For an "authentic" Cinco de Mayo meal, why not cook up crepes?
¿Que qué?! You ask. Hear me out.
Crepes are a hallmark of French cuisine. And in the 1860s, French forces invaded Mexico. They came, they conquered, they cooked — then they got kicked out. Today's Cinco de Mayo holiday commemorates the day in 1862 when a badly outnumbered Mexican army pulled off a minor but symbolically important victory over French forces in the Battle of Puebla. However, it would take another five years before the French left Mexico for good. And during their stay, the French left their mark on the country's cuisine, including beloved crepas, which Mexican chef Pati Jinich likens to a cousin of the enchilada.
Crepes in more savory incarnations (think crepe enchiladas with Swiss chard and potatoes) are among the recipes featured in Jinich's new cookbook. Mexican Today explores not just traditional fare, but the country's evolving cuisine and the many immigrant groups who have influenced it.
"In Mexico, one of the most traditional desserts is crepas con cajeta," notes Jinich, who was born and raised in Mexico and now hosts the popular cooking show Pati's Mexican Table on PBS. Served with a sweetened, almost nutty caramelized goat's milk sauce and topped with nuts, these crepes have become firmly embedded in Mexican repertoire. "That's what I used to have for every birthday in Mexican restaurants," Jinich says. "And crepes are like a thousand times French."
"People usually think Mexican food was, oh, the intermarriage of Spanish and Mexican," Jinich says. "No way!"
Less well-known is the culinary imprint left by large waves of Africans brought to Mexico as slaves during the Spanish colonial era; by Japanese, Filipino and Chinese immigrants (the latter of whom created a Chinese-Mexican fusion food just south of the U.S. border); and by the many Lebanese who arrived after World War I — bringing with them the technique of roasting meat on a turning spit for shawarma. That became a gastronomic ancestor to tacos al pastor, now a signature street food of Mexico City.
Jinich says with her first book, Pati's Mexican Table, she felt much less free to experiment with her recipes.
"I felt as a Mexican in the U.S., I had a duty to the people in my country to do things the traditional way, to showcase things as they really happen in Mexico and to really open a window into the real Mexico," Jinich says. "I didn't give myself much permission to play with new flavors or new combinations or new spins.
"I love that cookbook," she says. But "I felt like I was walking a very fine line because I didn't want to betray Mexicans. I felt like I'd be criticized if I didn't do things a certain way. And at the same time I didn't want to scare away Americans or most people here by doing things that would seem cumbersome or difficult or had exotic or hard-to-find ingredients."
As we've discussed on The Salt, authenticity is a loaded word when it comes to food. Diners often expect a dish to fit a traditional mold. Yet cuisines, like languages, must evolve and adapt or die.
"When you think about it,' says Jinich, "if the word fusion had existed in the 15th or 16th century, all of Mexican cuisine [as we know it today] would be fusion. Because there's no pork, no rice, no milk, no cheese, no onion, no garlic, no oregano, no hibiscus flower, no mango — nothing before the Spanish arrived and the trade with Asia started."
Dishes now considered to be Mexican classics — like crepas a la huitlacoche (a prized corn smut with a deep mushroom flavor) or cajeta crepes — "are a severe intermarriage between New World and Old World," Jinich says.
And culinary authenticity is also deeply personal. For many, it comes wrapped in memories of home and identity.
"It's such a relative thing," Jinich says. For instance, I get very picky with guacamole. If someone gives me guacamole and it's loaded with cumin, I will say that is the least authentic [thing], that is so bad. That's not real guacamole. But who knows? Maybe for someone in San Antonio, that's the guacamole they grew up with that they love."
My Colombian mother, I note at this point in the conversation, is decidedly in Camp Cumin.
"Yeah, I know!" Jinich says, her voice sympathetic over the phone. "A lot of people put it in." (Later, when I fact-check this with my sister, she informs me that Mom, in fact, does not add cumin to her guac. "I always add it in behind her back," my sister confesses.)
For Jinich, culinary authenticity is about respecting the ingredients — using them to their best advantage — and respecting the wisdom of those who've come before you, even as you engage in the experimentation necessary to keep cuisines alive.
"I'm very traditional when it comes to technique," Jinich says. "For instance, the enchilada. I will start a revolution if I go to a restaurant and somebody serves me an enchilada with a flour tortilla. I will call the chef and ask him what he's thinking. It's like a disgrace! It loses all its dignity!"
As Jinich enthusiastically explains, there's good reason why enchiladas traditionally call for corn tortillas. Heated in a comal or in hot oil so that they're slightly toasted, corn tortillas become resistant to cracking when adorned with sauce.
"Who knows? Maybe someday someone will come and give me a plate of enchiladas with flour tortillas and I will have to eat my words. I doubt it! But you never know."