Chilies and chocolates

Chilies and chocolates

Aylin Öney Tan -
Chilies and chocolates Exactly 18 years ago, I was at the National Day of Mexico reception at Singapore Raffles Hotel. Finally, I would be able to taste the legendary mole poblano, wild turkey smothered in the scary dark bitter chocolate-chili sauce with a zillion spices. I fell in love the moment I tasted it, but ours would be a love of separation and longing. My instant decision to go to Mexico as soon as possible was never realized and I seldom had the chance to taste real authentic Mexican food again.

I was always amazed by the diversity of Mexican food, and I thought we had much to share between the two countries. So many tastes and dishes seemed to be so similar. Years later, about eight years ago, I met a culinary historian friend living in Mexico who opened up a whole new world in my perception of Mexican food. Rachel Laudan, the author of the recent colossal book “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in Word History,” has lived in Mexico City for many years. I met Rachel at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, where she was immensely supportive of my first paper delivered to an audience of crème de la crème of food researchers. Rachel has a very interesting theory on how Spanish-influenced-Mexican food had its roots in Middle East, going as far as India. I could not agree more. When I was doing my research on Turkish-Sephardic cookery, I traced similar links between the cuisines of Andalusia and medieval Arab cooking, which sometimes explains why we find some Mexican tastes so very much like ours.

The cookery of the Iberian Peninsula before Columbus discovered the Americas carried strong traces from the early Medieval Arabic cuisine from the Middle East. The same was very true for the Ottoman court. Two cookbooks, 13th century Iberian Al-Andalus and 15th century Ottoman Şirvani, were both greatly based on the early 13th century Baghdad text Kitab al-Tabikh, also known as al-Baghdadi. Many Muslims and Jews living in medieval Spain were originally from eastern Mediterranean countries, still maintaining their eating habits. Ziryab, a freed slave from Baghdad, brought over the latest fashions in the Abbasid capital to al-Andalus in the 9th century and introduced the practice of dining in courses to the West. The eastern tastes were synthesized in Spain to an even greater sophistication where people of all creeds intermingled. These cooking traditions were carried to Mexico by the first Spanish conquistadors, followed later by many Middle Eastern immigrants after the break of the Ottoman Empire. The latter is more responsible with el Pastor being a popular street food in Mexico, just like the Döner Kebab in Turkey, Souvlaki in Greece or Shawarma (from Turkish çevirme-to rotate) in Syria or Lebanon. The former influence however, may well be the reason for today’s mole dishes in Mexico. Laudan suggests the Mexican mole has roots deep in these historical connections, stretching the influences as far as Indian curry. Well, the result is a delightful combination of indigenous ingredients like cocoa or Mexican bitter chocolate & red hot chilies with a plethora of old-world spices on the only truly native American bird, that is the turkey!

Further reading:

Recipe of the Week: There is a true opportunity to learn Mexican recipes through firsthand experience. There will be two workshops at Chef Akademi in Ankara with the guest Chef Arturo García Mogollón, who flew all the way from Mexico to Turkey. Reserve your place for either Sept. 17 or 18 from 19:00 to 22:00.

If you cannot make it to the workshop, enjoy a wonderfully refreshing cucumber and pineapple guacamole recipe “Guacomole con Piña y Pepino,” from Roberto Santibañez of the restaurant Fonda in NYC. It has a sweet and sour spicy feel and is super easy. Peel, seed and dice about 300-350 g cucumbers, mix with ½ cup finely diced red onion, 2-3 very finely chopped green chilies, 2 tablespoons lime juice and 1 teaspoon salt. Cut 4 very ripe avocados in half, score the flesh in a cross pattern and scoop them with a spoon. Gently stir with the mix. Add 1/ cup finely chopped cilantro and 1 cup chopped fresh pineapple. You can adjust the chili, lime juice and salt according to your taste. 

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week:
If you’re longing for steamed tamales wrapped in corn leaves go for the Mexican Culinary Week, September 15-19 at Ankara Hilton SA. Steamed tamales with grainy corn meal stuffed with spicy pulled chicken are strangely filling and satisfying; you can enjoy your tequila shots or margaritas with one of the finest guacamole I have ever tasted in Turkey. However, I would have preferred the mole made with turkey instead of beef and found it too modest on the spice and chili side. Chef Arturo García Mogollón could have been more courageous with spices… Hey this is Turkey! We like our food hot, remember, we have so much in common… To reserve your table check Sanem Evren on 0530 566 27 11 for reservation and details.

Cork of the Week: Viva Tequila! No Mexican table is complete without several shots of it. While my daughter could not get her hands off the Fusion Dark Chocolate tequila, I found it too sweet, only OK with very strong coffee to go along with the fried cinnamon-y sweet buñuelos de rodilla con piloncillo … I always seem to prefer the blue bottle produced at high altitude, hence the name, Olmeca Altos Plata, with herbal, peppery, citric, fresh notes of %100 agave.