Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bringing Heat to the North

(Posted in The Canadian Newcomer magazine)
By Sergio Granillo

Every culture can be identified by their cooking, some have been so powerful that transcend time and geographical barriers, becoming a sort of universal heritage. Among the newest tastes added to the world menus are burritos, nachos and tortillas; born in the aboriginal Mexican kitchens more than 500 hundreds years ago.

Canada has probably the most complete international cuisine, due to the presence of immigrants from all around the world.

The most popular ‘flavors’ in Toronto are Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Thai and Portuguese. Huge difference with the United States, here you can find truly original ethnical cuisine, not only fast food. Hundreds of small restaurants are located in the numerous neighborhoods of Toronto, offering the real taste of their cuisines.

No more than 20 years ago, the Spanish word ‘burrito’ (meaning literally ‘little donkey’), meant nothing in North America, now is part of their meals; and more recently incorporated to the Canadian daily vocabulary.

The story of the adoption of these new meals in the international scene is linked to the growing presence of Mexicans in the United States. When moving to another country, one of the strongest things that you miss from home is the food. For Mexican immigrants, American food was mostly hamburgers and hot dogs, with a dull taste for people used to a wide variety of dishes and the addition of very spicy hot chili peppers.

In poor neighborhoods, Mexicans begun cooking their own meals, with the ingredients required to prepare them brought by themselves in their journeys. Tortillas, made out of corn, need a type of corn very different in taste to the American corn –more yellow and sweeter-.

Burritos started to be cooked in 1840’s in small towns in Mexico, as the main food of mine workers. In the first decades of the 1900’s, some restaurants in San Francisco, California (US), started to offer this ‘new’ wrapped tortilla with rice, beans and meat (later added sour cream and guacamole). Nowadays, even astronauts of NASA eat them in space, for being easy to manipulate.

Mexican population grew in America, becoming an important market for several industries; some fast food franchises copied the easy to grab- meal, and offered it first to Mexican consumers, later to anyone. Big fast food franchises started to include burritos and tacos in their menus. It was the beginning of the adoption of Mexican snacks in the list of favorites meals in North America. Ironically, Mexicans have never liked that taste, ‘so American, not the real thing’.

Based on an ancient recipe, the base of these meals is the ‘tortilla’, which literally means ‘small torta (cake). It is a flat round unleavened bread, made from corn or wheat flour; very similar to French crepes or Greek gyros. The ‘taco’ is a wrap made with tortilla filled with meat, pork or chicken, adding sometimes chopped onion, cilantro, hot sauce and lime.

Every traditional neighborhood in Mexico has at least one ‘tortilleria’, a place where tortillas are made. Street eateries in small mobile stands, known as ‘puestos de tacos’, is a big tradition in Mexico, part of the urban landscape. People gather around them in lunch time or at night, standing up, to eat tacos. After night parties or late movies, youngsters know where to find a ‘taqueria’ that opens late.

‘Nachos’ are another contribution to North American menus from the Mexican cookbook. Nachos are chips maid out of fried tortillas, can be eaten plain or served with cheese and spicy sauce. Many movie theatres in North America, included Canada, offer nachos in their snack bars. It is interesting to see on TV, commercials that announce nachos; they say that some of them are prepared with a very Mexican hot pepper, which actually is not pronounced ‘jalapeno’, but ‘jalapeƱo’ –it is said in the add-.

It is good to be able to taste such a variety of traditional meals from around the globe in the different neighbors of Toronto, and in many restaurants in Canada.

Little by little, some grocery stores are starting to sell some of the basic Mexican products, among the most popular: nachos chips, flour tortillas, fried beans, guacamole (avocado sauce) and hot sauces.

Not pretending to compete, just a peculiar thing that happened… In the famous Greek street festival of Toronto, ‘Taste of the Danforth’, there was banner saying ‘Gyros - the ‘Greek burrito’.


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