Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Patricia Jinich is chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute. She also hosts "Pati’s Mexican Table" on National Public Television and blogs at Pati's Mexican Table.
I was born and raised in Mexico City, in a family where every taco happens to be, as my dad boasts, “the best taco you’ve ever had in your entire life." That is, until you eat the next one.
Living in the US, I am often dismayed at how my home country is portrayed in the media. For some, it’s easy to just write off the entire country as dangerous and riddled with cartel violence. As a former political analyst, I am not in denial about the hurdles my country faces, but the Mexico illustrated in some news reports is certainly not the Mexico I know and love - nor is it the Mexico experienced by the 22.67 million international tourists that visited last year.
Cooking, eating and sharing Mexican food has helped me and my Mexican-American boys connect with our heritage. Plus, I truly believe that its warm, generous, colorful cuisine has the power to make Americans fall in love with Mexico - one bite at a time.
I started cooking at home; it was the best way I knew how to take care of my husband, and later my boys. Saucy huevos rancheros on late morning weekends, steaming tamales when we had friends over, soothing caldo de pollo when they got sick, panqué marmoleado to finish with something sweet, aguas frescas to freshen our meals. I began my hunt for Mexican ingredients, which as the years moved on, became increasingly available as the American appetite grew for a wider Mexican food experience.
Eventually, I traded my policy papers for cooking pots. As a chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute, where I direct and teach a Mexican Culinary Program, I embrace the opportunity to share Mexico’s rich culture and diverse cuisine. In fact, it is so rich and unique it has UNESCO world heritage status.
When my students, TV show viewers and American friends raise the inevitable questions about traveling to Mexico, I point to my own experience traveling with my young family. Each time we’ve returned to Mexico, I delightfully find the Mexico that I know.
Overall and underneath, there is a country and culture that is just like its food: incredibly rich, colorful, genuine, giving and accommodating. Just like a luscious mole sauce, with subtle layers of warmth, comfort, ease and hospitality.
Together, we have ridden the entire Copper Canyon route, sampling our way from Los Mochis in Sinaloa to Chihuahua, where the cook of a local restaurant drove us in the back of her wagon to the hotel as our littlest one fell asleep.
We’ve eaten such tasty freshly made gorditas in the train stops that, to this day, I hear complaints about how we need to go back for those exact same ones. We almost missed the train as I chased after the fresh fruit cart man, who quickly opened sweet ripe mangoes and topped them with fresh lime juice, salt and ground pequin chile, because it is better to miss the train than to eat the mango without the whole works.
In a market in Merida, we were invited into a stranger’s kitchen to learn the secret to the perfect achiote recado, the paste that has uniquely seasoned countless dishes in the Yucatan for centuries. The sweetest Purepecha cook taught the boys how to work the Michoacán black clay into the cutest mugs and cups, so that the cook's aunt could show me how to prepare corundas (similar to tamales) in her own kitchen. It’s our culture to feed the people we love, and share it with those who are interested in exploring it.
As varied as the places I’ve been throughout the country, they all share an eclectic and wonderful mix of centuries-old traditions with a weaving of the new and modern. Mexicans are natural hosts – they will do everything they can to make you feel at home in their country and in their homes. We will place our own plates in front of you, if you happen to be hungry. This warmth and openness really sets Mexico apart as a tourist destination.
The travel and tourism industry is crucial to Mexico. It’s the source of jobs, opportunities and tremendous pride for millions of people. When you read certain headlines, please take your margarita with more than a grain of salt; what you read in the news is not necessarily gospel. Mexico is a vast, beautiful and diverse country. The overwhelming majority of incidents have taken place in the border areas, more than a two-hour flight from popular tourist destinations like Los Cabos or the Riviera Maya - and cartel-related incidents targeted at tourists are incredibly rare, virtually unheard of.
If you open your mind and your heart you will find a Mexico that is as warm, vibrant and as nurturing as the food itself. The more I savor Mexico, the more I realize how much more I have yet to taste, to travel, to see, to learn and to share. In fact, I think experiences of Mexico are just like tacos - you think you’ve had the best one ever, until you try the next.
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