Sunday, August 9, 2015

What is Tex-Mex? How do you know if that Mexican food you're eating is Authentic?

What is Tex-Mex?

My friend Nicole M. posted an interesting article on FB - here's a snippet:
I have been thinking a lot about this recently as I make food for friends, or folks I don't really know in the south. The food I cook and grew up with is not "tex-mex". My family has no connection with Texas, but there is no other way to describe what I make. My family is from California, Colorado & Utah. My mother made tortillas out of sour dough or Navajo tacos out of sour dough starter. But what do I call a simple red sauce no one in the south has ever heard of? Chicana cuisine? Karl said that was not a good phrase, so I revert back to tex-mex, which is not right either. Authenticity is perspective

And this is the article - published by the Phoenix New Times:

 The article focuses on the tortilla but of course I would like to take the conversation into a broader context. It's basically this: How can a tortilla and the way it's made represent the food of any country, much less the whole of Mexico? There's this level of conceit that I find offensive, and to tell the truth until recently I too was guilty.

My level of enlightenment came while visiting India. We've all had Indian food in one restaurant or another so it's easy to presume that all food from this country was similar - I don't know how many times I've had friends refuse to meet at an Indian restaurant because "I don't like Indian food" - which really is a very stupid statement. I understood how stupid the last time I visited India. While there I got to sample food from several locales - I visited Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore and Talakad - all cities in the South of India but in different regions so the typical cuisine was very different depending on where I ate - even labels applied to the same dish varied from place to place (we went on a hunt for "Butter Chicken" and you would be surprised at how that label was applied from restaurant to restaurant, even in the same city).

What I realized while in India was that applying a label to the food of a whole country was just plain stupid. For instance, the label Chinese food really could be translated into "Food brought to the US by Cantonese immigrants, adapted to ingredients found in the Americas and adjusted to the bland US palate" - with a country as large as China or India every different town, city, state or region has its own cuisine, adapted from what was available as ingredients regionally and adjusted for the people that live there. There is no "one flavor" that represents an entire country - and back on the subject of Tex-Mex, depending on where in Texas you are what we think of as Tex-Mex has incredible variation.

I recently did a review of Chuy's and in doing so I talked a bit about New Mexico Tex-Mex - featuring the Hatch green chile. The flavors from the Hatch are incredible, smokey, "meaty" and amazing. When stewed with pasole you get a soup that's out-of-this-world and a favorite of people in Albuquerque and elsewhere in the state. While this may seem like Tex-Mex, I can assure you that you won't find that distinctive flavor in many Atlanta restaurants. See how this ties-back to Nicole's post above? It's all about perspective.

So stop thinking about it so much and just enjoy what you find, which means you need to search out those flavors that you prefer. Sure it's fun to eat at your typical Tex-Mex - there are several in Atlanta that I enjoy, especially with a Margarita or two, but take my advice and explore those little hole-in-the-wall restaurants filled with true Latino immigrants. You'll be quite surprised at how good they can be. You just need to open your eyes, your mouths and your hearts to get the full effect.

-- John