Wednesday, April 13, 2005

OPEN LETTER TO MEXICO.



¡Por favor! Encourage your people to emigrate to Spain! We need your cuisine!

I’m damn serious. It’s very difficult to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant here. I’ve tried many in Madrid and Barcelona and, thus far, have found only one to be worthwhile. The others were about as representative of Mexico as The Olive Garden® is of Italy.

Spain’s lack of good Mexican food would be tolerable if I had the option of making it myself at home. But I don’t have that option. It’s almost as difficult to find Mexican ingredients (e.g., dried/fresh chiles, cilantro, limes, corn tortillas, etc.) in Spain’s supermarkets as it is to find them on a restaurant menu.

This fact may be shocking to some people. Especially to the 76% of US high school students who believe that Spain and Mexico share a common border. The other 24% believe that they’re the same country.

It was certainly shocking to me when I first arrived here. I vividly remember the day that bitter reality set in.

It was 1999 and we had recently moved to Barcelona. We invited a couple of friends—one of whom was from Mexico—over for dinner, and I wanted to make a Lomo de Puerco en Adobado recipe from Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook. The key ingredient for its all-important sauce was chiles anchos.

Chiles anchos are easy to find in the US. So easy, in fact, that they’re probably dispensed from gumball machines in certain parts of Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. But no such luck in Barcelona. After combing the city from end-to-end, I remained empty-handed.

So I entered a popular Mexican restaurant in the city’s Grácia neighborhood, and engaged its owner (not Mexican, of course) in the following conversation:
“Where in this city of three million people can I find a chile ancho?” I asked.

Her response: “What’s a chile ancho?”

[Cheeks dropping to my pelvis.]

“It’s a dried poblano pepper.”

Her response: “There’s no such thing as a dried poblano.”

[Stunned silence.]

“AND THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ‘MEXICAN FOOD’ IN THIS RESTAURANT, MADAM!!!”
Of course, I didn’t say that. But the sudden onset of a twitch in my left eyelid must’ve conveyed the same to this apron-clad charlatan—or, at least, revealed me as a member of Charles Manson’s gene pool.

Now, you may be tempted to ask, “Aren’t Spanish and Mexican foods similar?” This is indeed a popular misconception, to which the answer is…NO! Spanish and Mexican foods have as much in common as do matzo balls and chicken vindaloo.

That’s not a slam against Spanish food. To be fair, I believe—and, in fact, have stated many times in writing—that Spanish food is great stuff. Few nations could make a goat taste so good. But Spanish cooks have one bias that is polar-opposite to their Mexican counterparts—they disdain spice. The typical Spaniard’s spice rack more resembles a book rack, in that it contains one jar of sea salt and a bunch of rolled-up Hola magazines. No cayenne. No garam masala. No oregano. Even black pepper is black-listed—often treated with the same contempt that a Mississippi farmer directs toward a boll weevil.

Now that we’ve established that Spain is a Mexican food-challenged nation, we must ask…WHY?! Why is Spain so deprived of Mexico’s exquisite cuisine?

The answer is simple: It’s because Spain has few Mexican immigrants.

But…but…but…Spain and Mexico speak the same language—kind of. And the weather here is much closer to Mexico’s than is, say, Chicago’s—which has an enormous population of Mexican immigrants (and, not surprisingly, an enormous population of great Mexican restaurants). Why, then, aren’t there more Mexicans living in Spain?

Again, the answer is simple: Mexicans won’t move to Spain, because SPAIN DOESN’T HAVE ANY GOOD MEXICAN FOOD!

Maddening, isn’t it? That’s why I’ve written this open letter—hoping that this vicious circle might finally be broken.

In the meantime…I’ll just have to survive on chicken vindaloo. Extra spicy, Ali! ¡Por favor!
Posted by Hello

12 Comments:

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Cathy said...

I loved this piece. We noticed the same lack of spice when we were in Spain last summer. Maybe you could open that great Mexican restaurant and show them how it's done. Yoda!

 
At 3:23 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hey Cathy:

There's an old joke that goes as follows:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business?

A: Start with a large fortune.

Since I don't have any fortune(large, small or otherwise) at my disposal (although I do have a fortune cookie in the front pocket of my black leather jacket), I should probably stick with my day job. Singing telegrams!

Sal

 
At 4:10 AM, Anonymous Cathy said...

Singing telegrams are good. Just don't sing to me--it embarrasses me, and I hear you on the restaurant thing. I could send you the peppers. We know how to do Mexican here.

 
At 3:02 PM, Blogger Me said...

Funny to read this right now -- we've just had two Mexican restaurants open near us in the past 6 months. Haven't tried either one though, so can't say if they're good and authentic! :o)

But now you have me just CRAVING curry... we had so many Indian restaurants where I lived in the UK (and I just love curry).. but over here.. zilch. There was one, which closed up a while back.. oh, it's so sad...

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

ME:

My God! A life without curry. It's...it's...it's...unthinkable.

There is a company called Sharwood's (based in UK, I think) that make pretty good jarred curry sauces. I've had their Tikka Masala and Korma sauces, and they weren't bad. There must be an Internet-based company in the US through which you can order pre-made curry sauces (whether Sharwood's or otherwise).

No curry. Oh man...I feel for you.

Sal

 
At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, here on the Costa (Sal, explain to your friends what the Costa is - be kind!); here, as I was saying, we have all kinds of strange themed restaurants (occasionally run by the indigens of the supposed cuisine). Although not always. Our first Mexican had a Chileno boss and Australian cooks (who were, I think 'just passing' at the time, but you know how it is). After a few imported beers and Margueritas - who cares about the food? We now have in our little town, 3 Indian (ethnic cooks), 2 Mex, 2 Thai (huh?), a Colombian (good, too!), about twenty Italian, five Chinee, a hundred English (Brruup!)and even some Spanish places for the more daring.
The Big McD hasn't made it yet, so we still have a chance - but the Brit supermarkets now sell Pot Noodles (just add warm water and stand well back).
To think, we used to laugh about donkey sausage, sobreasada and chorizo...
Rgds, Lenox

 
At 11:30 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Spain has the Costa Brava in Cataluña.

Then the Costa Blanca in Valencia/Alicante.

Then the Costa del Sol in Andalucia.

And last but not least, the Costa del Lenox in Almeria.

Never heard of Almeria? Many haven't. It's on Spain's southeast tip. It's hot climate is a dream for people who've spent over a decade in cold places like Chicago. The spaghetti westerns of the '60's were filmed there. That's right, not in Italy. Why didn't they called them "Sangria Westerns?" Well...like my father-in-law says, the Italians are better marketers than the Spanish.

What I didn't know is that Almeria is such a great place to go for ethnic food.

There's only one problem. Who has room for an Indian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Colombian or Italian dinner after conquering a "Full English Breakfast?"

Man! The English do a good breakfast!

 
At 4:12 PM, Blogger FMH said...

Yes, it's a real pity, but true. Mexican food is amongst the less represented in the choice of restaurants available in Spain.

Anyway, I guess this is hardly surprising... the fact that we share the same language does not make the 7,000 kilometres of ocean in-between any shorter.

Unfortunately, misconceptions about Spain do put people down often. An Irish girl I knew left Madrid when she discovered it was no fun at all... people got up early, rushed to the metro, spent the whole day at work and back home, very much as elsewhere. No sangría, no tapas, no flamenco at bus-stops!

Other example: a coupe of Germans I heard of refused to pack anything long-sleeved for their trip to Spain. This IS a sunny country... well, they learned that the concept of 'spring' in Ávila means 10º C at noon.

So, yes, I must confess we know very, very little about chiles, tortillas (except de patata, of course), jalapeños and all that.

But, again, try to find judías del Barco in Mexico DF. It won't prove easier than your chili-chase in Barcelona, I bet.

Hugs,
Fer

 
At 9:33 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Fernie-baby:

As always, your discourse is logical and well thought-out.

However...I question whether the 7,000 kilometer ocean swim is much of an obstacle. After all, Ecuadorians are Spain's second largest immigrant group.

I love Ecuadorians, but one thing's for sure...the Mexicans are better cooks!!!

Viva Zapato!

Sal

(Ha! For a minute there, I'll bet you thought I said "Viva Zapatero!")

 
At 6:28 PM, Blogger Me said...

Oooooo yes... Sharwood's stuff is good! There *has* to be an online place to buy from... probably more expensive, but desperate times call for desperate measures! :o)

 
At 11:12 AM, Blogger Juands2 said...

Do you really think Spanish people would love Mexican food? My friends and I have taken into consideration moving to Spain, we all love the culinary art of our Parents homeland. Though we wanted to go there for different reasons, and i think we could provide a very wide range of Mexican dishes due to the fact that our parents come from different parts of Mexico. We always argue over "the right way to cook" since we it sometimes vary's state to state.

 
At 3:41 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hola Juands2:

Is there a market for good, authentic Mexican food in Spain? Hmm...I honestly don't know. I wrote the above essay from my own selfish perspective--as an American from Chicago who spent many gluttonous mealtimes in the hispanic Pilsen neighborhood.

There are plenty of bland, mediocre Tex-Mex restaurants in Spain, and many seem to do a good amount of business. But Tex-Mex is a far cry from the real deal (i.e., the type of Mexican food you'd get at a place like Frontera Grill in Chicaogo or that can be made from a Rick Bayless cookbook).

As I said in the above essay, there's not much of a Mexican expat population here. As such, I think that few Spaniards understand what non-Tex-Mex Mexican food is all about. Our biggest South American immigrant groups are Ecuadorans and Argentines; neither of which cook like the Mexicans.

Complicating matters fuerther...the Spanish don't seem to like picante food very much. Spain's own cuisine is good, but its simple and unadorned. On the other hand, I have noticed that the number of "exotic" restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona seems to be rising. Madrid alone sports a dozen Indian restaurants and half-dozen Thai. So perhaps the Spanish palate is slowly venturing into more interesting directions.

There is one very good Mexican restaurant in Madrid. It's called "Entre Suspiro y Suspiro." But it is pricey! I also learned last weekend (from the only Mexican immigrant that I know here) that there is (reputedly) an authentic and cheap taqueria in Madrid--but I've yet to try it. I will soon.

So...I've babbled a lot in response to your question. But to summarize...if you open a Mexican restaurant in Spain, then (a) you won't have too much competition, (b) you'll have to do some "consumer education" so that your clientele won't expect a Mediterranean version of Taco Bell, and (c) I'll be one of your first customers.

Sal

 

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