The Secret of (Mexican) Food

Back in 2007, I only knew of two “Mexican” restaurants in Shanghai. The first one I went to was terrible; it was out of the way, and I think they put corn starch in their salsa.

Here’s the deal; most of us expats really missed the cuisine of our home countries. Sure some of the expats were robots who didn’t understand that normal people enjoy food, but as a rule, the French people missed French food, the Italian people missed Italian food, the Spanish people missed Spanish food, the Mexican people missed Mexican food, and the American people missed Mexican food.

Certainly, there are plenty of distinctly American cuisines, fight me; but Americans in China always said they missed Mexican food the most.

Have you ever explained Mexican food to a Chinese person? They are terrified. You have to remind them that it’s an ancient cuisine, but once you tell them about enchiladas, they go into culture shock. “It’s just every food mixed together, randomly!” I know, it sound crazy to us, but to a Chinese person, it’s rice, beans, corn cake, meat, chile, cumin, cilantro, lettuce, cream, and fruit (avocado) on one plate. They are terrified. Those enchiladas represent food that was roasted, baked, fried, stewed, boiled, puréed; all on one plate. It’s too much for Chinese people.

I’ve heard Chinese people say this more than once: “It’s just every food mixed together randomly!” and of course any Mexican and American will stop them and tell them, no, it only seems that way to you because of your total unfamiliarity with the world due to your country’s policy of isolation for three generations. Mexican food is ancient, complex, and even ritualized.

I remember telling my friend D this, and he took my word for it, begrudgingly, and told him that Chinese food also appears random and strange to people who didn’t know it. At first, he disbelieved, but then, again, he took my word for it. D was one of the few Chinese people I know that was willing to listen to the point of view of a non-Chinese person.

I remember once discussing regional Chinese cuisines with D; he knew about Shanghainese food (sweet), Northeast cuisine (dark and soy saucy), and the spicy food of western China. I told him that my favorite food was Cantonese food, and he swooned for a second, and then asked me in all earnestness, “JP, what is Cantonese food like?” Chinese people learn about the fame and sophistication of Cantonese food, but I don’t think Shanghainese people eat it much. Still, they swoon when they hear about it, the way they swoon about the idea of Paris, even though they’ve never been.

One time, at my birthday party, Leo made tostadas. They were spectacular, and D loved them. I told him, yep, that’s because it’s real Mexican food, made by a real Mexican person. He still thought it was a radical mix of too many food groups, but he got it, that creamy, meaty, earthy, spicy, crunchy freshness that hits you all at once, that’s Mexican food, the gift of Mother Corn and Brother Chile. He got it. And we could all appreciate his perspective that it was a radical mix of too many food groups; technically he wasn’t wrong, but he finally got it. Taste and see; the secret of Mexican food.

A year later, there were more Mexican restaurants open in Shanghai, I didn’t try them all, but for the most part, I didn’t like them. They were often more about the drinks than the food. One time, my Dutch friend invited me to a cheesy Mexican place for a party, and I was happy to go meet them. It was kind of embarrassing, the kind of place with puns in the menu and sombreros hanging on the wall.

Our Chinese friend A asked someone what to order, and whoever it was gave her a pretty poor explanation of what to expect. She turned to me and exclaimed, “Oh! I know the secret of Mexican food! It’s all the food groups randomly mixed together!” I told her no, it’s not that, it’s an ancient, complex, and ritualized cusine…” She interrupted me and said, “NO JP, IT’S EVERY FOOD MIXED TOGETHER RANDOMLY.” If I remember correctly, a white friend of intervened to correct her, and A turned and looked at me in shock.

Then I realized the kind of place we were at; it was Tex-Mex. I told her, listen A, this place is not really Mexican food, it’s 不地道的美國人覺得墨西哥菜是怎麼樣; inauthentic, American stereotype of what Mexican food is. (Back then I didn’t know how to say “很複雜的美式墨西哥菜”) Of course, that confused her even more, so I told her to and me the menu and I will find her something authentically Mexican to order.

The menu was as long as my arm and five pages front and back. I read the entire thing, front and back, and didn’t find anything Mexican. There was “taco platter” and “wet burrito” and “chimichanga” of every meat, but there was no guajolote en mole, no chile en nogada, no tinga, no camarones en mojo de ajo; I don’t even think there was carne asada. Were there even corn tortillas? Just canned refried beans and a bunch of La Costeña products, and imported flour tortillas that spent more time in plastic than on a comal.

Nothing on this menu is actually Mexican, I told A, handing back the menu; this is an American stereotype menu. Sorry. She was flabbergasted.

There are reasons that Americans are so attached to Mexican food, even when it’s not what Mexicans eat. I will confess that I am a fan of American stereotype Mexican food; I’m happy to eat a taco salad in a tortilla bowl next to a lake of runny beans topped with yellow cheese; I’ll eat it! To be honest, though, I much prefer to eat authentic Mexican food; the ancient, complex, ritualized cuisine that is creamy, meaty, earthy, spicy, crunchy freshness that hits you all at once; gift of Mother Corn and Brother Chile.

Besides, the Americanized stuff tends to be every food just mixed together randomly.

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