Cuisine Focus: Mexican

Caterer speaks to regional chefs about Mexican cuisine's challenges and popularity
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Cantina Kahlo.
Cantina Kahlo.

How popular is Mexican cuisine in the region?

Alexi Mostert, head chef, Muchachas Mexican Cantina: Latin American cuisine has definitely seen some positive pick-up in the region over the last 12 months thanks to the opening of many Latin American restaurants. I am positive that Dubai is a greenhouse for Mexican cuisine seeing how quickly Latin American cuisine caught on.

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Juan Flores, executive chef, Loca: Very popular. We have seen a dramatic rise in Mexican restaurants since our opening eight years ago. Unlike other cuisines, people are very familiar with many Mexican dishes or variations of the cuisine; our job at Loca is to introduce people to a traditional, more authentic style.

Carlos Duran, head chef, Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen & Lounge: Mexican food is extremely popular around the globe and the Middle East is no exception. The demand for authentic Mexican food is growing and that is clear with more Mexican restaurants bursting onto the scene in the UAE.

Marc Abed, executive chef, Dusk: I believe that the popularity of Mexican cuisine is still growing. For the time being, there aren’t that many specialised restaurants in the market. However, it’s improving day by day.

Cesar de Leon Torres, chef de cuisine, Cantina Kahlo: I think that here in the GCC it is widely accepted and many guests already understand that Mexican cuisine is not only nachos and burritos. At Cantina Kahlo, our dishes combine the best of simple ingredients with a traditional style of cooking. The authenticity of our food highlights true Mexican culture, and together with our great team of Mexicans — from chefs to service professionals — we create unforgettable experiences for our guests.

Lee Sugiandi, head chef, Tortuga: We have such a diverse population in this region from international guests to expatriates, and traditional Mexican cuisine is extremely popular. More and more Mexican restaurants are opening due to the demand of the community.

Have you noticed any trends in Mexican cuisine?

Mostert: Mexican ingredients are exotic, which is what makes it so unique. If anything, Mexican restaurants are adopting simpler cooking methods to allow the natural flavour of the ingredients to shine through to their customers to allow for an authentic experience.

Flores: There has been a move away from Tex-Mex, and towards more authentic Mexican cuisine. People are more open to different ingredients and techniques, which gives us the chance to really showcase the more traditional Mexican dishes to a wider audience.

Duran: Back in my hometown in Mexico, restaurants are sourcing their produce from smaller farmers and focusing on seasonal produce, as well as more traditional ingredients. Our food is all about the ingredients, creating dishes that are full of flavour, passion and culture.

Abed: People have started taking an interest in trying something unique. What we have seen is that people enjoy the food as Mexican cuisine is very family-oriented and good to share.

Torres: The current trend that restaurants are trying to create is an authentic Mexican experience. At Cantina Kahlo we believe in evolution, but we also believe in the basic elements of high quality, using traditional techniques and ingredients, fresh produce and new cooking styles, along with the original processes in the creation of a plate. The key is fresh ingredients, from the farm to the table.

Sugiandi: At Tortuga, we try not to follow trends as we want to be an authentic restaurant that offers flavourful dishes that our guests love. We celebrate the vibrant flavours of Mexico, delivering homely and authentic recipes that have been passed down through generations.

What are some challenges you face with Mexican cuisine?

Mostert: One of the biggest challenges is moving away from peoples’ perception of Mexican cuisine which is food slapped with cheese, garnish and sour cream. It is so important to educate customers on what authentic Mexican cuisine is.

Flores: One of the biggest challenges is to alter peoples’ preconceptions. For so long Tex-Mex has been the only representative of Mexican food, and to change peoples’ minds, that the food can be fresh and light with so many variations on flavour can be tough.

Duran: Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen and Lounge was one of the first modern Mexican restaurants in the region and has challenged the perception of Mexican cuisine. With more Latin American restaurants opening in the region, the popularity is growing but the quality is not always there.

Abed: The main challenge that we face is that people don't know much about Mexican cuisine and they are afraid to try new things. We always strive for that ‘wow’ effect and we concentrate on the presentation of the dishes to impress people.

Torres: The first challenge was to be able to set up a team with 70% of Mexicans. They bring along traditions, culture, flavour and history. With everyone’s help, the journey of our guests to Mexico became easier to understand in the real sense of the Mexican culinary heritage. The biggest challenge is to have authentic ingredients, product consistency and quality due to the distance from our country.

Sugiandi: I would say the biggest challenge is educating our guests on the difference between traditional Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex. Quite a few Mexican chefs believe that our cuisine has lost its identity due to the overlap of certain dishes served in Mexican restaurants; for example, a burrito is not a traditional Mexican dish.

Is it easy to source the ingredients that you need?

Mostert: Unfortunately not. Delivering authentic Mexican cuisine lies very much in its ingredients, hence, sourcing them directly from Mexico is very important. We are able to get most of our key ingredients from Mexico.

Flores: Not at all, we constantly switch suppliers due to quality issues, and find that prices fluctuate greatly depending on the availability of the goods. Luckily, we have a handful of good quality suppliers who assist us in sourcing the items we require.

Duran: Sourcing traditional Mexican produce is quite difficult in this region as the produce isn’t always available so we have to work with what we’ve got. Quite a few of our ingredients are imported from Mexico to make the dining experience as authentic as possible but as the popularity of Mexican cuisine is continuing to grow, local ingredients are becoming more accessible. It would be incredible to have the wide variety of colours, smells and flavours that we have in Mexico.

Abed: Nowadays almost everything can be found in the UAE.

Torres: The suppliers are limited but they are improving. We work with local fresh products when they are in season. Most of our items are imported from Mexico like avocados, corn flour, chillis (habanero, poblano) and dried chillis (guajillo) also cheeses such as Oaxaca cheese and Chihuahua cheese. This year we brought seeds and we are working with a local farm so that next season we could harvest chillis, tomatillos, epazote among other fresh Mexican crops.

Sugiandi: The accessibility of ingredients has become much easier. Back in 2013 when Tortuga opened its doors, there were only a handful of Mexican restaurants in the region, so produce was quite difficult to get hold of. We try our best to source high quality Mexican produce to create an authentic dining experience for our guests. 

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