana, referring to the red, green and white of the Mexican flag.  We also made salsa verde using garlic, jalapeño chiles, onion, coriander and fresh tomatillos – relatives of both tomatoes and Cape Goosberries (physalis).  As well as… deadly nightshade!  They are smaller than tomatoes and have a rather attractive papery husk – and their taste is deliciously tart and refreshing.  And last but not least was another of my favourites – chipotle salsaChipotles (literally "smoked chile" in Nahuatl) are dried, smoked jalapeño chiles and they have the most amazing smoky flavour, rather than an eye-watering heat.  For this salsa, you need the chipotles in adobo sauce, which are then chopped up and mixed with chopped tomato, onion and lime juice. 

20060923mexicancooking21eceviche1bBut man cannot live by salsa alone, so what else did we have?  Well, on your left you have ceviche – or fish "cooked" in lime juice, which denatures the protein to make it taste and look like cooked fish, rather than the raw taste of, say, sushi.  This is a dish which originated in Peru but has lately become a fashionable addition to menus in almost every country.  This particular 20060923mexicancooking32efishtacob_1 incarnation with its tiny cubes of carrot, cucumber, onion and haddock took a lot of meticulous dicing and a lot of patience, but the end result was really lovely to look at and deliciously refreshing. We dipped tortilla chips into our ceviche, but it would also make a lovely fillinng for a no-meat taco.  Staying on the fishy side of things, up next were fish tacos (pictured on the right).  These are a speciality of Baja (the peninsula of land that extends southwards from Tijuana), so it will come as no surprise that I first had these in neighbouring California last year.  The ones I had in California were made with some local fish – a particularly, erm, fishy fish.  So to someone who hadn’t had anything but chicken or beef-based Mexican food before, they were somewhat of a shock to the system.  However Xochitl’s little deep-fried parcels of cod in a beer batter were just delicious – topped with a little salsa and shredded cabbage they made for a delicious taco.

20060923mexicancooking01epoblanosrawbNext up are two delicious chile-based dishes, both based on the beautiful poblano peppers you see on the left.  These peppers are generally quite mild compared to many of their cousins but still have more of a bite than the bell peppers that they resemble.  And like with padron peppers, it is said that one in every 30 or so will suddenly be VERY spicy!  Of the two dishes, the first was possibly my favourite dish of the day: chiles rellenos or stuffed chiles.  The poblanos were first charred under a hot grill, then left to sweat in a plastic bag and then peeled – carefully, as you need them largely in one piece!  After that they are stuffed with cheese, dipped in batter and then deep-fried.  Absolutely heavenly. The chiles have enough bite to remind you they are not 20060923mexicancooking28erajasconquesobbell peppers, but are mild enough for those who don’t want to scorch their tastebuds.  And who can resist something cheesey and fried??  The other chile-based dish was rajas con queso, which took care of any of the poblano chiles left over form the chiles rellenos!  This is a dish that I’ve had at Iliana’s house before and loved.  The poblano chiles are once again charred, peeled and then sliced into thin strips.  About a third of them are then liquidised until creamy and then stirred into the strips together with some queso fresco (or crumbly Lancashire) cheese to make a spicy, cheesey concoction.  Sinfully delicious.

20060923mexicancooking27emachacabAnd then, of course, there were the meat dishes.  Although I had requested tacos al pastor, it was decided that without a rotisserie, we would not be able to replicate the authentic taste, so instead we made asado de puercoThis consists of cubed pork stewed in a spicy sauce made primarily of pureed ancho chiles (dried poblanos) which first had to be soaked in boiling water to soften them until the heavenly smell drove us all half mad with hunger!  The end result was a thick, unctuous, smoky sauce containing chunks of pork which was delicious in tortillas – but looked absolutely dreadful on film, so no pics!  Next20060923mexicancooking26epollob up was machaca (pictured on left) – beef which has been marinated, simmered slowly until very tender and then shredded.  (In Mexico, the resulting beef may also be dried, in a local Sonoran version of biltong.)  The shredded beef is then heated together with onions, spices and (of course!) chiles to make a delicious filling for tacos.  And over on the right, we have the particularly delicious tinga de pollo.  This involved some rather time-consuming shredding of loads of cooked chicken breasts, after which they were tossed into a big pan for a fry-up with potato cubes, onions and chorizo sausages that had been coaxed out of their casings and cubed.  Labour intensive or WHAT?!?  But seriously delicious in a taco with some salsa…  and a lifesaver for those like Johanna’s daughter who wanted their Mexican food really mild!

20060923mexicancooking35eflanslice1bAnd so the evening rolled around to its final course – the flan de fiesta.  Now flan is also known as creme caramel, and in that incarnation I have never been that fond of it, probably mainly because of the many pale and mass-produced imitations that I had as a child.  But the real thing… now there’s a different story.  It’s basically a custard that is poured into a dish which has already been coated with caramel syrup, and the whole thing is then baked in a bain marie to ensure that it ends up as custard and not a sweet omelette 😉 The end result was neither too heavy, nor too sweet – in fact, not too anything.  Just perfect, with a slick layer of glassy caramel on top.  A little finger of heaven.  Thanks Johanna!

All too soon, the evening drew to a close.  We were astonished to realise we had spent almost 12 happy hours talking about, preparing, photographing and eating food in each other’s company!  I think everyone learned something – whether it was the basics of Mexican cooking, some cultural trivia, or just the revelation that Mexican food is not all about chile so hot your head explodes.  I have not reproduced any of the recipes here, as Johanna is writing them up in a series of posts over on her blog – but do pop over there and get the recipe for anything that caught your eye – or your tastebuds.

So until next time, hasta luego and buen apetito!

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  1. says

    wow… what a write-up! and such effort to get all the background info right – enviable. i learnt quite a few things myself here, despite having lived in Mexico for a year! will borrow some photos, if that’s OK… shame we don’t have a good one of the asado, i really love that dish! recipes for the main dishes will be posted this week, I hope.

  2. says

    I am so, so jealous, no poblanos, no jicama, only tinned tomatillos, but at least we do have a Mexican grocery store. You are so right about the Tex-Mex thing that passes as Mexican food. I’ve been making my own fresh and cooked salsas for years, there is nothing else like them for flavour or texture. You are really speaking to my heart with this post, lucky all of you.

  3. says

    Hi Johanna
    Thanks *blush*! I have to say it did take forever and a day though! Glad I could impart some bits of Mexican culinary trivia (i particularly like the proverb about “he who doesn’t eat chile”!) and by all means borrow some pics. Look forward to yuor concluding posts of the day!
    Hi Lizzi
    Oh you have no idea. You also can’t get an idea from the pic how BIG the whole flan actually was – an oval Pyrex dish nearly a foot long!
    Hi Neil
    I think that sourcing the ingredients is ultimately your biggest problem with Mexican food. I mean, in most of South Africa you will get the blankest of blank stares if you go looking for chiles apart from a couple of fresh habaneros or bottled, slices jalapenos. And you can forget about dried Mexican varieties! Handmade salsas are so in a different league to prepared ones that it’s always worth the effort. And if you come and visit us over here, I promise we will organise some Mexican cooking in your honour! 😉

  4. Vanessa says

    In your admiral style, a truly informative post that captured the spirit of the day. I am tickled that you all keep mentioning the fact that I don’t have my own blog…yet :) At this point in time I barely have the time I want to keep up with each of your beautiful blogs, but I will get around to it in the coming months. In the meantime, I am glad that I have met each of you and feel that much closer to your wonderful pictures and words.
    Now I shall go back to drooling over your post and remembering a fantastic day. Can’t wait to try the recipes again…. take care!

  5. says

    Hi Vanessa
    Yaaaaaay – you commented! See – your first step on the path to blogging 😉 No pressure, clearly…! It was a great day and I’m glad you think my words and pictures do it justice. I think I’ll be making some of the recipes soon, now that the weather is turning cooler – my husband would certainly be happy with that!

  6. says

    Wow that all looks so lovely especially the tacos I wish I were there. Perhaps next time my husband and I can help you with some ingredients. We’re based here in the UK in Manchester and now supply the widest range of mexican food in the UK. Come and have a look at our new range at

  7. says

    Mexican in London

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    Does My Blog Look Excellent Or Wot?

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  9. judith says

    that makes me hungry!! I have been to Mexico and helped to make Christmas dinner in Monterrey Mexico. It was tamales and green and red salsa and a bottle of coka cola. We made 250 tamales that day and I haven’t made any since then. I now live in London and am getting hungry for some Mexican food. I want to make chili rellenos, I bought the pablanos yesterday at the borough market but now I need to find the cheese. I usually used Monterrey Kack but don’t know where to buy it. Can you HELP.