Skip to main content

Dave Chidley for The Globe and Mail

Mass-produced Tex-Mex may be a staple of food courts across the country, but mistaking burritos and chimichangas for Mexican cuisine is akin to assuming McDonald's French fries are the sum total of France's culinary contribution.

Only a decade ago, a good Mexican meal was next to impossible to find in Canada. Happily, our options are improving, partly thanks to a change in demographics. From 1991 to 2006, Mexican immigration to Canada almost tripled. In 2008, about 8,648 documented compadres Norteamericanos worked in fields in Ontario and Manitoba alone, according the Mexican Consulate. Perhaps most significantly, Mexico is a major travel destination for Canadians because travel drives interest in authentic dishes. In 2007, Mexico was the third-most popular destination after the United States and Britain.

As with most national cooking traditions, there isn't just one Mexican cuisine but many regional ones. Recognizing the regional differences of a foreign culinary tradition is the first step to gaining a deeper appreciation of it, as has happened with Italian and Chinese cooking in the past two decades. So when regional dishes from Mexico's deep south - such as the earthy moles and tamales from Oaxaca - begin cropping up in cooking classes and on restaurant menus, it's a clear sign Canadians are taking Mexican more seriously.

Oaxacan cuisine is to Mexican what Sichuan is to Chinese, and a favourite of many Canadian chefs, whether they are Mexican or not. It's spicy, it's complex and it's an art form when practised slowly according to ancient traditions that stretch back to pre-Columbian times.

Michael Howell, a chef in Wolfville, N.S., first fell in love with Oaxacan food when he was cooking at a five-star Alsatian restaurant in Chicago. "In the kitchen, it was 13 Mexicans - a bunch of them from Oaxaca - and me," he recalls. "We'd sit down for la comida at 4:30 p.m. before we began cooking foie gras for the guests."

Mr. Howell doesn't need to say which meal he preferred to eat: At his Wolfville restaurant, Tempest, he now teaches an Oaxacan cooking class to introduce locals to this more exotic version of Mexican.

Canada's professional cooking schools are also beginning to take note. Only a decade ago, most hospitality programs gave only a passing nod to cuisines that fell outside of the Continental hotel restaurant tradition - even southern Italian dishes were considered too "ethnic."

Although Stratford Chefs School still shoehorns Mexican cooking into a second year catch-all class on "ethnic cooking," the venerable school has invited Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera to be a guest chef this month. "We're always looking for chefs who will bring an aspect of culture, as well as technique," says Eleanor Kane, co-founder of the school.

Ms. Cabrera, who cooks from family recipes handed down over generations from her Zapotec ancestors, has been something of a culinary celebrity since Chicago's Rick Bayless, a winner on TV's Top Chef Masters, began touting her prowess in his television shows and books in the late 1990s.

"Outside of Mexico, people think Tex-Mex is Mexican food," Ms. Cabrera says by phone from her restaurant, La Olla, in Oaxaca, to explain why she now travels abroad to teach. She remembers her grandmother keeping a close eye on Oaxaca's restaurant menus, berating cooks who cut back on the chilies. "She used to say, 'If it's not spicy, it's not Oaxacan.' "

Like any serious chef, Ms. Cabrera travels with her own pantry: thick, dark mole paste, which is Oaxaca's answer to curry paste, involving dozens of ingredients including chilies and chocolate, nuts and seeds. She also brings grasshoppers (which would be next-to-impossible to find outside of pet shops during the Canadian winter) and a stash of chilies. Chocolate is another staple: Like any typical Oaxacan family, the Cabreras have their own recipe, spiced with cinnamon and made to order at the local market.

I still remember the meal I ate at La Olla more than a decade ago, and not just because it is the only time I have willingly eaten grasshoppers. (Dusted in chili and lime, they were surprisingly tasty.) When I came back to Canada I searched for dishes that would match Ms. Cabrera's wonderfully complex moles. Every Mexican soup I ordered was always measured against her sopa Azteca, a smoky, spicy concoction laced with lime and strips of fried tortilla and chili.

Much has changed since then. On a recent visit to Ontario, Ms. Cabrera was surprised by the breadth of Mexican ingredients available in Toronto's Kensington Market, from pasilla chilies to corn husks.

The salsas at Toronto's Frida Restaurant - which Jose Hadad crushes by hand - are as good as any you can find in Mexico City. Mexican flavours are no longer confined to mom-and-pop taco stands (though there are more of those, too). They are also cropping up on more mainstream dining menus. At Two Chefs and a Table in Vancouver's Gastown, guajillo chilies spice up a Caesar that uses mezcal (a Mexican liquor distilled from agave) for its base. In Toronto, midtown's Cava restaurant uses tangy tomatillos to brighten the briny flavours of oysters on the half-shell and pasilla peppers to deepen an earthy sauce for mushroom tamales.

Local suppliers are responding as well. Mr. Hadad buys his epazote (an herb that smells - deliciously - like kerosene) from a farmer outside of Toronto, and his cotija (crumbly Mexican cheese) from Mexican Mennonites in Quebec. Tomatillos grow surprisingly well in gardens across the country - chefs in British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia have reported local supplies.

"Rick Bayless can grow all these things in his gardens in Chicago," says Mary Luz Mejia, the Toronto-based Oaxacan aficionado and Food Network producer who arranged both of Ms. Cabrera's visits to Canada. "There's no reason we can't do it, too."

Special to The Globe and Mail