The chefs at El Refugio are waiting around anxiously. Restaurant owner Claudio Hall sips the Mole sauce from a dainty taster cup. He pauses dramatically, the little clay cup still clasped to his pursed lips. His face behind it’s small round spectacles is impenetrable. Finally he gives a brisk nod of his head. “Its good” he says.
With this the morning drama finishes in satisfied smiles at Mexican restaurant ‘El Refugio’. Mole, the rich sauce used to cover meat dishes, is seen as the ultimate litmus test in the world of Mexican cuisine. This family run restaurant has been perfecting it since the 1950’s, promising “traditional Mexican food made in the traditional Mexican way”.
In the worst of years for Mexico, in which over 15 000 people were killed in an increasingly desperate struggle against organized crime, success stories have been few and far between.
Perhaps that is why Mexican cuisine being placed on “UNESCO’s intangible heritage list” was greeted so joyfully. The list which, also includes flamenco, falconry and gingerbread crafting from Northern Croatia seeks to heighten awareness of unique culture customs.
Local newspapers used to recounting the latest gruesome killings happily chirruped over Mexico’s culinary prowess as it joined gastronomical powerhouse France on the coveted list.
What this actually means in practical terms is hard to qualify; it’s hard to safeguard a gastronomical culture the same way as an ancient ruin. But chefs like Claudio Hall are hopeful that the accolade has at least afforded more recognition for true Mexican food.
“The problem with the pereception of Mexico food in the world today is that people think it’s tex mex food. They have no idea of the complexity and the different ingredients we use…. What UNESCO’s done has really validated what’s been happening here for the last 300 years. It’s really emphasized the many regions of Mexico and how well made the food is.”
Touted as having one of the three most varied cultures in the world by UNESCO, Mexico is perhaps the only place in the world that you can eat red peppers baked in corn wrapped in banana leafs for breakfast (tamales), then chicken with chocolate mole sauce for lunch and huge chillies stuffed with spicy minced meat and coated with yoghurt for dinner, followed by a few fried grasshoppers with your beer if it takes your fancy.
And that’s just in one city. Food varies widely in each of Mexico’s 31 states, with the population of each region fiercely proud of their speciality. It’s a unique culinary landscape that survived and embraced the Spanish invasion over 400 years ago, melding iberian influences with existing prehispanic gastronomy to present the melting pot that is a meal in Mexico.
The mixture has taken thousands of years to perfect, but concerns persist that the entire process of tradition Mexican cooking is being lost far more rapidly, precisely what UNESCO seeks to prevent. Hall says that El Refugio is one of only two or three restaurants in the capital that make Mexican food from scratch, even grinding the corn to make the tortilla.
He blames the influence of foreign fast food chains spreading out their tentacles around the country. Even in smaller Mexican towns pizzerias and burger bars are ubiquitous and restaurants in which Mexican food is prepared in the traditional manner seem to often be pricier affairs catering more to tourists seeking the “authentic” Mexican culinary experience, than to nationals appreciating their own cuisine.
However, the true refuge of the country’s food culture remains in homes around the country, where the old recipes still hold sway and regional dishes are prepared with the time and attention they deserve. Mexican housewives who may have not even have heard of UNESCOs accolade continue to make their own efforts to safeguard this pillar of the national identity.