I am hungry for Mexico. It is the most exciting place I have ever been, a world of colour and creativity and chaos where I feel remarkably at home. Mexico City is dazzling. It is overwhelming and exhausting, the intensity of it, but life without it feels empty. Mexico gives me inspiration to write and paint: its history is one of tremendous imagination. From the murals to the dance to the history of Mexican photography, there is such an incredible range of creative expression, and being immersed in it gives me new wings for my own work.
Nowhere does the spirit of Mexico show itself as dramatically as in its food. Mexican cuisine is beloved all over the world for its spice, array of flavours, ingredient range, and artistry. I have many cookbooks and am fortunate to have access to authentic Mexican ingredients at home in Toronto. But eating there is something different altogether. The markets must be experienced in person- sky high piles of vegetables, limes everywhere, women pounding avocados, hundreds of assorted chiles, and buckets of cactus paddles.
Cafes and restaurants are always colourful, with every surface painted pink, orange, turquoise and yellow. At taco trucks you can gorge on exquisite mouthfuls of sweet and spicy meats, covered in onion, cilantro leaves, and the hot and cool wonders of salsa verde. For a snack, follow the cheese puff pedlars through the streets- they carry massive bags of cheesies and you can get them sprinkled in hot sauce. The pizzas are the best I’ve ever had, thin-crust, Italian style, available almost everywhere. The moles from the southern region of Oaxaca are legendary: the velvety, chocolately tomato sauce for chicken and other dishes is a complex labyrinth for the taste buds. And everywhere, also, are Tacos Arabes- shawarma, Mexico-style, a special fusion of kebab and Lebanese flavours with local ones. (There was an influx of immigration from Lebanon starting in the late 19th century.)
It pays to carry a small phrase book with you if you are adverse to nose to tail foods. A few times I have just held up my hand and said “cinco tacos por favor” only to learn later from friends that I had eaten tacos de cabeza- tenderized goat brains. Tacos de ojo are also popular- cow eyes- slippery and gelatinous rounds with pico de gallo. Tripe and tongue are common fry ups, as well as numerous other organ meats. All of these traditional foods have great nutrition to offer, but may take some getting used to!
Most people ask about the bugs, of course. It is common to find edible insects on offer. There are hundreds of kinds of creepy crawlies used in Mexican cuisine. I have not been as brave with these as I hoped. The gusanos de maguey- worms- were not bad, better when ground into salt. The chapulines are everyone’s favourite, prized snacks the nation over. I couldn’t handle the texture of the grasshoppers, or the smaller crickets. Worst of all were the stink bugs. While they are served cooked and mixed in with other ingredients, true aficionados eat jumiles live. They have a distinct, fetid flavour this way that is definitely an acquired taste, but are believed to be medicinal with magical, aphrodisiac properties imparted to those who can stomach them.
In the depressing lockdown of the pandemic, I nourish my imagination from time to time by making my own salsa from tinned tomatillos, brewing Mexican cocoa with chile peppers, or making huevos divorciados– eggs with both red and green salsa. I have even tried making chile rellenos, my favourite- stuffed peppers. I am hungry for the bustle, the sounds, the colours, and the imagery of food in Mexico, but I suppose it will do for now.
Lorette C. Luzajic is a Toronto based writer who studied journalism but loves poetry and small fictions. Her work has been published widely and internationally, and nominated several times each for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She recently won first place in a flash fiction contest at MacQueen’s Quinterly. Her work has been translated into Urdu. Her most recent book Pretty Time Machine is a collection of ekphrastic prose poems. Lorette is also the editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted to writing inspired by art. She is also an award-winning visual artist whose collage paintings have been collected in over 25 countries. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.