Patricia Quintana, the big enchilada

IT'S a huge menu,'' Patricia Quintana apologised, shaking her elegantly coiffured head and going over the list of appetisers, soups, entrees and desserts with hard-to-pronounce names.

Over the next 12 days, the doyenne of Mexican cooking is guiding the cooks and chefs of the Mandarin on a culinary tour of Mexico. This one lacks combination plates, micro-waved piles of re-fried beans smothered in cheddar cheese and long-necked beer bottles choked with limes.

The specials created for the daily luncheon buffet and the a la carte menu touch on the diversity of Mexico's 32 regions. They include the classics as well as Quintana's updated versions of century-old recipes.

As she ticked off the dishes - chilapitas (corn tartlettes with chicken), mole poblano (chicken simmered in a bewitching sauce, that contains chillies and chocolate), caldo largo de Alvarado (an incendiary seafood soup similar to Thailand's tom yumgai) cuitacoche (a canonised mushroom) and trucha asada a la Mazahua (grilled trout with beer salsa), at least, seven pairs of eyes begged for a coffee-break.

The hint of seriousness in her voice was vetoed by the wide-screen smile. When you're the big enchilada of Mexican food scene and you're hired for no small pittance to bring the taste of Mexico to Hong Kong, no menu could be big enough.

The chef, teacher and a 47-year-old mother of two sons earned her reputation in Mexico, then the United States, not by manning a molcajete (a spice grinding bowl of volcanic stone) or saying rosaries for fame.


Tracing the roots of one of the world's most complex (and misunderstood) cuisines has been a 25-year odyssey. A cooking school and seven books have evolved from the mission.

A conversation on sweet tamales or hangover remedies, such as menudo (tripe soup) or squash blossoms (an ingredient in salad, soup and crepes) takes on the flavour of a spirited humanities course. Every dish comes with a people story or one of Quintana'stravel adventures.

It is impossible to divorce Mexico's kitchen from the multi-faceted culture where ritual, religion, ancestral habits and ethnic groups leave finger prints on the kitchen table.

With its 32 regions, Mexico is a country of over 32 cuisines and millions of proud home-cooks who do it their way.


On a recent afternoon Quintana held court in the chefs' dining room of the Mandarin. Her students, chefs and restaurant captains, were learning about hot stuff. Each was given an 18-page briefing on chillies and herbs.

She went over the pronunciation in Spanish and their culinary characteristics. Bowls of fresh and dried chillies, herbs and leaves were passed, so were warnings about keeping hands away from the eyes.


A question about mole (a savoury sauce of 20 ingredients) turned Quintana into a story-teller, repeating the story about the convent and nuns credited with the original recipe. The chocolate-based sauce accompanies poultry, usually turkey or chicken. The version from Puebla is sweeter than the one from Tlaxcala, which are hotter and smoother. Mexicans call coriander cilantro. Cooks can preserve the avocado-based guacamole from discolouring by adding a slice or two of raw zucchini.

When she asked for questions, the room was silent. ''It's a bit to digest,'' said one chef. ''But we'll get it.'' When asked to select three dishes that would introduce Mexican food to the unfamiliar, she didn't hesitate. ''The classics,'' she said, rattling off names such as mole poblano, tortilla soup, red snapper Veracruz, and Tikin-xic pescado.

''And for appetisers.'' The litany continued with shrimp-filled empanadas and ancho chillies stuffed with fresh crabmeat.


When asked about desserts, she dived headlong into the poaching process for one - pumpkin in brown sugar syrup served with vanilla ice cream.

One chef asked what do Mexicans drink with their food. ''Beer,'' she added. ''Corona is perfectly acceptable. I cook with it.

''Well, you can also drink water.


''And hibiscus water. But you have to ask special for that.'' The promotion runs to September 18. A Mexican luncheon buffet is offered daily, except Sunday, in the Clipper Lounge. Price is $200. An a la carte menu will be served daily in the Mandarin Grill.