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In 2013, Mexico jiggled ahead of the USA as the developed world’s fattest country, with 70% of the population overweight and a third obese. The UN report pointed the finger at the usual all-you-can-eat buffet of poverty, urbanisation and the industrialisation of the food supply. We haven’t been left unscathed by this epidemic: despite cycling more than 5,000km since entering Mexico in late November, our road-lean bodies have somehow expanded during our time here. And so we know that the biggest cause of Mexicans’ obesity problem was omitted from the study. Mexican food is absolutely delicious – and absolutely everywhere.

Only a tequila-crazed party animal could think that the fajita-burrito mush served in British ‘Mexican’ restaurants in any way represents the country’s cuisine (or, indeed, any cuisine), but it did lower our expectations. So, too, did an excellent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme featuring the foremost authority on regional Mexican food, ninetysomething Essex expat Diana Kennedy, who for 50 years has been collecting recipes the way Cecil Sharp used to collect folk tunes: on the ground and with a sense of urgency, as old ways yield to new.

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We weren’t even over the border when we first heard the characteristic sound of tortillas being slapped into shape. In Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas, the first city of note we reached after leaving Guatemala, we encountered the cenaduría: an evening-only cafeteria in the front room of a family house, where simple, wholesome food from a short, standard menu (soft filled rolls, butifarra sausage, tortillas spread with beans) is home-cooked in front of you. We visited only one cenaduría and so had to leave several dishes unsampled. Some turned out to be unique to Comitán, as did this particular type of cenaduría. This was a lesson learned early: see it, eat it. Regional food is alive and well in Mexico, and who knows where the boundaries lie. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may diet.

 


 

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The reason we only went to one cenaduría in Comitán comes down to one word: tacos. We’ve now become intimate with the taco, along with numerous other members of the antojito family (chilapas and chalupas, burritos and tlayudas, gringas, quesadillas and assorted other variations on the tortilla-and-filling theme), but you never forget your first time. Bellied-up to the bar of a street stall, chatting to the owners, watching greedily as meat – pastor or carnitas (both pork), carne de res (beef), and so on – is fried up in front of you. Piling on the typically piquant extras – radish, lime, coriander, pickle and chopped onion in this case, but the fun is in the local variations – and the salsas (red, green, thin guacamole). Sinking your teeth in and snatching for a napkin as the juice runs out. Trying not to smirk when you hear the bargain price.

We learned early never to eat tacos indoors (unless the restaurant also has a stall outside). The obvious reason is that you can’t see what you’re in for before you sit down (chopped-up frankfurters, on one occasion). But, just as importantly, it’s also about atmosphere. In warmer parts of the country, entire plazas become animated outdoor food courts by night, and the taco stand’s counter stools and scattering of plastic tables are inherently social. For the stallholder, the appeal is obvious: there’s no ground rent to pay, the overheads are minimal, and an order of tacos al pastor made in a professional kitchen is no better than one cooked on your mum’s carefully tended old grill. Indeed, it’s often worse.

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Similarly, mole negro – the complex spicy sauce whose ingredients include chocolate, most commonly served with pollo (chicken) as pictured at the top of this post – isn’t likely to be more impressive in a posh restaurant than it is in the local café, as long as it’s house-made. Mexican food doesn’t really lend itself to a fine-dining upgrade. It’s a democratic cuisine. The ubiquitous cevicherías serve prawn, crab and oyster cocktails – no frozen food involved – for the price of a couple of Snickers. (They also offer a fat-free alternative to the antojitos, the fillings for which are fried in lard – sometimes twice.)

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If you don’t feel like tacos, the odds are that you’re no more than 10 metres away from a vendor selling puffed-corn snacks or hand-made crisps, hot cakes or tamales, steamed chickpeas or home-made lemon ‘pay’, pots of fruit or of strawberries and cream. Around the corner, you might find a luxuriantly overstocked sweetshop or bakery, a paletería (lollies and all things icy), or even a market, a mix of produce stalls and dining counters. It’s not all healthy food, but it’s the food of healthy communities, and provides independent work in a country where, for many, poverty is never far away. Better a lard-fried taco than the processed food-corp snacks sold at Oxxo, the ubiquitous convenience store.

 


 

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We’ve been in Mexico for nearly four months and have barely read the jacket notes of the country’s complex food story. Among the many things not touched on here are chillies, cheeses and chocolates; atole, elote and pozole (respectively, a corn drink, prepared sweetcorn and a pungent stew); Mexican sandwiches, from tortas to cemitas; huevos rancheros, huevos a la Mexicana and the dozens of other egg preparations available for breakfast; dessert culture, which includes a baffling obsession with jelly; and the country’s distinctive drinks list, taking in everything from jugos naturales (fresh juices) to mezcal margaritas. The history of the tortilla alone encompasses the rise of Mesoamerican culture, biodiversity, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and contemporary gender politics.

Ruth had a glimpse into home cooking courtesy of a short food course in Oaxaca. However, we’re largely unaware of how Mexico’s wide range of produce – from two oceans and ecosystems temperate and tropical – is served at table, as opposed to at stalls and restaurants. And despite our best efforts to eat everything we see, we still don’t know what many of the dishes listed on menus and street-stall sandwich boards actually are.

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We’ve only about six days left in Mexico, and while not even six months or six years would be enough, we’ve agreed not to let a new snack go unsampled or a vendor’s container go uninvestigated. It might not do much for our BMI, but, hell, we’ve got all of Texas to cycle it off. And, as everyone knows, the portions there are tiny.

from Matahuela, San Luis Potosí, Mexico