Jude's culinary journey

Japanese in Mexico

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 11/24/21

Years ago, my sister, Janet, and I traveled to New Mexico. We fell in love with that part of the country—the colors, the Native people, the history, the handicrafts, the mountains and striking …

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Jude's culinary journey

Japanese in Mexico

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Years ago, my sister, Janet, and I traveled to New Mexico. We fell in love with that part of the country—the colors, the Native people, the history, the handicrafts, the mountains and striking sunsets. But in general, the food did not bowl us over. It was repetitive and rarely innovative. Often it was gloppy, swimming in soupy or mushy black or pinto beans covered in chili sauce. How many burritos and quesadillas can one consume, particularly when the tortillas have gone soggy? We did find a few gems, but it was the first time I’d traveled to an ethnic environment where I felt I wanted a change midway through our stay. We had Italian food one evening and French another.

Janet and I have now been to Oaxaca, Mexico, seven times, each visit longer than the previous. In stark contrast to New Mexico, I have never tired of the food in Oaxaca. It is distinct and there is so much variety. Thanks to its cultural diversity (16 indigenous groups live in the state, each with its own language and traditions), Oaxaca supports one of the richest pre-Hispanic culinary traditions in Mexico.

Within a radius of a dozen blocks in any direction from our hotel, and in two or three walkable neighboring barrios, we can find traditional Oaxacan fare and public markets, both indoors and out, selling inexpensive home-cooked foods such as grilled meats or chicken, tamales and tortillas. There are street-food vendors offering tacos and tlayudas, which are enormous crusty tortillas spread with asiento—pig’s lard, black bean paste, crumbled fresh cheese, sliced avocados, shredded lettuce or cabbage and tomatoes—which is toasted on a grill. There is Oaxacan fusion and Continental dining and restaurants specializing in seafood.

Restaurants abound and nearly all are open to the sky. Sometimes little birds or pigeons alight at our feet while we’re sipping our pre-meal margaritas—a tradition we’ve enjoyed for years. Over time we have found certain restaurants that we return to again and again.

Each offers a different experience. The atmosphere at Casa Oaxaca Café is beautiful and lush with plants. One can watch an enormous spit turning round, roast suckling pig, ducks, and steaks affixed to it, spinning slowly over the embers until burnished and cooked to perfection. A member of the wait staff prepares fresh salsa tableside to our specifications, including such ingredients as tomatillos, tomatoes, cilantro, chili peppers, sesame seeds, salt, pepper, garlic, and minced raw onion. Soon each guest receives a plate of hot memolitos: small, open-faced corn tortillas smeared with asiento, topped with crumbled queso fresco (cheese) and drizzled with crema—the perfect canvas for sampling the salsa.

Many local restaurants offer comida corrida, or menu del día, which is a set lunch of three or four reasonably priced tiempos or “courses.” A more polished version of traditional Oaxacan cuisine can be found at La Olla Café. Its daily menu del día far surpasses many of the others in its inventiveness, decorative and careful plating, and number of courses. The same can be said for the tiny, unassuming Casa Taviche. Besides the menu del día, it has a small menu of delectable entrees such as seared tuna encrusted with chia seeds in an avocado sauce; a whole portobello mushroom in a complex black mole; and grilled octopus on red rice with an assortment of charred vegetables.

The dining area at Gobozi is on its rooftop overlooking the city. We ate there enough times that the wait staff automatically brought over a bucket of ice, knowing we like our drinks cold, and made a knowing flip-flop motion with their hand (to indicate a quick sear) when we ordered arrachera (skirt steak), which we prefer so rare it’s practically mooing. Another choice was an excellent chicken and grilled pineapple salad, served alongside dressed greens, halved cherry tomatoes, and slivers of red bell pepper all topped with shredded coconut.

And on and on it goes. We looked forward to every meal, but once in a while I concocted something in the kitchen of our studio in the hotel, saving us a bit of money and allowing me to explore the unusual and exotic produce of Oaxaca as well as the fresh meat and chicken, cut to order. So you can imagine our faces when a friend mentioned the excellent Japanese food at Kintaro, a restaurant. Japanese in Mexico? The owner is Oaxacan, as is the staff, but we were assured that the training has been extensive and the food is totally authentic.

Now, Japanese food is my favorite of all ethnic cuisines. We knew we would have to try Kintaro, and soon. It had formerly been a ramen noodle place, but this was the real deal. We walked into a gorgeously designed, very Japanese space, and took a place at one of the modern wooden tables made of smooth, polished wood. Spaced on the ground of the restaurant were stone or heavy ceramic bowls filled with water, on top of which floated flowers. The room was serene in a way Mexican restaurants cannot summon.

Soon, a beautiful young Japanese Mexican woman approached the table with a broad smile. She was the sake sommelier—someone I had never encountered in a Japanese restaurant at home. To our disappointment, she was fluent in Spanish but did not speak English. She placed three or four bottles of sake on the table along with tiny ceramic and glass sake-sampling cups. She began explaining which sake would go with certain foods we ordered, and luckily I understood much of what she was saying because I’m familiar with Japanese food. We sipped each sake and noted hints of herbs and flowers, and she commented: “Un poco dulce,” (a little sweet), or “Mucho suave,” (very dry).

We were brought menus and looked at them excitedly as we watched stunning dishes being brought to other tables around the room. I craned my neck so far I almost fell from my chair. Everything looked perfect, which is the Japanese way.

We wanted an assortment and ordered with that in mind. Most dishes were served on small plates, thus perfect for sharing. Pan-fried pork and cabbage gyoza dumplings; a seaweed salad consisting of a mound of slightly briny, slippery varieties of seaweed served on greens dotted with edamame (fresh, bright green soybeans); ramen noodle salads both cold and hot with deeply marinated pork or beef slivers and vegetables; an appetizer of thinly sliced ribeye rolled around little lengths of asparagus in a thick, rich, soy-based sauce; chicken teriyaki skewers standing upright, their sharp tips stuck into a raw slab of crunchy jicama. And there were raw fish and sushi rice rolls with cucumber, avocado, seaweed, and either salmon or tuna. I sipped cold sake, which had been carefully poured into a short glass nestled in a smooth wooden box. The sake was poured so that it slightly overflowed the glass, a tradition.

We returned to Kintaro often after that first visit. It had gotten quite hot by late March, and the light Japanese fare was a perfect antidote to the heat out in the streets. We returned, as well, to all our favorite Oaxacan eateries and enjoyed them as much as always. But I have to say I look forward to our return to Oaxaca this year and the opportunity to eat the only other ethnic food I would consider eating in Mexico.

Cucumber salad Japanese-style (Sunomono)

Serves 4

This is a beautiful and flavorful side salad to any Japanese meal.

  • 1 hothouse English cucumber or 3-4 Persian cucumbers
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ½ cup shredded carrot
  • 3 teaspoons toasted black or white sesame seeds

Slice off some strips of the cucumber skin with a vegetable peeler, leaving some dark sections intact. Slice the cucumbers into thin rounds and place them on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and toss the cucumbers. Set aside for 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Place the cucumbers on sheets of paper toweling and press with another sheet on top to soak up as much liquid as possible.

Transfer the cucumbers to a large, shallow bowl and pour the dressing over them. Refrigerate for about an hour before serving.

When ready to serve, garnish with the carrot, and sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over the top. Serve the day it is made.

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