September 28, 2023

My vegetarian food odyssey in Mexico

It doesn’t sound appetising. Neither the name, nor the description. Huitlacoche (pronounced whee-tla-ko-cheh), commonly defined as corn smut or corn fungus. Of course, a few hopefuls call it Mexican truffle, but yeah, that doesn’t take away from what it really is: a fungal growth on corn ears.

But when this soft fungus is plucked at the right time and sautéed lightly for a quesadilla stuffing along with cheese, then we’re talking food of the (Aztec) gods. With the first bite into my breakfast quesadilla, topped with just smidgen of spicy salsa, I find myself muttering, what’s in a name. For my next quesadilla, I request the chef to throw in a champiñones (mushroom) and chard mix. He offers a third one on his own (they are tiny, I assure you) with flor de calabaza. These squash blossoms, a seasonal delicacy, are fresh and tangy, perfectly balancing the blandness of the cheese.

Heading to Mexico City on my own after a few days of lazing on the country’s east coast and marvelling at ancient Mayan ruins, all I can think of is its reputation as one of Latin America’s culinary capitals. I also remember that my first culinary phrase learned in this country has been soy vegetariano; is it going to be only rajma and cheese folded carelessly inside a tortilla for me, given Mexico’s staunch love for the beef and pork stuff?

As it turns out, Mexico City spoils me for choice. The vegan (and by extension, vegetarian) movement has found its way to this part of the world, from street food stalls to specialty restaurants. My first experience is at La Pitahaya Vegana, the tiny café tucked away in the residential lanes of the Roma Norte neighbourhood. This cheery place, with its soft pink tacos encrusted with black sesame seeds and tall glasses of amber kombucha juice with more than a hint of ginger, is what instagrammers eat for.

After briefly ruing the fact that I cannot try everything on the menu, I order a taco trio – with toppings of crudi (avocado mousse with pecan cream and spiced cauliflower), creacion del mes (huitlacoche, watercress and black pecan cream), and papas al curry (curried potatoes with the house spice mix) – all of which taste infinitely better than they sound.

In the time I had earlier spent at the white city of Merida, I had sampled some street food in the form of tostadas (crunchy tortillas with various toppings), molletes (Mexican cheese on toast topped with red beans and guac) and esquites (boiled corn liberally doused with chilli powder, lemon juice and mayonnaise). In Mexico City, my favourite street food discovery is the tlayuda – crisp blue corn tortilla topped with onion, spinach, refried beans, and salty cheese.

All of this has been great food, but with familiar ingredients. Here on, I am determined to go as local as I can. So, one evening, I try tacos at an unnamed street stall. This time, the pair comes topped with nopales (meat of the prickly pear cactus) cooked with corn, and grilled poblano peppers stuffed with creamy cheese and served whole on a bed of Mexican rice.

And then I venture out in search of mezcal, the Mexican spirit made with agave that is being touted as the new tequila. At the frayed yet grand Bar La Opera just down the road, I taste my first mezcal, which comes with a side of sweet lemon slices doused with cinnamon powder. Smoky and strong, the mezcal goes down a dream, although I sip instead of swallowing it in one shot tequila style, biting daintily into the lemon wedges after each sip.

For the perfect end to this foodie day, late, late in the night, I walk to El Moro, Mexico City’s famous churreria. Open round the clock, El Moro has been serving up sinfully delicious churros to locals and tourists since 1935. I take mine with a hot chocolate dip, although they are fabulous with a light sugar sprinkle.

On my final day in Mexico City, with just hours left for my flight, I take a cab to the Por Siempre Vegana Taqueria – a taco truck buzzing with activity. The Ethiopian chef there recommends the al pastor (in this case, a vegetarian version of the local shawarma). Out comes the fully-loaded taco after a brief wait: the al pastor with a crunchy soft texture, with a mound of avocado, pineapple, peppers and the quintessential cheese on top.

The truck also has a generous number of free toppings – in case the ones you pay for are not enough – from black beans and salsa to onion and cilantro, and fiery green and red sauces. And with that, I pledge to spend the rest of my life as a committed tacotarian.

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