Grilled corn with chipotle butter.
As the popularity of Mexican cuisine rages, here's a list of essentials to turn up the heat plus some recipes to put them to good use.
The day Mary Aguilera became a mother, she also became a business owner. "The first container of ingredients arrived from Mexico the day I gave birth to my first son eight years ago," she says. With Aguilera busy in the maternity ward, husband and business partner Raymond Said took delivery of the cargo.
The couple were inspired to start their import and wholesale business, Fireworks Foods, when Aguilera arrived in Australia from Mexico City 13 years ago. "I couldn't find the ingredients I needed to cook with, back then there was only very generic supermarket-brand Mexican ingredients available," she says.
The couple formerly worked in IT and telecommunications, until Aguilera was offered a redundancy that gave her the impetus to begin importing. Said continued to work as a consultant as they built the business, but now, eight years on, and with an explosion of interest in Mexican food, the two are occupied full time.
Mary Aguilera's 10 essentials for a Mexican pantry
Aguilera and Said supply tortillas to many restaurants. They produce three varieties - white made from wheat flour, yellow from corn flour and blue from blue corn flour. "We make them every day," Said says. "Tortillas are cut into triangles and fried to become corn chips, deep fried to make hard taco shells and used fresh for quesadillas." Aguilera predicts huarache will be the next Mexican dish to take off. "They are hugely popular in southern California right now," Said says. "A huarache is a big tortilla shaped like the sole of a shoe," Aguilera says. "We use a long, rather than round, tortilla press to make them, then fill it with meat and serve with salad and salsas on the side."
2 TORTILLA PRESS AND FLOURS
In addition to making and selling tortillas, the pair also sells tortilla and huarache presses and flours for making them, including yellow and blue corn. The type of tortilla used for a particular dish depends on the region in which it was created. "Mexican food is very regional," Said says. "You cross from one region to another and you may as well be in a different country. Tortillas can change from corn to wheat and spicing from very hot to mild."
Beans are also regional. Pinto are the favoured bean in Mexico City, Aguilera's home town. Red kidney are more popular in central America and black beans in the countryside. The couple sells all three varieties in dried and canned forms. "I always soak my beans overnight," Aguilera says. "I cook a kilo at a time, covered by just two fingers of water, with onion and garlic.
"They are ready when you press them between your fingers and the belly is soft, that is when you add salt, not before."
Guajillo, morita, pasilla, ancho, de arbol, Jamaican, cascabel, chipotle (dried jalapeno), habanero and piquin are the essential chillies of Mexican cuisine and the couple sell them dried. "Chillies are always hotter at the neck, and less hot at the tip," Said says. There are also tins of jalapeno and Peruvian panca and rocoto on the shelves. "Each region has their favourite," Aguilera says. "And each dish calls for a different chilli depending on where it originated."
5 ANNATTO POWDER
Seeds of the achiote tree are crushed to make a powder that is mixed with orange juice and vinegar and used to marinate chicken to make pollo pibil, Yucatan-style chicken cooked on the grill. "This is great for barbecues," Aguilera says.
"These are one of my favourite ingredients," Aguilera says. Cactus nopalitos are slices of prickly pear cactus in brine. "I fry them in olive oil with garlic and a de arbol chilli and add them to tacos," she says. Cactus are also a popular base for salsa or salads.
Native to Mexico, these green cousins of the tomato are widely used in Mexican cooking. "On the vine they grow in a husk, like a gooseberry," Said says. Aguilera uses them to make a green salsa with coriander, purple onion and jalapenos. "I also add avocado from time to time," she says.
Considered Mexico's national dish, there are more than 200 types of mole used for cooking chicken and meat says Aguilera, who explains mole is a cooking salsa. "Some are termed 'red' made from dark chocolate with peanuts and chilli, others are green made from pumpkin seeds and tomatillos. You add chicken or meat to the sauce on the stove top," she says. Aguilera recommends the Dona Chonita brand of ready-made mole, which comes in a Tetra Pak.
9 HOT SAUCE
"Some are so hot that the manufacturers, and then restaurant owners, make you sign a disclaimer before you eat them," Said says. Among them is The Source Hot Sauce, rated 7.1 million units on the Scoville scale (used to indicate the number of heat units and the amount of capsaicin in a chilli). "The hottest sauce at Nando's [restaurant chain] would be around 7000 to 8000 on the same scale," Aguilera says. Said says two of the most popular sauces, among "chilli heads" (chilli enthusiasts), are the Mad Dog 357 and the Sudden Death, made from red habaneros and cayenne chillies.
A 100 per cent blue agave tequila is a must, Said says. "It is the top-shelf tequila." The couple now imports nearly 40 types of tequila, many from small artisan producers. "They are hugely popular with bar owners," Said says. "And essential with Mexican food," Aguilera says.