Updated: Aug 3, 2022
One of my favorite food-nerd things to do is to think of ways of incorporating really intelligent cooking techniques from different world cuisines into my everyday cooking. It's less about cooking a specific recipe and more about looking at a recipe and noticing how and why it works, internalizing that as a concept and then using that concept to improve the dishes I typically cook. Since I've been in Mexico, I've learned two key concepts that have improved my cooking. One concept I learned in the kitchen, and the other I learned at taquerias
The first concept I learned from Mexican cuisine is a technique and that technique is salsa. You might hear that and say, "um... salsa is a condiment that goes on my taco, it's not a technique." And I get that point of view. That's what I thought before I watched 100 Spanish language pozole recipe videos on youtube. Americans think of salsa as simply a condiment for chips and tacos, but this is far from the truth. In Mexico, salsa is a condiment that goes both into food during the cooking process, as well along side a finished dish. It's used in the same way that curry pastes are used in Thai cuisine and they're actually quite similar when you break them down fundamentally. Like a curry past, a salsa is a collection of highly aromatic and flavorful ingredients (chilies, alliums and spices) that are toasted and ground down to a paste that can be added to a dish during the cooking process to impart intense flavor and aroma.
What is so interesting about the use of salsa in Mexican cuisine is the incredible things is does to soup. What I took away from watching 100 pozole videos was that I had been thinking about soup all wrong. The pozole approach to soup makes soup easier, faster and probably more delicious. The problem with soup is that it is a water based food, and water is inherently void of flavor. Many soup recipes will have you simmering animal proteins, spices and vegetables for hours, only to throw them all away once they've "given all they have to give to the broth." This feels very wasteful! But Mexico has an answer to the wasteful soup problem, the answer is salsa. It really couldn't be simpler. You want your soup to be super flavorful? Well how about instead of spending hours boiling the flavor out of a celery stock, you blend up that celery stock (and whatever other ingredients strikes your fancy) and pour it into your broth in the form of a liquefied flavor packed salsa? Yes, you wont have a clear broth, but you will have a really tasty soup in a short amount of time, and you don't have to throw vegetables away.
This is what you learn when you make pozole or birria. In both recipes, you cook a protein in water until it is cooked, then remove the protein and shred it so it's easy to eat. Then you blend a specific combination of herbs, spices, chilies, aromatics and vegetables into a smooth liquid, and then pour that super flavorful liquid directly to your cooking liquid! Bam-boom-flavor!
This is what I love about borrowing from the intelligence of different cuisines. You don't have to stick to pozole and birria to use these techniques. You can take this technique and apply it to your favorite chicken soup recipe, for example. Of course, you have to be OK with your soup no longer sporting a clear broth. But once you're over that, the possibilities are endless. Let's take chicken soup as an example. If I were to apply this technique to chicken soup, I'd first think about what I'm looking for in a chicken soup... In a chicken soup I want it to be filling, comforting and umami forward. So what might I do then...? I'd start by putting my chicken in a pot, adding water, salt and bringing it to a boil, then reducing to a simmer. Then I might add some white beans to the mix, to bulk up the texture of the broth and make it a bit more filling. After that I could saute onions, garlic, thyme and chili flakes in butter and olive oil until they are lightly caramelized. I could then take a bit of broth, a few spoons of beans and blend them with the sauteed aromatics into a liquid to make my "salsa." Then that salsa is added directly my pot of simmering chicken soup. The starch from the beans will bond with the blended onion and you will have creamy rich broth in a snap. Throw in some kale and lovely sea salt and you've got a really comforting dish.
The next thing I've come to appreciate as an eater of Mexican food is to balance fat with refreshing elements. This is something that we're not always the best at doing in mainstream American cuisine. Look no further than Thanksgiving. It's a starchy fatty meal that, without your spot of cranberry sauce, would be entirely beige and one-note! It's lacking balance. It needs a fresh element, it needs crunch and herbaceousness! It needs a salad!
So how do we see this balance in Mexican cuisine? When I first got to Mexico and started eating at taquerias a lot, I never paid much attention to the little plates of radishes and cucumbers that were dropped off with my beverage. I might eat a few before my taco arrived, but generally I ignored them. Finally my dinning companion and Mexican food spirit guide said to me: "So take a bite of your taco and then a bite of a radish, and you keep going back and forth like that. Adobado is rich- you need the freshness!" It felt awkward at first because I had been ignoring them for weeks, but now I NEED that little plate of raw vegetable goodness when I have tacos, and I feel very foolish for my errors of the past. The radish and cucumber take my taco experience to the next level. They balance the fatty meat with their crisp vegetal qualities. They work alongside the acidity of the salsa to lighten the overall meal and round out the flavor profile.
This is also something I can bring into my home cooking. Just as a little reminder for when I'm building a meal. It doesn't have to be cucumber and radish specifically. But if I'm preparing something that is really oily and rich, finding a crisp seasonal fresh vegetable to accompany the meal is at the front of my mind.
I realize adding a fresh raw vegetable to accompany a meal isn't unique to Mexico. It's very common is Persian cuisine to serve a plate of beautiful fresh leafy herbs and yes... slices of cucumber and radishes for the exact same reasons it's happening in Mexico. Furthermore, when you buy freshly grilled sausage or meat on the street in Thailand, you will likely get a chunk of sticky rice and a few slices of cabbage and cucumber as a compliment to the rich fatty protein. I'm sure it can be found in many other world cuisines as well - it's just smart meal design! And it's something I enjoy keeping an eye out for at street food stalls when I'm traveling.