And other notes on Fusion
by Ricky Toledano
“Can you make those Mexican catnis for us, Ricky?”
“Which ones are you talking about? ¿Salsa? Mexican salsas?”
After so many years of eating with Indians, I learned that they ate quite similarly to Mexicans in the way they accompanied most foods with hot and sour vegetable or fruit pickles or simply biting into raw chilis, the way some Mexicans prefer chile mordido. Then of course there were all the spicy condiments, catnis, pronounced chutneys, which were nothing like the spiced mango jam found in jars from supermarket around the world – except India.
“Where ever did you try Mexican salsa?” I asked in curiosity, because his request was placed as if he had tried them. I had already noticed that the globalization of food as entertainment had finally reached India – at least my India – which I had observed in the craze and proliferation of Italian foods. But it hadn’t occurred to me that my little Indian brothers might have gone to a “Mexican” restaurant.
“You know, the chutney they serve with nachos?”
I sucked my teeth before smiling, holding back a chuckle, exasperated by how many times I’ve had to explain “nachos” in Brazil.
I had never ever seen nachos in my family’s city of Puebla, often called the culinary capital of Mexico. My brothers and I in our native Chicago had always found the fried corn chips topped with American (un)cheese revolting. They were nothing like the chips made from left over tortilla, fried or toasted totopos, which could be doused in a spicy sauce as a snack – never a meal.
Imagine my recent surprise when I found nachos had indeed managed to arrive in Puebla, after what I guess must have been a very sinuous route through Tex-Mex to re-enter Mexico via Cancún in order to reach Rio de Janeiro and even Bangalore.
“Listen, I think I know what you are talking about… the salsa was red, pulpy tomato with chili pepper? A little sweet?” I asked, imagining that they must have eaten nachos with salsa – that American-style salsa – that was more tomato than chile, as if a spiced and thick spaghetti-sauce with vinegar, including the sugar that Americans seem to add to everything – even tomatoes. It had been a great Italian friend who had alerted me years ago as to the sweet tomato sauce smell of Italian-American food in the streets of Chicago: “Why d’hell you guys put so much tomato on pasta? Of course you put sugar in it: that much tomato would burn anyone’s stomach!”
“Yes! That’s the salsa,” he responded, “it had jalapeños.”
“Jalapeños? You have them here?” I asked, surprised. I had never seen them in India. On the rarest of occasions, I could find some imported ones in Brazil, often of bad quality since they tasted like green bell peppers. Brazilians, despite certain regional and individual exceptions, do not like hot pepper and spices. The taste of both Mexicans and Indians, however, was always a match waiting to be made in heaven.
I had brought spice mix to Puebla to make masala chhole – garbanzo beans in spicy gravy – for my family, who have since asked me to repeat in on upon every visit. It was quite easy to do so, considering there is no lack of ingredients in Mexico. If pressed, I could have even procured and ground the masala spice mixes myself in Mexico. On the contrary, I have found that Mexican food outside of North America is almost impossible. The most basic ingredients simply cannot be sourced, much less substituted, such as corn tortilla, which cannot even be made without the white hominy flour, maiseca. I have always seen it substituted with an industrialized, fried yellow corn – hardly a substitute in my book, but it did give me an idea.
“Ok, boys, we can try to make Mexican food, but I need your help. I need to see what tomatoes and chilis are available. I have only ever seen you put that fiery red powder in everything”.
“That’s not true! We have chilis! What about the long, thin green ones we eat with masala cchole?”
“Oh, that’s right! Serranos! You do have serranos here… But then I need green tomatoes.”
“Green? Why green?” They looked a little alarmed.
“There is a little tomato in Mexico that we call tomatillo to make green salsa. I prefer it to the red salsa you are talking about. Actually, I will make both, and another cooked tomato one – something tells me your sesame oil will taste nice with it.”
After miraculously finding smallish tomatoes – so unripe they were green at the market and would have to do for tomatillos – I asked for a comal.
“They cook with the same things in Mexico that you do here in India. It is like your tawa for making roti bread. I need it to roast the chilis and tomatoes on iron a bit.”
“Roast them?!” They shouted in disbelief.
“You people don’t roast each spice to ‘open’ them before blending them into masala? In Mexico, we also do that to chilis and tomatoes.”
“I also need cilantro leaves, some garlic and onion.”
“Cilantro? What is that? Mint?”
The other English term was on the tip of my tongue but could not remember it.
“That’s it! Coriander leaves…. but, actually, the way you mix coriander with mint here for green chutney is not a bad idea. I might put a little.”
“You need vinegar too, no?”
“No! Never! My aunt just adds a tiny amount of water. Vinegar is used for pickling things like jalapeños, carrots and onions – like you do here with salt for lemons and mangoes – but not for fresh salsas. I’m telling you our salsas are really quite similar your catnis…”
“But what will we eat them with?” asked the other brother, expecting nachos.
“You have to make corn roti,” I replied with idea I had, since it would be impossible to bring them the taste of fresh tortilla. Having learned that what they called corn I called millet, I remembered the wonderful taste of their corn roti and how it reminded me of the fresh, thick tortillas we call ‘fatties’, or gorditas. That is when I had another idea: “But you have to find a way to put rajma in the corn dough and fry them like puri, except they won’t inflate.”
Their guffaw was in astonishment. For them, the idea of smashing beans into corn flatbread dough to fry in oil was as ridiculous as it was intriguing. That was when I described my favorite food. It would be my last meal, requested before the firing squad: what my dear cousin and her mother, the matriarch of my family who taught her to cook so well, call jarrochas, the corn gorditas with bean in the paste, which are fried and then topped with the homemade salsas they had in turn taught me – and which they lovingly receive me with every year when I visit Puebla. They serve them bandera for me, meaning both green and red salsa gorditas, like the green and red of the Mexican flag, placing them at the table after sprinkling them with chopped onion, drizzling them with fresh cream and grated añejo cheese.
“But how do we make the beans?” they asked.
“I think you don’t have black beans here, but something also tells me that red beans might even be more delicious. Just bring them to me. The beans I can do blind! They are the same as your rajma, except I will cook them simply, with less spices, but with garlic and onion instead of your hing [asafetida], and with more cumin than you do.” I didn’t tell them about the epazote that is indispensable for cooking beans in Mexico. I have gotten used to cooking beans without the herb that I can only occasionally find in Brazil among mateiros, those who sell magical herbs for potions and spells, who call it erva de Santa María. But I did tell them about the spicy, savory cacao sauce known the world over from my family’s city of Puebla.
“Chocolate?!” They guffawed again. I could only imagine their faces eating my aunt’s mole poblano. It is often an acquired taste, but I know that they would like it. Indians are quite proud of their food and this family was no exception, but I could not help but to think how my aunt and my cousins would give them a licking: ‘You stupid little runts! My aunt would fix you and show you what food is!’ How I would love to take them to Mexico and make them try the things they have never had: avocados; the cactus fruit called tunas; huitlacoches, the fungus that grows on corn with a flavor reminiscent of truffles; my aunt’s pumpkin flour soup; the thick sauces made in an array of colors from pounded nuts and seeds; blue corn tortillas; all kinds of chili pepper with a startling range of flavors beside their heat; and even the alcoholic cactus milk that is pulque.
“Bhai! Oh my god!” was the squeal of pleasure from the boys when they tried their own concoction of corn roti with bean, together with my salsas and some fresh cream.
Our fusion continued: another day I made khichdi, the common rice and lentil porridge, the comfort food of India, but with tomato as if my aunt’s Mexican rice. It was also a success, as was my teaching them to dress salads the way we do in the Western tradition with oil, a little acid, such as lemon or vinegar, and herbs smashed from a mortar and pestle.
“What’s that?” they asked, unfamiliar with the vocabulary.
“I need something to smash a piece of garlic, salt and herbs. It looks like a heavy cup and stick to mash them,” I said, mimicking with my hands, but also thinking about my molcajete and how it was missed to make the salsas. How the mortar and pestle of volcanic rock would make a wonderful gift for them, although too heavy to drag from the other side of the world.
After explaining what I wanted to do for the salad, they suggested kala namak (Indian black salt) and the finest virgin-pressed sesame oil, which made a surprising combination once I sweetened and soured their roasted flavors with some lemon juice and pomegranate seeds.
“I don’t like fusion food,” commented a cousin, disdaining the current restaurant craze of Bangalore and not our concoctions in the kitchen.
“What are you talking about?” I responded, “The food you know and love has been fusion for at least 500 years, you idiot! Chilis and tomatoes are from Mexico. Potatoes from the Andes – which means I’d like to know what the hell your ancestors ate anyway… just brinjals?
“I will put an eggplant in your ass!” He lunged, holding a bringal. Everyone jumped, knocking things over, initially amused, but quickly irritated when realizing there was hot ghee on the stove. Men are already dangerous, but in the kitchen…
Absolutely no fat sustains heat like ghee, so hot it could easily disfigure an insolent and misfortunate cousin. The clarified butter oil of India brings another level of softness and cooking power to food, to say nothing of its wonderful taste. But then a thud of memory struck when I remember lard, and decided to edit that part from the story of Mexican food for them. It would be unbecoming to vegetarians. And I made a mental note that if ever they went to Mexico they could touch nothing to eat without my approval: manteca is tasteless and makes food even softer than ghee. And it is already a lot of maneuvers on my part in order to avoid it in México. I thought about tamales made with ghee: I’m sure they would taste even better!
The games continued, unfolding the birth of a new cuisine, in much the same way our ancestors had done on different continents. That is when I remembered the story of the China Poblana, the legend of the kidnapped Indian princess from Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, who wound up in none other than Puebla, whose colorful saris started a fashion craze that morphed into Mexican folkloric dress and – who knows? – it might have been her native sense of combining spices that helped influence the unique local cuisine of the city.
Nothing, however, deserves more credit for fusion than the maritime, mercantile history of the Portuguese, who hauled saplings, seeds, nuts, fruits and spices between Asia and the Americas, Europe and Africa. One of the more interesting stories, from one of the most sincere food blogs I’ve found, is the history of how the fiery chili pepper reached out to the world from its native Pueblan and Oaxacan soils.
God willing, I will continue the fusion work: maybe by shirking my laziness to drag a heavy molcajete in my bag from the Americas to India – but not by boat.
*Para minha Fusion Food em português, veja Quando o doce vira salgado.