Tour Guide and Author Lesley Tellez on What Everyone Gets Wrong About Mexican Food

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Lesley Tellez. [Photographs: Penny de los Santos]

"I realized that what I thought was Mexican food my whole life wasn't at all what people were eating in central Mexico. Here was this place right next to the US but it wasn't that well known among people who were excited about food."

Lesley Tellez moved to Mexico City in 2009 for her husband's job. A newspaperwoman by training and armed with a hearty appetite, it didn't take her long to dig deep into the city's distinct regional cuisine, documenting finds on her blog and for far-reaching press. She enrolled in the Escuela de Gastronomia Mexicana, an intensive cooking school focusing on the traditions and techniques of precise Mexican cooking, and launched an acclaimed food-tour company, Eat Mexico, devoted to introducing travelers to the best of Mexico City's street vendors, fondas (open-air restaurants), and markets.

Part historian and anthropologist, part curious cook and eater, Tellez has dedicated her work to pushing past the veiled mystique of Mexican food to tell the real stories of the people, dishes, and traditions that form the foundation of so much Mexican culture. Her new cookbook, Eat Mexico, is very much a portrait of her personal journey through Mexican cuisine, but it's also a comprehensive treatment of the beautiful everyday food of Mexico City.

The book's publication is well timed; Americans have never been more curious about and hungry for real Mexican cooking. But generations of prejudice and misinformation don't disappear overnight, and there's no shortage of myths and half-truths about Mexican food still out there. So I reached out to Tellez—who's written for Serious Eats in the past on what it takes to write a cookbook—to tackle some tall tales about Mexican food and the people who make it. Here's what she had to say.

There's No One Mexican Cuisine

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There's a lot more to Mexican food than tacos and carnitas. As a cuisine built by multiple ethnicities, regions, and microclimates, it's every bit as regionally distinct as, say, American food. Every state has its own specialties and traditions, Tellez points out, most of which are still unknown on this side of the border.

"When I first moved to Mexico City in 2009, I realized that what I'd thought was Mexican food my whole life, what people were eating in California, was not what people were eating in central Mexico. The difference blew me away.

"Some Chilangos [residents of Mexico City] might say Mexico City doesn't have a culinary identity since it's a mish-mash of the other cuisines you find in Mexico. You have so many immigrants who've moved there—you can find food from Baja, Guerrero, Jalisco, Oaxaca, and on and on. But I'd say Mexico City does have a regional identity built on the central Mexican states around the Districto Federal. It's built on corn, beans, chili, fresh herbs, epazote, and lots of squash and squash flowers. There's a heavy usage of tomatoes and tomatillos (which they call tomate and tomate verde), braised meats and chili sauce, barbacoa, and cactus—gosh, a really heavy emphasis on cactus."

So Don't Get Too Hung Up on 'Getting it Right'

"When I was learning Mexican food in culinary school, I was told there was one right way to do things, and anything else was wrong. When I teach, I'm more flexible. If something tastes better to you a certain way, then do that. It's still salsa if you don't add cilantro.

"People taste something and think there's a magic ingredient or technique or special layering of ingredients that they can't replicate. Sometimes they add too many things, like they say, 'Oh we have to add cumin in order for it to taste like a salsa.' That's not true. If you're using really fresh ingredients, you don't have to do a lot to make something taste good. People are often struck by how simple Mexican cooking can be.

"Mexican cuisine is really forgiving. I'm a perfectionist, so I would be there in cooking class saying, 'Oh I didn't add enough salt or onion or I put in too many cloves of garlic'...but it's okay. You add ingredients later or adjust the seasoning. It won't ruin the dish. When you're talking about things that are traditionally more complex, like a mole, well a mole is a blank canvas to add the ingredients you want. Every family has a way they make mole, and for them that's the way you make mole. You can construct it any way you want once you're familiar with the different types of dried chili. I had expected that for something to taste so good, you would need very precise measurements and ingredients, but that's not the case."

And It's Not All Supposed to Be Spicy

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"No! First off, not every chili is hot. A poblano can be hot, but it's typically very mild. A guajillo chili isn't very hot but adds deep, beautiful red colors to any sauce.

"Secondly, not every dish has chili in it. In Mexico City, a lot of people don't eat spicy food at all! I used to meet locals and would ask them about their favorite salsa, and they'd say no me gusta el picante—'I don't like spicy food.' There are so many dishes that aren't hot at all: salads, the entire canon of soups, so many seafood dishes, rabbit, barbacoa. None of them are spicy on their own, even if salsa's put on the table.

"Mexicans have this conception of gringos not liking spicy food, which is wrong. On my tours everyone wants spicy food, and some of them want the food to be spicier than it's supposed to be. They're surprised when a salsa doesn't burn their mouths off. But that's not the point—a salsa should complement meat and vegetables, not make you cry."

Eating in Mexico Isn't Risky Business

"When I lived in Mexico City, I didn't get sick eating street food. I got sick at some higher-end restaurants!

"People still hold on to this notion that Mexican food is bad for you, heavy or greasy or going to make you sick. It's blatantly false and an insult to the people preparing this food, who are spending their time and effort to run a business to support their families. These are hard-working people who, in some cases, have run stalls for decades. These aren't fly by night operations. Why would they put their livelihoods in jeopardy by making terrible food?

"On stands that can afford it, you see the word "hygiene" repeated often. It's a badge of honor you can find everywhere. No one wants to get sick; Mexicans seek out the best vendors, who in turn seek out the best ingredients they can.

"People on my tours made me promise that they wouldn't get sick. I couldn't do that, because I don't know your particular gastro-intestinal flora, but none of the places I take visitors to have ever been a problem. The street food is prepared right in front of your face. Yes, there's no running water, and yes, you're likely eating off a disposable plastic sleeve because the vendor's going to reuse the plates. But it's safe to eat.

"In Mexico City, go during the lunch hour (2 p.m., not noon) so you can see which places are the most popular. Those are your best bets. Look for stands that are clean and well-taken care of, that don't have salsa stains everywhere. And look for vendors cooking meat or tortillas right in front of you; I don't like to go to places where the food's been sitting out. It's also ideal if someone besides the cook is taking your money, because if someone's handling money while cooking they can transfer germs on the coins to your food. That said, I've disregarded that rule and still been fine."

There's More To it Than Tacos

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"In order to understand Mexico City, you have to eat on the street. So much of the population eats that way. But it's also an exciting time in the restaurant scene. A lot of young chefs with talent are testing the limits of what Mexican food means. They're deconstructing rigid rules and boundaries and creating new plates and combinations of flavors beyond the traditional use of these ingredients.

"Maximo is my favorite restaurant in Mexico City. It isn't traditional Mexican food, but more of a European bistro with Mexican ingredients. Everything is consistent and fresh-tasting, and the chef gets across the idea that if Mexican ingredients are fresh, the resulting flavor is unparalleled. It's stunning.

"I also really like Nicos. It's only open for lunch so you get a traditional fonda feel, and the food is really precise and thoughtful. The chef rescued these older recipes from 18th and 19th century cookbooks—items you may not think of as Mexican food, like a dish of really thin crepes layered with a creamy tomato sauce. Some of these dishes date back to the viceregal period when Mexico was a part of Spain, a really interesting combination of European and Mexican traditions."

And There's Nothing Stopping You From Making it at Home

"Let me be clear: Mexican food overall takes time and there aren't many shortcuts. But there's much more to Mexican food than mole, and many things you can cook that don't take a lot of time.

"There's soups, for instance, with fresh vegetables and chicken stock. There's vegetable guisados (stews) that don't take any time at all and they're delicious! Cactus salad doesn't take long, and neither does fava bean salad. And I'd say salsas are one of the quickest and easiest things to make in the Mexican canon because there are so many ways to make them and you can make them out of anything. There are three our four basic techniques, some of which don't involve cooking at all. It doesn't have to be this laborious thing—you don't have to overthink it."