Mi Cocina: Rick Martinez’s ‘love letter’ to regional Mexican dishes

The cook, author and presenter traveled more than 32,000 kilometers and visited the 32 states of Mexico in search of the flavors he loves for his first book.

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Our cookbook of the week is Mi Cocina: Recipes and Ecstasy from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martinez. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Aguachile (fresh butterfly shrimp with avocado, cucumber, lime and a spicy serrano sauce), poc chuc (grilled pork marinated in orange and lime), and chicken al pastor (chopped-sweet chipotle roasted chicken with onion and pineapple).

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In October 2019, Rick Martinez embarked on a life-changing journey. After landing in Mexico City and buying a car, the author, chef and host traveled more than 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers). He visited 156 cities and toured the 32 states of Mexico, letting his eyes and his nose guide his food choices.

Martínez channeled his memories of extraordinary meals and experiences into his debut book, my kitchen (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2022). Starting in the center of the country, he presents 100 of his favorite dishes from his travels through the seven culinary regions of Mexico.

Iconic entrees like aguachile (fresh butterfly-shaped shrimp with avocado, cucumber, lime, and a spicy serrano sauce), Sinaloa’s unofficial state dish, and Yucatecan poc chuc (orange-marinated grilled pork and lime) make up most of the recipes

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Along the way, Martinez talked to the people who cooked the food and took lots of notes. He sampled multiple versions of each dish to establish a broader reference point for developing his own interpretations of it for the book.

“Everyone does food differently. The same dish can have hundreds, if not thousands of iterations depending on the person, the location, the weather, all of those things, ”says Martínez from his home in Mazatlán.

“I needed to understand what the common points are between each of the versions I am testing. And I tried to make it a little bit scientific, but it’s obviously not scientific by any stretch of the imagination, because I could only eat so much while traveling,” he adds, laughing.

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My Kitchen by Rick Martinez
Mazatlan author Rick Martinez traveled more than 20,000 miles and visited all 32 states in Mexico researching his first book, My Kitchen. Photo by Clarkson Potter

Some cooks mistrusted him, recalls Martínez. They had met authors in the past, who had recorded how they made certain dishes and published their recipes.

As a recipe developer, recipes are your currency and intellectual property, says Martinez. When he does something new based on his experiences with chefs, cooks, and stall vendors, he considers it a tribute to them.

He pays one such tribute to Doña Lupe, a restaurateur who makes “incredible” mining enchiladas (tortillas dipped in sauce, with or without chicken) at her eight-seat spot in Guanajuato.

When Martinez arrived, he felt like he was walking into his grandmother’s house. “If she had squeezed my cheeks and given me a hug, it would have seemed completely normal to me,” he says.

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Lupe showed Martinez how she makes her enchiladas. Later, in Mazatlán, she created a dish that she wanted to eat and that home cooks could replicate: tortillas dipped in guajillo sauce with grilled chicken and queso fresco.

Although the dish is different from how she prepared it, Martínez says, she thinks she would appreciate it.

“It’s my love letter to the person who cooked the food. They made that food with love. With her personal flavor. With what they like to eat. With what they could easily access in their community. And I did the same,” says Martínez.

my kitchen captures Martinez’s journey in more ways than one. During America’s racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, he began to reconsider the commitments he had made during his career. He would no longer use words like “authentic”, “genuine” and “cookable” to describe his Mexican recipes.

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White authors often present their opinions on recipes that have been around for decades, even centuries, Martínez stresses. But their versions are free of labels like “authentic,” “genuine,” and “cookable.” Why should Mexican recipes be rated that way?

“American publishers have done a great job, unfortunately, of creating this language around non-American food. And you’re supposed to look for titles that are ‘real,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘traditional,’ and that’s the gold standard,” he says.

“So when I get a good comment from a reader, it’s always like, ‘This is the most authentic.’ Or ‘If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food…’ And it’s like, well, no, actually. It is not authentic. It’s authentic to me, and that’s where it stops.”

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Once he felt free to write a book that was both true to Mexico and appealing to American home cooks, Martinez again found joy in the process.

After his trip, he planned to return to New York City, where he had lived for 20 years. Instead, she fell in love with Mazatlan and bought a house in the resort town of Sinaloa. my kitchen’s The working subtitle, “simple and modern Mexican,” became “recipes and ecstasy from my kitchen in Mexico.”

“When you are cooking this food, I want you to be happy. For me, the kitchen is such a happy place. And so this idea of ​​food and ecstasy and sharing and love, that’s part of what my kitchen it really is,” says Martinez.

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Although the framework changed from proposal to finished book, Martínez always intended to take a regional approach with my kitchen.

People in other parts of North America love Mexican food, he says, but many cooks know only five dishes: tacos, enchiladas, nachos, burritos and quesadillas. As a result, recipe developers create different versions of those few dishes to satisfy people’s desire to try something new.

He sees similarities in the way Italian cuisine was perceived 40 years ago in the United States: red sauce, pasta and pizza. When cookbook authors started writing books about regional cuisines, such as Ligurian, Sicilian and Venetian, people’s awareness increased.

“Now, when you say Italian food, almost the first question that is asked is: ‘Well, what region are we talking about?’ And that’s what I wanted to do with Mexican food,” says Martínez.

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“I wanted to open this conversation about regionality. It’s a very big country. It is very diverse in terms of population, of indigenous people, of immigrants, of culture, of climates and geographies, and what grows in those areas. And the food reflects all of those things.”

Tacos al pastor and tacos arabes exist thanks to the Iraqis and Lebanese who landed in Veracruz in the 1930s, he points out. Mexicans adopted the trompo (rotating spit) that immigrants used to cook shawarma and swapped lamb for pork, their preferred protein.

Queso Mennonita, a renowned soft melting cheese in the state of Chihuahua, came from Canada with the Mennonites who settled in Mexico in the 1920s.

Writing a regional Mexican cookbook was one way Martinez highlighted the ways that indigenous peoples (eg, Mayans, Aztecs, Zapotecs) and immigrants have influenced cuisines across the country. As a result, he hopes readers will see Mexican cuisine differently and be inspired to cook regional dishes in their kitchens. But he also wants people to try them out on the spot, like he did on his road trip.

“Even here in Mazatlan, where I can get really, really good fresh ingredients, I still can’t do the Oaxacan mole justice,” he says. “But you can buy a ticket to Mexico very easily and cheaply and go experience this place and that food on the spot. And that’s what I want you to do. I want you to use the book to open up different regions and explore those regions.”

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