Posts Tagged ‘wraps

30
Jul
10

making new foods familiar

Wednesday‘s NYT article on Korean tacos made me think of Richard Wilk’s Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists, which discusses, in depth and in the context of Belizean cuisine, six ways in which cuisines interact and exchange elements. One of those six is, of course, wrapping or stuffing: “physically enclosing something new or foreign within a familiar wrapper, or vice versa.”

White bread or hamburger buns can civilize otherwise low-status local foods, “making them acceptable to middle class and foreign tastes.” In Belize, the result is something similar to the Mexican torta compuesta; Belizeans are even able to civilize gibnut* (a jungle rodent) by using a bun to dress it up as a hamburger. Local, low-status food + foreign, high-status form = sudden acceptability.

Wilk also notes that local wrappings can make foreign foods local. In Belize, “canned tomato paste and Campbell’s vegetable soup” make their way into tamales wrapped in locally familiar banana leaves. In Mexico, he says, corn tortillas play the role of banana leaves “in wrapping all kinds of ingredients; the name of the dish and the mode of preparation as tacos or enchiladas or gorditas remains familiar, even if the stuffing is alien or strange.”

And now, restaurateur John Ban tells us, corn tortillas are a familiar enough wrapper in the United States that they can turn Korean barbeque into recognizably American food.

Note that this essential Americanness did not skip the humble Tex-Mex flour tortilla for the newer-to-these-shores but more “authentic” corn version; think of every wrap joint you’ve ever been to. Though perhaps that’s a case of the fillings, which undoubtedly cater to a particularly bland American taste, civilizing the wrapper. And giving “wrap” makers the latitude to take out the lard and replace it with spinach. Or flax seeds. Or whatever.

Maybe the very American health consciousness of the wrap is a way of mitigating any remaining suspicions that its form–essentially a street food–might arouse that the wrapper “conceals suspicious or even dangerous ingredients.”

—–
* Gibnut is technically Cuniculus paca. WIkipedia reports that it is known as “paca” throughout most of its range, which extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. The article proceeds to give the other names by which it is known in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Trinidad, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru–leaving us to wonder where it is actually called “paca.”

The most interesting names for today’s discussion are its Latin name (cuniculus being part of the scientific name for rabbit) and those from Panama (conejo pintado, or “painted rabbit”) and the Venezuela-Guyana-Trinidad axis (lapa-labba-lappe, all variations on the French lapin, meaning “rabbit”). Civilizing foreign ingredients through language.

For those familiar with the campo cuisine of Guatemala, we are of course talking about tepezcuintle here. It’s not bad: white meat, pleasantly gamy, though a little stringy.

tepezcuintle

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07
May
10

A Tex-Mix Manifesto

What exactly is Tex-Mix, besides a cute term I came up with for my own household cuisine?

Tex-Mix uses the Tex-Mex flavor base in preparations from other cuisines. Tex-Mix cuts bagna cauda with lime juice, eats hummus with jalapeños and tortilla chips, and adds canned tomatoes with chiles to French lentil ragouts. Tex-Mix puts comino in its candied sweet potatoes. Tex-Mix thinks Moosewood’s bulgur-based vegetarian chili is clever. Tex-Mix was spiking its brownies with cayenne long before Mexican chocolate was cool. Tex-Mix takes garlic for granted.

Tex-Mix plugs elements of other cuisines into the forms that define Tex-Mex. Tex-Mix swoons over Lebanese quesadillas and amardeen margaritas. Tex-Mix wonders about tamales filled with smoked duck and cherry demiglace. Tex-Mix even enjoys a broccoli and tofu burrito with Thai peanut sauce—sometimes.

But bland grilled veggie wraps are right out. And Tex-Mix would never dream of emptying that undercooked zucchini into a bowl with some hard black beans and a dollop of fat-free sour cream and calling the result Mexican. Whether its food is good for its health is not Tex-Mix’s main concern. Tex-Mix gets enough exercise. If Tex-Mix leaves out the lard, it’s probably because duck fat seemed tastier in that recipe.

Tex-Mix doesn’t care if duck fat isn’t authentic. In fact, Tex-Mix doesn’t care if it is. (The Mexica had Muscovy ducks, after all). Tex-Mix loves pickled jalapeños, flour tortillas, and pinto beans. It took Guatemala to teach Tex-Mix the joys of fully cooked black beans. It’s not self-conscious atavism but the need for a bitter note that puts cocoa powder into Tex-Mix’s Texas Red. That chili makes a great Frito pie, by the way. It’s also terrific over vermicelli—that’s not Cincinatti, that’s la abuelita’s home cooking. What’s more, esta abuela puts peanut butter in her mole, and has never touched a metate. But her cooking is absolutely authentic.

Tex-Mix loves and respects its grandmother, but it didn’t learn all its recipes from her. Did you? There’s no getting around it: Tex-Mix is mixed. (Before that was cool, too.) Tex-Mix owns it. Tex-Mix understands that innovation and eating what you like are as important to cuisine as tradition and eating what you know. Tex-Mix is not humble. Tex-Mix avers that it improves on its grandmother. Tex-Mix has a broad palate, and Tex-Mix knows how to cook.