13 Mar / The Mexican-Asian Culinary Connection
Last December, my son and I went on a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with my family. Namely, my parents, my brother and his wife and two boys, and my sister and her husband. Thanks to my brother’s timeshare, 10 of us sprawled out over three hotel rooms, mixing and matching affinities and sleep schedules.
Yes, we are a very communal family. And it’s always been that way as far as I can remember.
Growing up, our trips to visit relatives in Indonesia were similar. All five of us—two parents and three kids–would squeeze into an aunt’s or cousin’s bedroom. We tried to pile as many of us onto the bed(s)—sometimes two singles, a queen if we were lucky— and the rest got relegated to mattresses on the floor.
My mom always used the term “gelaran” in Indonesian which I took to mean “spread out wherever you can.” When I actually looked up its meaning, it was “mat” or “carpet” which I suppose makes sense? We did spread out on the floor like a mat or carpet :).
That’s how we rolled, and apparently, still roll. Although this time, there were enough beds to go around.
I don’t mind it, and I have no problem being in close quarters with my dear ones. But I was sure glad my husband wasn’t able to make it because of work. For him, a little of my family goes a long away.
Anyway, it was a fabulous trip!
We had plenty of sea and sun.
And ate lots of great food.
But the highlight for me was a cooking class with Donna Jones who owns Casa de Colores Traditional Mexican Cooking School. I’ve never been a huge fan of Mexican cuisine. I’d have enchiladas or tacos once in awhile but I’ve never craved it. One morning with Donna made me a proud convert.
Donna’s enthusiasm was infectious as she discussed the cuisine’s history and regional differences. She discussed cooking techniques, spices, and elaborated on chiles and salsas in extreme detail.
Halfway through the class it clicked—Mexican cuisine with its use of multiple chiles and spices is very similar to Asian cooking.
- The equipment is similar. The molcajete is just like a mortar and pestle. The comal looks like a flat wok.
- The techniques are the same. Ingredients like chiles, tomatoes and spices are charred or toasted first. Then they’re blended into a spice paste (like a Thai curry or Malay rempah) traditionally with a mortar and pestle, and with a blender or food processor in modern times.
- The sauces are versatile, and can be used in myriad ways. A mole can bathe chicken or beef, or it can be used as a base for a soup or stew. Same goes for a red curry paste, it goes well with duck or in a soup for noodles.
- There’s no-waste. Leftover tortillas are turned into chilaquiles. In so many Asian cultures, leftover rice is turned into congee or fried rice.
- Mexican and Asian cooking can sometimes be laborious but both are worth the effort as they yield an absolutely delicious product.
Out of all the dishes I learned during Donna’s cooking class, the one that stuck with me the most was chorizo. I’ve eaten it and I’ve seen it at the store but I’ve never thought to make it. I changed my mind.
Many of the spices I know well–coriander, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf. And the method I can do on autopilot–toast the spices and puree with chiles and garlic. And another tidbit: chorizo (also called longganisa) shows up in Filipino food too thanks to a shared Spanish history!
Armed with new knowledge and perhaps a familiarity by association, I have gained respect for traditional Mexican cooking. And I’ll be eating and cooking Mexican food a lot more often now!