Is it an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?
- Octavio Paz, poet and former Mexican ambassador to India,
conjecturing on the similarities between the Mexican mole (sauce) and the Indian curry,
quoted from his book In Light of India
THE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE CUISINE OF INDIA AND MEXICO, struck Octavio Paz straightaway. To us, surfing the world from our armchairs in India, we can think of Mexico as something distant and exotic. The home of the Aztecs and Frida Kahlo. We probably have a Mexican artefact or two in our own homes. If we were hosting a Mexican visitor, we probably wouldn't forget to bring them round to our sparkling liquor cabinet and point out the clear towers of Mexican tequila standing on the ready without the mythical worms. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room, the most obvious historic and living connections, will have been overlooked.
Take chillies. The sharp pungency we cannot do without today, was up until the 16th Century (or earlier), provided solely by peppercorn and sometimes long pepper (pippali) in the Indian diet. The majority of Indians did without pepper; like salt, it was a luxury. Pepper has always been highly selective about where it grows. On the other hand, the chillies brought over by the Portugese from Mexico in the 16th Century had few hang-ups about soil and climate. All they needed was a patch of earth and the occasional watering. Before long, chillies quickly found their way into the ordinary Indian's backyard and meals. Writing in the 16th Century, the Carnatic music composer, Puranadasa praises the chilli:
I saw you green, then turning redder as your ripened ... saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food, fiery when bitten ...
The Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who first arrived in Delhi in 1952, was struck by the similarities between Indian curries and the traditional Mexican dish known as mole, prepared with ground spices and cooked to the consistency of a broth. The common ground between formal Indian and Mexican cuisine certainly has a lot to do with the Spanish/Portugese connection. They were the carriers of the chilli to India, and in Mexico, they would spread their own Iberian-influenced culinary approach with fervour – introducing rice, wheat, a host of cattle, and spices from the Old World. For India, the Mexican bounty didn’t stop at chillies, there was capsicum, tomato, potato, maize, tapioca and sapota (chikoo) that came and settled down comfortably on Indian soils and in Indian meals.
So the next time you have a Mexican visitor over, maybe you should take them round to the kitchen instead. As for a definitive introduction to classics of Mexican cuisine, I’d encourage you to head to The Celebrity Chef Series at West View, ITC Maurya’s New Delhi. Sit back and prepare for the exciting colours and tastes of Mexico’s sizzling grills, smoking hot chimichangas, fajitas and tortillas at the hands of Master Chef Eduardo Perez, Head Chef of the International School of Chefs, Mexico.
It’s only on till the 24th of March, so I’d say - don’t miss it.