Tracing Mexico's complicated relationship with rice

Speaking of green, there is a green stone of otherworldly beauty known simply as cantera it’s everywhere in Oaxaca. It appears as expos...


Speaking of green, there is a green stone of otherworldly beauty known simply as cantera it’s everywhere in Oaxaca. It appears as exposed corner stones at the angles of painted facades. It forms the border of giant latticed windows, which, in Spanish style, run the entire length of the building. It is there as rustication and entablature – there too, on one of the main churches of the city, Santo Domingo de Guzmán. That first night, I thought my eyes were fooling me. The sky had turned to half a dozen shades of pink and orange before it turned dark. I walked among captivating scenes of city life – through a first floor window there were girls from a Degas painting performing ballet. Opposite was a mezcaleria with graying old men smoking outside. There were baroque theaters and vaulted white saints in the little alcoves that appeared on the high cornerstones. Outside Origin, owned by famous Oaxacan chef Rodolfo Castellanos – who still works in his restaurant – I pulled out my phone to inspect the exterior. It was not a spell or a blindness; it was that soft, gloomy green.

Inside, in a large courtyard, hung with dried corn whose twirling pods cast starry shadows on the whitewash, itself marked with the Jesuit monogram IHS, symbolizing Christ, I ate fried chapulines (grasshoppers) as a cocktail snack. A replica of Hugh Thomas “Conquest», Came back to me in 1993 his story of the subjugation of this land by the Spaniards five centuries ago. “Almost everything that moved was eaten,” he writes of pre-Columbian Mexico. Then, as a multi-course tasting menu unfolded, each bringing with it totally new flavors, I felt allusions to that pre-Columbian past.

We talk so easily about earthiness, terroir and hardiness, but we don’t know the meaning of those words until we get to Mexico. In chintextle – a pasilla-based paste – that had been coated over a blue corn tostada, I could taste the flavors of the deep earth. It was still there, that volcanic smoke, in the manchamantel moles, which, choking a duck breast, was as red as the ground I had seen from the plane. Death, smoke, dryness. It was also there in the mash of mangrove mussels on which appeared a piece of striped bass. It was as if a portal had opened onto an underworld from which the flavor of Mictlan himself (Hades to the Aztecs) escaped, imparting a chthonic force to everything. I thought I was half losing my mind until a few days later, when Olga Cabrera Oropeza – the chef and founder of Land of the Sun, a restaurant specializing in moles – confirmed the feeling I had on that first night in Oaxaca. “For me,” she said, on a terrace with stunning views of the Emerald City, “a mole is the presence of dead ingredients that bring a dish to life.” These were pre-Hispanic ingredients – ancient Aztec flavors, it was imagined – many of which were new to me in texture and taste, and as such looked like an offshoot of history. culinary experience of the country.

I had come to Mexico in search of what was perhaps the quintessential post-Hispanic ingredient – rice – and, almost immediately, I was faced with the most reasonable question in the world: “Por qué arroz? “(” Why rice? “), Asked Eduardo” Lalo “Ángeles, a artisan mezcal maker with sturdy characteristics and sunburnt skin. Why, in this cradle of corn, did Lalo want to know, did I care about the rice? Speaking to me through my guide – Omar Alonso, who was seated next to Lalo in a cap for Guerreros de Oaxaca, the local baseball team, under a mural of Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of maguey (agave) – I heard, in the easy torrent of her Spanish, the word “Chino”. Omar looked slightly embarrassed, then translated: “We are not Asian.”



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