Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Taco Bell, Cal-Mex and Tortillas: My Love Affair with Food Inspired by Mexico

Great story in The New York Times today about Mexican-inspired food: "How the Taco Gained in Translation." Makes me hungry just to read it. Makes me also reflect on how we all are better (and eat better) when cultures borrow from each other.

When we arrived in Montreal in 1968, one of the things I went looking for was tortillas. Growing up in Southern California, and then later in the Bay Area, tacos were a favourite dish. You took a corn tortilla, fried it quickly in oil, folded it, then filled it with cooked ground beef spiced with a chili mixture, added grated cheese and shredded iceberg lettuce and you had a great supper.  Salsa went on the side, but I think in the beginning we didn't even have that, and used Tabasco sauce. Lee could eat four or five, and I, at least three.

Back then there were very few Latino immigrants of any sort in Montreal: it was before the Chilean and Central American exoduses of political refugees, and there weren't even many Mexican agricultural workers. The closest thing I could find to tortillas was sacks of masa hariña, the lime-cured corn flower used to make them.

However, as a friend of my mother's raised in Mexico used to say, you have to start making tortillas when you are seven or eight, flipping small balls of dough between the palms of your hands to flatten them out. I just made a mess, even when I acquired a tortilla press like the one in the picture.

Recent years have brought both more Latinos to Quebec and the influence of Americanized Mexican culture and cuisine. Then about 10 years ago the Tortillera Maya opened its doors not far from us on St. Laurent, that great immigrant corridor. The tortillas were made on the premises and a kilo cost less than a dollar. Success forced the enterprise to move up near the Jean Talon Market.  Now  you can find their products there as well as in many grocery stores, along side the President's Choice flour tortillas and ones imported from places like Detroit.

Quesadillas, chimichangas, enchiladas, burritos, refritos, tamales,  chilis of all sorts, not to mention adobes and molés: these are delights from the corn kitchen but nothing, in my book, is quite as good as an old fashioned Southern California taco, which the NYT story says was invented by Vicento and Lucia Montaño in the 1930s.  The real name for the dish, as served today at the Mitla café is tacos dorados con carne molida.

Excuse me: got to go to the store.

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