Given the diversity of nationalities and ethnicities that have moulded Canada’s epicurean identity, one might imagine a wealth of eateries to suit the most discerning palates on every street corner, which may be true in major cities and with a bottomless wallet. However – to borrow some fabled online descriptions of well-known and highly regarded Toronto eateries – I am failing to translate how ‘soaring ceilings’, ‘brick-lined walls’, ‘colourful artwork’ and ‘classically elegant’ are acronyms for spectacularly roasted, broiled, sautéed or steamed entrées. It seems that some foodies focus more on the visual environs of eating out rather than the tingling messages their mouths sends to their brains when something enticingly delicious plays on their tongues.
Having eaten ‘native’ from street stalls in a multitude of countries, dined splendidly at formal functions, or been expensively fed by clients at some prohibitively upmarket places around the world (the latter two always on someone else’s dime!), I have some wide-ranging views about food from an international perspective. Mostly, our ‘foreign’ experiences have been positive and prompted conversions to some quite eclectic home cooking habits.
For the past 11 years Peter and I have both been vegetarian – although we should perhaps be called ‘flexaterians’ as we do eat dairy and fish. More recently, PBS has aired a number of highly educational and enlightening documentaries about the global market in genetically modified grains, and… that evil of evils, sugar! It certainly got us to thinking about revamping our own eating habits and prompted a reinspection of my pantry shelves and revisiting favourite recipes to see how they might be adjusted to include healthier ingredients. Of course, this was in advance of our move, so it was an ideal time to renew our gastronomic experimentation to include Mexican-inspired dishes.
Before I address the title of this blog, however, I should take a moment to include a comment about the food on our journey south. With one exception, our exceedingly low expectations for on-the-hoof meals – referring to speed (albeit, avoiding ‘fast food’) rather than carniverous content – as we passed through the US, were certainly met, and fell through the basement on more than one occasion. Nothing more to be said on that score!
In terms of ‘eating out’ in Mexico, and during our somewhat whirlwind trip to Lake Chapala in March, we visited the same restaurant in San Juan Cosala for dinner twice, and vowed to return. Unlike well-known city restaurants that employ high-profile architects and interior designers to extend the eating experience into environmental utopia, this SJC hideaway is modestly barnlike (albeit displaying some interesting artwork on their whitewashed-brick walls), with an unpretentious terrace – a nod to al fresco – but their food is a ticket to epicurean heaven. Mostly delivered to the table sizzling hot, unlike the lukewarm offerings we’ve experienced in some restaurants, and with sauces that majestically tickle the tastebuds. Starters and entrées for five, plus two shared desserts and pre-dinner drinks for a mere US$35.
My reasoning as to why Mexican restaurants are so inexpensive – cheaper ingredients and local availability notwithstanding – is that many appear to be extensions of home: A terrace converted for dining, living rooms that provide intimate dining spaces. I also have to wonder whether many even employ chefs or are simply following age-old traditions of Mexican cuisine, using recipes handed down through the generations.
Of course, we also discovered a Mexican equivalent to Starbucks that served exceedingly good coffee – but at a price! A friend then introduced us to a bistro/deli that is a flashback to school canteen days – including the tubular steel and plastic tables and chairs. It was housed in a building that we’d have likely passed by without a second glance, and their 7:00 am opening morphs into brunch and then lunch, but don’t expect to eat after 2:00. All meals are prepared and cooked to order, while typical bistro fare – muffins, pastries and bread – are prepared and baked on the premises. Four healthy, mega-size carrot muffins plus unlimited refills of coffee: 68 pesos (CAD$4.53) – cheaper than one Starbucks grande latte!
So far, I’m giving Mexico a very definite thumbs up in the eating-out department. But what about vegetarianism? Between our trip in March and moving in August I ordered numerous Mexican cookery books from my local library, and one in particular captured my imagination and enthusiasm. Pati Jinch is well known for her Pati’s Mexican Table series broadcast on PBS – bringing authentic Mexican cooking into American homes – for which she apparently received a daytime Emmy nomination. As I tend to have a rather ad hoc approach in the kitchen, and often start with a recipe to which the end product bears no resemblance, Pati’s creative attitude struck a chord. She also claimed that Mexicans have had vegetarian options for years without knowing it – a reference to the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables and sizzling bean dishes. To say nothing of the ‘tortillerias’ selling light-as-air homemade pancakes for wrapping scrumptuous enchiladas, fajitas and quesadillas – without a mosel of meat in sight.
Which brings me back to the purpose of this literary ramble: Eating in vs. Eating out? I love the fact that Mexican food is bold – which isn’t necessarily a pseudonym for highly spicy – and the minute my slow cooker arrived, a few days ago, I got ceative with local ingredients to create a pot of bubbling and tasty beans (my sorry excuse for a photo certainly doesn’t do justice to the delicious flavour), after all, whether you’re eating in or eating out, experimenting and trying new flavours is all part of the eating adventure of living in a new country.
More about food will undoubtedly follow in the coming weeks and months…