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Guide to Mexican Cuisine

Those wanting to exercise the Epicurean in them won't be disappointed in Mexico. Historically Mexico has looked towards the Mediterranean for culinary inspiration, and not to across their northern border - as the burgeoning number of high street Tex-Mex restaurants in the UK would have us believe. Traditional flavours were fused with Spanish ingredients during the colonial era, then it was the turn of the French to leave their culinary imprint(the most popular national desert is inauspiciously named flan or crème caramel).

The Mexican kitchen rests on three indigenous cornerstones, corn, chilli and beans. In the south of the country corn is commonly fashioned into tortilla to form the backbone of most dishes(in the north tortillas are made of wheat flour). Chillies are an infinitely more complex subject, and a national passion. Mexico is home to more than 100 varieties ranging from the delicately sweet ancho to the plain dangerous habanero. Lamentably there aren't any really clear rules for judging strength, and to further complicate matters fruits from a single plant(and yes they are fruits) may differ in strength. The final staple is frijoles, or beans, often refried to concentrate their flavour.

As a rule of thumb travelling from north to south food gets hotter and you'll generally find less meat on your plate. You'll also find plenty of regional specialities such as pozole in the central highlands - a broth made from giant corn kernels cooked with pork or chicken and heavily garnished with lime, chilli, oregano and onion.

Mexicans obey their stomachs, and consequently love to snack. Antojo means 'little whim' or 'fancy' and Antojitos are found everywhere. They can be eaten either as a snack - the Mexican answer to fast food, or as a collection of appetisers - similar to Spanish tapas. Typically they include empanaditas (similar to a mini Cornish pasty), q uesadillas (tortilla wrapped round cheese then fried), tostadas (tortilla chips served with refried beans, avocado, chicken, onion, and salsa) and stuffed deep-fried chillies.

Main dishes are often shrunk to become antojitos, but there are a few that refuse to be tampered with. Tamales present you with cylindrical corn husk or banana leaf wrapped around a steamed corn dumpling stuffed with meat. Tacos are tortilla rolled round meat, cheese or fish and topped with guacamole and sour cream. Enchiladas more of the same but drenched in a rich tomato sauce.

With the Gulf of Mexico to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west it'll come as no surprise that Mexicans are big on seafood. When fish is this good and this fresh it's best kept simple and is usually fried whole and served with a squeeze of lime and a salad. Other seafood, including lobster, clams and shrimp gets a similar treatment, often with the addition of a few cloves garlic to the pot. For something different ceviche is raw fish marinated in lime juice, onion, tomato, chilli and coriander, and while pronouncing huacacinango a la veracruzana is in itself a mouthful, this dish of red snapper, capers olives and tomato sauce is well worth the linguistic effort.

Special occasions see Mexicans all over the country huddled, with the concentration of alchemists, over pots of mole poblano. Mole is a rich, dark, spicy sauce thought to be the handiwork of a nun that dates from colonial times. Recipes differ, but the 25 constituent ingredients include, nuts, chilli, and bitter chocolate. The poblano is a native turkey onto which the sauce is poured.



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