Mexican Food, for Real

Molcajetes is a Mexican version of the mortar and pestle and the name of this dish made with chorizo, beef, chicken, Oaxaca cheese, cactus and onion. The dish reflects the international flavor of Mexico City.  (RANDY PENCH / RPENCH@SACBEE.COM)
Molcajetes is a Mexican version of the mortar and pestle and the name of this dish made with chorizo, beef, chicken, Oaxaca cheese, cactus and onion. The dish reflects the international flavor of Mexico City. (RANDY PENCH / RPENCH@SACBEE.COM)

Mexican cuisine is some of the food we love most, whether we're chomping on carnitas or carne asada tacos. But how do we know if we're feasting on authentic Mexican cuisine, or just some gringo-ized grub?

A couple of quick hints: If the restaurant serves a chimichanga or specializes in something called "fourthmeal," chances are it's not true Mexican cuisine.

Kurt Spataro certainly has a passion for authentic food from south of the border. The Sacramento chef spent more than seven years traveling through Mexico and studying its regional cuisines. In 1994, he opened Centro Cocina Mexicana, which serves such Oaxacan specialties as mole negro.

"It's the original soul food," says Spataro about Mexican cuisine. "It's really satisfying to eat and really satisfying to cook. ... there's something that's so old and ancient about it. When you re-create these old things, it connects you to something deeper than having a meal."

But some of the dishes considered Mexican aren't from south of the border at all.

Those sizzling fajitas are a Texas invention popularized in the 1980s.

Nachos and enchiritos? We won't even go there.

A glut of inauthentic food makes it tough for Diana Kennedy to eat at Mexican restaurants when she visits the United States.

Kennedy, who lives in Michoacan, Mexico, is one of the world's authorities on Mexican food and author of such seminal cookbooks as "The Cuisines of Mexico."

"When it's done well, it's such exciting food," Kennedy says by phone from Mexico. "But why is it that guacamole can be so marvelous and so horribly done? And tacos, the idea of some intriguing stuff in a fun bite of a tortilla, has been taken on by the world in good, bad and indifferent forms."

The basis of Mexican food blends a pre-Columbian diet (corn, chilies, jicama, beans) with culinary

influences from Spanish conquistadores and other settlers (garlic, beef, onion, chicken). The variety of climates, agriculture and other regional characteristics make for the diverse cuisine we know as Mexican food.

In the northern states, you'll find plenty of barbacoa de chivo (barbecued goat). It's all about fish in Veracruz, the southeastern state in the Gulf of Mexico. Grasshopper tacos? That's a staple of Oaxacan food, along with chocolate and a variety of mole sauces.

"In Mexico, there's the basic peasant food, the survival food for people who don't have access to markets," says Kennedy. "Then there's the popular foods on the street, which are tacos with lots of fillings that are delicious. You've got the more sophisticated and complicated food on the higher end. There's a contrast of flavors and textures in Mexican food that's just fascinating."

Like other ethnic foods, these traditions sometimes get diluted or distorted when they reach American palates. Cheddar cheese, that orange stuff sprinkled on many an American enchilada, is rarely used in Mexico. Beans and tamales without lard might as well be heresy to traditional Mexican cooks.

Bigger isn't better

Portion sizes can also vary between the two countries. The burrito may be a lighter snack in Mexico, but not around these parts. Many domestic burritos are practically the size of a puppy.

"In Mexico, unless they're copying the Americans, when you buy a burrito they don't make it massive and pile it with lettuce, beans and meat," says Bernadette Gutierrez, who studied with Diana Kennedy.

The bottom line is that freshness is a hallmark of any "authentic" food. But not skimping on ingredients or cutting corners in the kitchen can make for some labor-intensive cooking. Sure, anyone can buy bags of corn tortillas that were processed by machine. But making them from scratch, especially in a restaurant setting, takes more time than many folks have.

"The basis (of Mexican cooking) is a good tortilla, but only the die-hard do it (from scratch)," says Kennedy, the Mexican food authority. "When you don't have that basic corn flavor, the tortilla doesn't have a good flavor.

"With mole, so often people buy it prepared. It is labor- intensive and the ingredients aren't cheap, but it goes a long way."

And some folks haven't taken the time to learn the traditional recipes in the first place.

"I'm the only person out of all my friends that makes tortillas from scratch," says Gutierrez. "It's a sign of the times. There's a tradition of passing down recipes and getting together, but people don't have the time anymore. If we don't rediscover and define the traditions, we will lose our ability to make them."