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Sunday December 17 2017
Mexico Gives Flavor to the World
Negocios ProMexico

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In November 1519, Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma II met face to face for the first time. Ostensibly, México-Tenochtitlan had fallen to the Spanish. However, in the depths of the pre-Hispanic stone ovens, secrets of an ancient cooking tradition were kept, while the conquerors and the conquered shared a table and exchanged products. Today many varieties of dishes bear living testimony to the culinary syncretism that took place with an almost religious fervor between both cultures. Traditional Mexican cuisine has now been inscribed as a World Heritage because its flavors have seduced the world’s palate. In this bicentennial year, that recognition, as well as a prize, implies a huge responsibility for the country.

A comal with its brazier, a stool, 2 kilos of nixtamal (tortilla dough) and some “toy pots” with three spicy stews or guisos. That was how, with just an informal permit 28 years ago, Julia Bañuelos began selling gorditas (a corn cake with a filling) on a street in the city of Zacatecas.

“Listen, I’d left my job as head of a kitchen at a hotel because the manager always had it in for me. But I needed to look after my son who was just a few months old. My husband’s wage wasn’t enough and, well, all I knew was how to cook. That’s right. And I do put a lot of care into my cooking […] some people say that I give my cooking a special sazón [unique flavor], ” says Julia.

Doña Julia was 32 years old at the time. She’s now 60, has four children and a cooking emporium, which has become a real tradition in Zacatecas, the beautiful colonial Mexican city named a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1993.

Over the course of almost three decades, Gorditas Doña Julia has opened eight branches employing 50 people and receives an average of 2,000 customers a day. Industrial quantities of nixtamal and the main ingredients are bought and the stews or guisos are prepared in vats in a 400 square meters kitchen.

Julia Bañuelos, one of the many heads of kitchens in Mexico, known as mayoras, who are women, knows much more than just cooking. She –like so many Mexican women, many of whom without even realizing it– is the depositary of a tradition going back centuries: Mexico’s gastronomic alchemy which, on November 18 in Nairobi in Kenya, was officially inscribed onto the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Tradition and Responsibility

Mexico’s application to the United Nations was finally successful. The first attempt was made in 2005 but the proposal was rejected. For five years, a Mexican organization that works to safeguard Mexico’s traditional gastronomic heritage (CCGM) –a multidisciplinary group interested in protecting Mexico’s culinary tradition–worked to resubmit the proposal.

“We consider it essential to protect our cuisine. Therefore this inscription will help; far from being a gift, it represents an enormous commitment,” says Gloria López Morales, director of CCGM, which is comprised of chefs, mayoras, chemists, civil experts and academics interested in Mexican cooking, an intricate system that has managed to survive for over five centuries through thick and thin.

“The announcement by UNESCO implies a great responsibility. To be honest, this is going to involve a lot of hard work if we approach it seriously. But it can be very worthwhile,” says Pilar Fausto, cook, researcher and teacher at the educational institute of gastronomy in Querétaro (IGES). “To preserve this international ‘seal’ is going to require us to discover the difficulties facing each region: in the rural areas, among the people [...] we’ve got to rescue the original ingredients, stop adulterating the soil and natural products [...] we’ve also got to save from oblivion all the heritage that has never been written down, which has just been passed down by word of mouth [...] And something else equally important: we have to reeducate our palates, which have lost their sense of taste from so much junk food [...] now we’re incapable of distinguishing a good mole from a bad one.”

If Men Become Sheep, the Wolf will Devour Them

The market of Tlatelolco in Mexico City, with its variety of products from the entire Mesoamerican region, its massive size and impeccable organization, impressed the Spanish who found more spices there than they hoped to find on Columbus’ failed search for the Indies when he arrived in the New World: vanilla, chocolate, epazote, maize, many varieties of chili, maize and beans, zucchini, avocado, turkey … it’s impossible to calculate how many species of plants animals were taken from Mexico to the rest of the world as part of its own, pacifist conquest via the palate.

“Paris smells of vanilla,” wrote a French poet in the 17th century. The Mexican orchid was to change the world’s desserts for ever; just like chocolate, a word of Náhuatl origin that is kept on in many other languages. Now Africa smells of chocolate, China tastes of chili and nopal. The US and France, meanwhile, taste of huitlacoche –in the latter two countries, farmers “infect” their plants with this highly valued fungus which the Aztecs considered as worthy for consumption only by the emperor.

The sacred trilogy of Mexican cooking: the bean with over 60 varieties, the chili with over 20 known types and maize with 300 faces and venerated by the pre-Hispanic populations as their most sacred plant. These are all still eaten by Mexicans, just like the recipes and ancestral traditions which, nevertheless, are still at risk of being lost.
But if the saying is true: “it’s never too late to start,” and if the well known Mexican chef Patricia Quintana is right to assert that Mexico is a “Cuisine that has gone on a round trip” then it’s possible to start out with a small step like the business of Julia Bañuelos: “little by little.

“I began little by little.I cooked out of necessity but with lots of love. I never thought about opening branches or winning prizes. I did what I knew how to do. I even had to learn how to make tortillas by hand [...] but one thing I did have were my secret recipes and they have worked very well for me. Now all my people have learned how to make them because my gorditas must taste the same in every one of my restaurants [...] and you only learn about that sort of thing through practice,” says Doña Julia, who recently received an offer from a chain of cinemas to open 110 branches around the country. Although that venture never took off, she has already made here name and she is now a key ingredient of daily life in Zacatecas.

After Mexico adopted and transformed what came from other cultures such as the Spanish, the French, the Chinese, the North American and the German –the Spanish cattle, the Americans bars, the French patisseries, the Germans coffee plantations, the Chinese concept of putting milk into coffee– we then made our own sweets, turned the bars into our sacred cantinas and put lard into the tamales.

If everything acquired its own particular taste here –the “flavor a la Mexicana”– then it’s still possible to reconquer a legacy that, fortunately, has survived despite the passage of time and human fickleness.


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