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  Age on Sunday   10 Mar 2019  ‘Chilli’ out in Mejico

‘Chilli’ out in Mejico

Published : Mar 10, 2019, 5:21 am IST
Updated : Mar 10, 2019, 5:21 am IST

Few dishes in the world boast of an ancestry like the tamale.

Oaxaca trails
 Oaxaca trails

As a well-travelled chef with an innate understanding of culinary concepts and a strong passion for Mexican cooking, I travelled to Mexico to explore its intrinsic cuisine, and was I amazed at the depth. Few dishes in the world boast of an ancestry like the tamale. Pre-dating corn by at least a couple of thousand years, tamale was first made by the indigenous tribes from wild “teocintle,” the ancestor of modern maize.

Traditionally, tamales were cooked by burying them in hot ashes, which made them crispy and brown from the outside with a soft, well-cooked filling inside. As time went by, the Aztecs began to steam them, a technique learned from the Spanish conquistadores. It was a common belief then that the tamale sticking to the bottom of the pot was a sign of good luck, and would protect them on the battleground. For long, the tamale remained a military food, and the reason behind women’s presence in the armed forces as cooks to make the masa for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes grew, the demand of pre-making the nixtamal (corn) itself became  so overwhelming a process that a need arose to have a more portable sustaining foodstuff. This led to the birth of corn tamale, which could be packed for travel, warmed later and relished. I am sharing the Aztec-style recipe, where the tamale is served cocooned in a corn husk. It is quite versatile, and you can choose to add any filling — meats, vegetables or fruits. In my journey to Oaxaca Mexico City, and as a searcher of foodie experiences, I have also shared some tips for your travel to this beautiful land of chilli and rich history.

Oaxaca trails

Chef Vikas Seth, an IHM Mumbai alumnus, is known for his culinary innovation and has a palate of a well-eaten gourmand — a few virtues that he honed and enhanced during his stint at the Culinary Institute of America. Born into a culturally-rich family in Amritsar, Chef Seth is a multi-faceted chef, who has authored books for private circulation The Modern Indian Odyssey showcasing Indian food and a unique twin cover restaurant book on ‘Sanchez and Sriracha.’ Here are a few tips if you are visting Oaxaca, Mexico’s food capital.

1See Mexican chocolate making, the ancestral way at Chocolate Y Mole La Soledad, 20 de Noviembre Market, where they wash Cacao beans, roast and grind with cinnamon and almond, then grind with sugar as per the client’s taste. It is then cooled, shaped and sold, or sold warm.

2Experience a Mexican barbecue in a rustic ambience at 20 de Noviembre Market, meats served in flat bamboo baskets on paper, salsas in small disposable containers, warm tortillas on paper. An insane BBQ meal, this!

3Enjoy Nopales! Nopal (cactus) is a very common vegetable in Mexico which tastes like gluey beans, slightly tart with a firm texture. Cactus pads are best served grilled on a taco.

4 Feast on Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) with a flight of Mezcal, you can’t leave without experiencing this! Crunchy and salty Chapulines are a delicacy. There are plenty of small mezcal producers in Oaxaca. Tequila is also a type of mezcal made from only blue agave plant commercially, whereas mezcal is made artisanally from different varieties of agave. Most top restaurants in Oaxaca will not even have Tequila on their menus! They serve only mezcal. Mezcal tasting is also common and the Mezcaloteca Bar is the best place, but book in advance.

5 Relish Oaxacan Quesillo, the best cheese of Mexico, it is a bit stringy but yum. This Quesillo cheese is similar to mozzarella though a bit saltier.


4 portions (8 pieces), time 25 minutes, cooking time 25 minutes
250 gm masa harina
25 ml oil
50 gm butter
150 ml water
½ tsp salt
16 or 8 pieces corn husk or banana leaves
240 gm pulled chicken

Place husks in a bowl with warm water for 30 minutes.
Mix masa, salt with warm water, add oil and butter, mix well.
The mixture should roll into a ball without sticking to your fingers.
Pat husks dry.
Tear four husks to make 16 strips for tying tamales.
Spread dough onto husks. Leave an inch margin at each side.
Place two tbsp pulled chicken in a line through the middle of the dough.
Fold in both sides, and press the seam together, ensure the chicken filling stays completely inside.
Leave ends open. Roll husk and tie ends tightly with a strip of husk to secure.
Steam for 45 minutes.
Open husk and serve hot.

Pulled Chicken

250 gm chicken leg boneless  
75 gm onion, sliced
1 tsp garlic, smashed
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp fresh jalapeno, chopped
1 tbsp chipotle in adobo sauce
3 tbsp tomato puree
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp oil
Water/chicken stock as required

Heat oil in a pot, sauté all ingredients together. Sauté garlic, onion and fresh jalapenos for a couple of minutes. Add cumin powder, chipotle in adobo sauce, chicken and salt, sear it for a couple of minutes and add tomato puree and mix well.
Add in just enough water to cover the chicken.
Bring to a slow boil, cover, lower heat to maintain a simmer.
Cook until the chicken starts to shred on the touch of a fork, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove chicken from pot, let it cool and shred with two forks into pulled chicken.

The method of cooking “Tacos al pastor” actually is inspired by the Middle Eastern shawarma. Lebanese immigrants moved to Mexico and they brought their famous technique of spit-roasted meat. Instead of lamb, well-marinated pork with Achiote and chilli is spit roasted, served on a warm tortilla with pineapple pieces, cilantro, chopped onions, lemon slice and salsa. It was lovely to see this being made live, in Mexico City by Mexican street vendors!

Masa Harina
Masa Harina is the traditional flour used for making tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican dishes. It means “dough flour,” because the flour is made from dried masa, a dough from specially treated corn.

Achiote is sometimes called Lipstick Tree and is made with crushed annatto seeds along with garlic, cumin, salt, black pepper, allspice, cloves, orange juice.
Achiote is a shrub or small tree best known as the source of annatto, a natural orange red condiment used in lipstick. Achiote paste is a thick deep red seasoning popular in Mexico, and is best rubbed on meats or tossed with vegetables. For best results, Achiote paste needs to be mixed with orange juice before use.


Avocados were first cultivated in Central America as early as 7,000 BC, though where exactly is still debatable. A common theory is that they originated in Central America and were colloquially called “ahuacatl” meaning “testicle tree” by the Aztecs who bought it into Mexico. The importance of guacamole in Mexican food is ascertained by the fact that it is the single dish that distinguishes a good restaurant from the rest, and of course, a good cook too! It was the first dish that the Spaniards took fancy to, and began spreading the word about the amazing “guacamole” they had while in Mexico. They even took the first few samplings to California in 1871.

Interestingly, little has changed in the way a classic guacamole is made today — which is coarsely forked avocados with onion, chilis and tomatoes with perhaps a sprinkle of cilantro and lime.


Portions 2, time 10 minutes,
finishing time 10 minutes

200 gm ripe avocado, two small pieces or one big
2 tbsp tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed,chopped
1 tbsp onion, chopped
1 tbsp cilantro, chopped
1 tsp jalapeno, chopped
1 tsp lemon juice  
1 tsp olive oil
Salt to taste

Cut avocados in half. Remove the pit. Scoop out avocado from the peel, place it in a Molcajete or mixing bowl.
Using a fork, mash the avocado, but keep it chunky. Add rest of the ingredients and mix.
Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the guacamole to prevent oxidation from the air.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with yellow, blue and corn tortillas.

Tacos Al Pastor

Serves 2 portions, time: 30 minutesmarination: 4 hours to overnight,  cooking time: 30 minutes.

250 gm boneless pork , sliced into quarter inch
1 tbsp achiote paste
10 gm guajillo chilli
10 gm chipotle chilli
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp garlic, chopped
 ½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp crushed black pepper
¼ tsp cloves
125 ml orange juice
125 ml pineapple juice
50 ml white vinegar
A pinch Mexican oregano
2 tbsp onion julienne
1 tsp salt

For finishing

4 pieces corn tortillas
2 pieces romaine lettuce  
4 pieces pineapple, peeled and half inch thick sliced
4 pieces lemon wedges


Soak guajillo and chipotle chilli in warm water for a few of minutes. Take out, keep aside. Heat half oil in a pan, add garlic, sauté. Stir in cumin, oregano, crushed black pepper and cloves, and cook for a minute. Add soaked chillies and achiote, cook for half a minute, add pineapple juice, orange juice and vinegar. Bring to boil, add salt. Take off heat.

Blend into a smooth marination. Marinate pork for couple of hours or overnight. Heat grill, drizzle little oil, sear pork slices both sides, add onions along with pork. Once cooked, take off grill, rest for a few minutes before slicing. Grill pineapple slices with a little pork marination, for garnish. Warm corn tortillas, add in the torn romaine lettuce, top it with sliced pork, seared pineapple and lemon wedges.

Corn Tortillas
225 gm masa harina, ½ tsp salt , 150 ml warm water   

Mix masa harina, salt and warm water to form a dough. Knead a minute. Divide dough into small 20 gm balls. They should be about one inche in
Press each tortilla in a tortilla press or roll out between two pieces of plastic sheet until it is about two to three inches across and thin. Place tortilla on a hot griddle and cook for 30 seconds to a minute on each side.  Tortillas cool quickly, so keep them warm in a tortilla warmer lined with paper towels to prevent condensation.

— The writer is a chef and culinary director at Embassy Leisure and Entertainment Projects LLP (Embassy Group).

Tags: food recipes