Like the whole world these days, Mexico is changing rapidly. I notice more and more modern touches year after year. There are improvements in technology and infrastructure. Travel is getting easier, as I can now go online and book my bus ticket, make my seat selection, and pay via PayPal for my electronic ticket to be presented on my iphone. This is a huge new convenience as before, I had to wait to purchase at the bus station. And the first class buses all have charging ports beneath the seats now.
But what intrigues me the most are the changes driven by trends. I notice this in foods more than anything.
I am continually impressed by the ingenuity of the Mexican people. They are a hard working, enterprising lot, particularly with a keen eye for tourism. Whether it be waterproof phone pouches for sale outside the cenotes, parasailing rides over the Pacific, or the hip coffee shop offering frothy cappuccinos to a Bob Dylan soundtrack from where this post is being written, when the Mexicans figure out what sells, they are all over it. I am certain if they wanted a wall built, not only would it be done in short order, but it would be painted with artistic murals end to end.
I never thought I would say these words about Mexico’s response to trends, but grab your carnivore card….”The Vegans are Coming!” As restaurants evolve to meet the specialized needs of travelers, I notice more and more buzz words on the menus.
There was a time when I felt sorry for any vegetarian who dared venture into the land of carne and queso, thinking if you were to eliminate those two items from the offerings, the vegan would be left with nothing on the plate but an ear of corn and half an avocado. For even the staple of the vegan diet, beans, is seasoned with a quarter kilo of lard here. But in true Mexican fashion to meet the demands of the tourist trade, menus appear to be changing faster than the edges can fray.
The vegetarian/vegan boom really hit home recently when I went back to visit my favorite restaurant in San Miguel, Don Taco Tequila. I had been saving it back for a night when I was especially hungry (and also thirsty as they have great ginger margaritas.) They do an unusual taco in that they grill the cheese until it is crispy, then fold it up inside the tortilla. The crunchy grilled cheese becomes like an inner layer of goodness wrapped around seared meat. Fabulous! Well, I had my taste buds all set. As I sat down to order, I scanned the menu to quickly locate my favorites. The names were all the same, but the ingredients had changed. My first clue was “cashew cheese.” Next was “walnut cheese.” What the heck is with these nut cheeses? I scroll a little further down to see the words “grilled soy”…..further still, “jackfruit.” I asked the waiter “Donde esta la carne????” Nada mas? Que lastima!” (What a pity!)
For I am a “cattleman’s daughter.” Altruistically, I would like to embrace the vegetarian philosophy. But physically and emotionally, I have yet to break free of the meat habit. I’ve watched all the movies that are supposed to turn one off animal products forever. I try to do the right thing by the Animal Kingdom. I do worry about the sustainability of the food chain in a growing population. But one whiff of searing meat, and I forget all about where that sizzling sirloin originated.
Trip Advisor’s number one restaurant in Oaxaca, a town known for setting the culinary trend, is now a bread place. They serve sandwiches and pizza made with their “masa madre,” or sourdough bread. Over half their menu is vegetarian. They advertise healthy offerings using “fermentation and probiotics.” These are not words I am accustomed to seeing in Mexico.
Always a country that has been bold and unapologetic about its meat consumption, the meat substitutes are making their way to the menu as quickly as the meat dishes are giving way. Pozole with mushrooms. Mole Portobella. And the culinary elevation of the ubiquitous chapuline, or roasted whole-bodied grasshoppers. I even saw “ant eggs” on one menu. eeeuuww!
But all is not lost, fellow carnivores. If you are looking for one hard core seared meat extravaganza typical of “old Mexico,” look no further than the Carne Asada halls of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca. You will smell it long before you see it, as the heavy smoke emulsified with fat globules wafts through the air. Hawkers vie for your business, promising the freshest slivers of tasajo, (beef shaved paper thin,) chorizo, (sausage) or cecina (partially dried beef.) Flames soar high into the air as the slices of flank steak sizzle once they hit the grill. Choose your accompaniments while your carne is cooking; grilled onions and peppers, guacamole, pico de gallo, radishes, cucumbers, all offered up al la carte at around fifty cents a serving.
The day I see tofu among these offerings, that’s when I’ll know the trend has become a tipping point.