Kippy Nigh, owner of the vegetarian restaurants Casa del Pan in San Cristobal de las Casas and Mexico City, is a longtime resident of Mexico, and her love of its culture and cuisine shows on every page. “A Taste of Mexico” is full of Kippy’s observances of local culture, colorful tales, and interesting tidbits about ingredients found only in Mexico.
The book starts off with a beautiful watercolor of San Cristobal, a brief introduction, and a fairly thorough guide to ingredients (listed by their Spanish names), a section on fresh and dried chiles, and a primer on scratch-made tortillas (as in liming and grinding your own corn prior to pressing it). Various pen-and-ink drawings are scattered throughout the book illustrating common Mexican ingredients or scenes from the countryside.
The appetizers section features some favorite standbys with unusual twists: chalupas with chopped radishes and beets, the classic Mexican jicama with lime and chile (you can buy various kinds of lime/chile/salt powders such as Tajin Fruit and Snack Seasoning, 5.7 oz in Mexican grocery stores), quesadillas (for the more adventurous, fillings include huitlacoche, or corn fungus, squash blossom, or potato), and jalapeno jelly.
Soups includes some familiar faces such as tortilla soup and a wonderful black bean soup, along with some other Mexican favorites such as nopal (cactus leaves) and corn soup. Kippy provides the best hint I’ve ever seen for cutting the slime when cooking with cactus: either cook it in a copper pot or drop a clean copper penny in with the nopales.
For those who were hoping for Tex-Mex recipes, the Main Dishes provides chiles rellenos (stuffed deep-fried chile peppers), chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips with tomatoes, onion, and garlic), and tamales. There are also numerous unusual veggie side dishes such as ginger carrots and a divine baked sweet potato pudding studded with golden raisins. If you’re looking for hot sauce, you’ll find several variations from tame to muy macho. A few breads and several fruit-based desserts round out your meal.
As to why I’m only giving the book four stars, there were several issues. The first, and most glaring, is the heavy reliance on ingredients that simply can’t be found outside of Mexico (and I’m not referring to nopal, piloncillo, or masa harina, because I’m surrounded by Mexican groceries). Many recipes call exclusively for ingredients such as mumo (hierba santa), mamey, fresh epazote (wormseed, although it’s fairly easy to find it dried), huitlacoche (Kippy prefers fresh over canned), large amounts of squash blossoms, colorin flowers, chipilin, chayote, and maguey syrup. For the average cook, these ingredients will be nearly impossible to locate. Some of the recipes call for substitutions, but it changes the overall flavor of the original dish.
I enjoyed reading about indigenous ingredients and native culture in the highlands, but was sort of nonplussed at Kippy’s heavy use of textured vegetable protein (TVP). First of all, I’m allergic to soy, so it wasn’t an option for me. But I was surprised at the addition of soy to classic dishes such as chiles rellenos, mole enchiladas, and tostadas; surely these dishes would be just as flavorful using beans or other legumes? TVP hardly seems authentic in the sense that it’s heavily processed; the remained of “A Taste of Mexico” goes to great lengths to use the freshest (preferably organic) produce, so I found that inclusion a bit odd.
Most of the recipes are fairly labor-intensive, although many are only in the oven for 30 minutes or less (anytime you work with fresh or dried chiles adds to your cooking time for seeding, deveining, roasting, etc.). I liked the fact that detailed nutritional info was included as well. However, I guess I was looking more for “Tex-Mex” rather than Mexican-vegetarian fusion; the recipe for oatmeal patties took me by surprise.
Final verdict: this is a beautifully-assembled collection of recipes, but there are simply too many that I wouldn’t make on a regular basis. Also, if you’re sensitive to spicy foods, nearly every recipe calls for chiles in some form (you could always switch to a milder chile such as Anaheim). But if you love trying unusual recipes and you’re looking for a culinary adventure, “A Taste of Mexico” is for you!