Mexican mole master in Hong Kong to showcase the complexity of cuisine
Chef out to prove there's more to Mexican than tacos and refried beans
Mexican chef Jose Lazcarro is weary of the overexposure of his nation's casual foods to the rest of the world.
"We are not just about tacos, quesadillas and guacamole," he says. "We have so much variety in our cuisine, so when I'm in Asia I try to show all those things rather than tacos."
To toast Mexico's 205th anniversary, the consulate has organised several events this month, including a gastronomic festival for which Lazcarro has been flown in to showcase a number of authentic national dishes. Expect lesser known favourites such as the deeply complex mole poblano. This dish is on the menu at Cafe Too at the Island Shangri-La until September 30.
This mole master - whose award-winning culinary background includes working for Alain Ducasse in Paris six years ago - is a native of Puebla, the birthplace of mole. The food's lineage remains hotly disputed, but many say it originated in the 17th century from a mixture of influences, including colonial era Spanish and the cooking of the Aztecs, who inhabited the land two centuries earlier. The sauce has countless styles, such as the green pipian variety (made with pumpkin seeds), but the most famous is mole poblano, the pride of Lazcarro's hometown.
However, moles are hard to find here, as most Mexican menus are dominated by easy-to-prepare fast-food favourites.
By contrast the thickly sauced mole poblano is labour intensive to create. Back home Lazcarro's family prepares a 52-ingredient version for special occasions. The extensive shopping list for this dish includes onions, garlic, fruits such as bananas, apples and pears, spices such as pepper, cumin, star anise and cloves plus many types of vegetables, including potatoes. Nuts and seeds are necessary too. Absolutely fundamental to the recipe are the chillies - dried anchos, mulato, pasilla and guajillo varieties and more.
"You need three or four people to make this mole; besides preparing the vegetables you also need someone to make the chicken stock," he says, adding that peeling the ingredients - especially the de-seeding of ferociously hot chillies - is no easy task.
Charred tortilla is another ingredient. "Burned tortilla gives the mole a deeper smell, flavour and colour, making it darker and smoky; this is why we toast many of the ingredients for this dish, such as chilli, tortillas, onions and tomatoes," says the chef.
The version served at Cafe Too is slightly easier to make since the recipe requires fewer than 52 items. But it is still takes six hours of preparation and three to four hours of cooking time. All the ingredients are mixed and fried in pork fat before blending into a paste-like texture, then cooked and stirred for a long time. "All the ingredients are different so cooking all those flavours helps combine them," he says.
The result is a dark, maroon-coloured sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds which is spooned around a chicken breast on a plate garnished with edible flowers. One bite and the complexity of the sauce begins to unravel: mildly sweet with multiple layers of spices, and a tempered heat from the blend of chillies.
Lazcarro says Mexican food is now taking its place on the world's culinary stage, with chefs such as Enrique Olvera, Mikel Alonso and Jorge Vallejo all earning listings in San Pellegrino's "The World's 50 Best Restaurants".
"In Mexico we were so interested in other cuisines - French, Spanish, Italian - that we forgot how good our own cooking is, even though I think Mexican food is the best in the world," says Lazcarro.
Having ventured to Asia to cook in recent years - he was in Seoul last year - the chef says Mexican fare in the region has much catching up to do.
In Hong Kong, however, he has noticed that diners are far more eager to try new things. "This is very good but it is still going to take maybe five years for Mexican food to get a good reception; at the moment people still only know about tacos and chimichangas and guacamoles, and that's not all there is to Mexican food at all."