The Mexican wave gathers momentum

Related tags Mexican cuisine Tortilla

A Mexican menu not only meets the demand for ethnic and healthy food, it's ideal where simple preparation and kitchen space are priorities, explains...

A Mexican menu not only meets the demand for ethnic and healthy food, it's ideal where simple preparation and kitchen space are priorities, explains Simon Knott

Customer demand for healthier food and a curiosity to try out lighter, zestier flavours is growing.

Healthy food and ethnic dishes tend to be linked in the public consciousness through a belief that ethnic dishes contain less processed ingredients, as they are usually made with fresh vegetables and meat.

Recent research by TNS suggests that pubs are catching on to this trend, with Mexican food enjoying a 42% growth in the sector while traditional "pie and a pint" meals have fallen 6%.

This research is also backed by increased confidence in the UK market being shown by Mexican food manufacturers such as Grupo Maseca, which recently invested in a large Coventry-based tortilla factory.

Mexico's border with North America and years of its residents' immigration to the US means that the country's food has become integrated into North American lifestyle. However, poor-quality fast-food Mexican diners in the UK gave its cuisine a bad name in the 1970s and 80s.

Modern customers demand quality and authenticity, as numerous comments posted by "Mexican food aficionados" on pub and restaurant review websites testify.

At the King's Head near Halstead in Essex, Graham and Jacqueline Tufnells saw locals' interest in growing chillies as an opportunity to extend their menu .

Jacqui explains: "Our customers love our Mexican food so much that we have devoted half our menu to it. We find customers want to ask questions and talk about the food - over the past two years we have seen a real growth in interest."

Demand clearly exists for Mexican dishes, so the next step involves incorporating them into a pub menu. Graham Hill, landlord of the Hoodener's Horse in Great Chart near Ashford in Kent, finds this fairly simple.

"Most dishes are easy to prepare because of their limited ingredients and there is no need for special kitchen equipment."

A rural pub with a traditional atmosphere, where dried hops decorate the bar, the Hoodener's Horse has served a successful, part-Mexican menu for several years.

Mexican food "specials" on Hoodener's blackboards include nachos, burritos,

fajitas, tortilla "towers", chilli con carne and Mexican-style rib-eye steaks.

Celebrating a cultural heritage

The history of Mexican food is complicated: three great civilisations - the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs - all helped to refine the country's culinary heritage.

When Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1519, they discovered many new ingredients in Mexico's traditonal Aztec cuisine, including chocolate, vanilla, avocados, beans, chillies, squash, tomatoes and peanuts. The Spanish invaders brought their own beef, lamb, citrus fruit and garlic, leading to fusion of the two cultural styles. For

example, typical Mexican quesadillas combine Mexican tortillas and chilli with Spanish cheese and lettuce.

Mexican snacks - known as antojitas - include burritos, a folded, rolled tortilla enclosing various savoury fillings, including shredded or chopped meat, refried beans, grated cheese, sour cream and lettuce.

Enchiladas are an extension of burritos, made by rolling a softened corn tortilla around a meat or cheese filling. These tasty snacks are often served hot and are usually topped with a tomato-based salsa, sprinkled with cheese. Mexican snack menus are ideal for pub customers who may have missed their lunch or would rather enjoy a light meal with their drinks.

Popular Mexican fish and seafood dishes include snapper, perch, bass, tuna and prawns. These can be served as a ceviche, where the acid from a lemon or lime juice marinade is used to "cook' the fish. Alternatively, fish and seafood can be fried with the butter and garlic.

Corn and beans are staple ingredients of Mexican dishes, with tortillas - thin, round patties of pressed corn or wheat flour and frijoles - and beans which can be fried, refried or boiled. Made from skirt steak, fajitas are marinated in a mixture of oil, lime juice, red pepper and garlic for at least 24 hours before being grilled. This is the most popular dish at the Hoodener's, says Graham:

"Serving the meat on a sizzling skillet works well, as the sound and smell of the skillet is carried through the pub, tempting everyone to want the same thing."

Using warm tortillas to wrap the meat, customers choose accompaniments from various garnishes such as grilled onions, sweet peppers, guacamole, refried beans and salsa.

"Customers enjoy filling and rolling their own fajitas. Many dishes are for individuals, but sharing is popular too," he says.

Graham clearly lists the ingredients and explains the presentation on the menu to help customers who are unfamiliar with Mexican cooking.

Good profit margins

When Richard Forbes, owner of the Basement in Edinburgh, introduced a Mexican menu 12 years ago, it soon became popular among younger punters. Now the pub is regularly listed as one of Edinburgh's top five places to eat: "Mexican dishes are popular and our customer base is well-established," says Richard.

Limited kitchen space meant that preparation of a Mexican menu proved ideal. Richard says, "Many dishes involve re-jigging core ingredients, so the menu appears more varied than it really is. We serve 300 covers regularly with only a chef and commis chef on Saturdays."

Richard explains that burritos and enchiladas offer good gross profit margins, but tortillas and fajitas are not as profitable as several accompaniments increase costs.

Richard has noticed one pitfall that challenges chefs putting Mexican dishes on the menu: "Because the ingredients are inexpensive, chefs sometimes cut corners by using poor produce. Don't do this - use good-quality cheese, tortillas and beef.

"Using cheap alternatives is the most common way for newcomers to screw up a menu. We use Funny Bones food service for most of our supplies."

Theming drinks to fit the menu, including Mexican beers, and cocktails such as margaritas, tequilas and mescals, helps improve profitability and the meal experience.

Even Mexican wines are undergoing a renaissance - 13 vine-growing areas are producing wines, predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel grape varieties. However, a shortage of water in these areas means that they may never be able to compete with the success of California's Napa Valley.

Getting up to speed with information and recipes is simple as there are plenty of Mexican books on the market. With more than 40 years' experience of Mexican food, Diana Kennedy is recognised as a leading authority on the country's cuisine: her useful book, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, highlights interesting regional differences. Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen is written with passion and humour and contains more than 150 quality recipes.

It's clear that as customers increasingly demand new ethnic flavours, a partial or full Mexican menu can fit the bill perfectly, especially where simplicity of preparation and limited kitchen space are constraints.

Just don't stint on those ingredients.

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