Mexico calling Two guys from Hamburg embark on a quest – for the fieriest taco, the biggest wave, and the tallest cactus in Mexico. But things don’t always go as they expect. A culinary road trip with writer duo Salt & Silver
Oh Mexico! So many temptations! You must be the place Adam and Eve were banished from! It’s sweet to be back. We missed you. Your fiery tacos, your blazing sunshine, your mangos the size of medicine balls, your waves that lure us and scare us in equal measure. We want to see it all. But what we’re most interested in is food, food, food. We want to discover your best-kept recipes, your craziest ingredients. We, Salt & Silver, alias Johannes “Jo” Riffelmacher and Thomas “Cozy” Kosikowski, friends and foodies from Hamburg, have been traveling through Latin America since 2014. But let’s go now. Ándale!
Markets and chaos, Mexico City
Flying into the megacity is an event – solid urban sprawl as far as the horizon, an ocean of buildings stretching farther than the eye can see. We clamber into a taxi – no way will the driver know where to find the place we’re staying. We bet our pouch of pesos even the satnav will wrinkle its brow! But no, surprise number 1: The guy knows the address and can even describe the graffiti on the wall. The place suits our taste, too – we have our own roof terrace and a giant barbecue – perfect for throwing on all the best things that Mexico’s markets have to offer.
Wild ingredients, every aisle smells different, a labyrinth to get lost in
The next morning, we set off. First stop, a market in Coyoacán district. For breakfast, we grab ourselves some esquites, a sweetcorn specialty served in plastic pots with a tangy butter-lime sauce, creamy crumbled cheese, chili powder and epazote leaves. Typical chilango food, chilango being slang for a lot of things that come from this monster city and its streets. We devour them like two bodybuilders in the mass-building phase. They taste pretty damn good. Sensory overload: sack upon sack of chillis and spices, piñatas dangling beside a butcher’s stall, juice vendors juggling fruit to ear-bashing trash techno. We decide to go the whole hog and visit Latin America’s largest market: Central de Abastos. And yes, the king of markets lives up to its name. You could easily get lost amid the piles of crazy ingredients. Diabléros, hard-nosed Mexicans maneuvering handcarts piled high with wares weighing dozens of kilos, race through the narrow aisles from A to whoknowswhere. They don’t have horns, they just whistle, and if you don’t leap out of the way, they knock you down. There’s something to see at every corner; each aisle smells different. We weave our way deeper and deeper into the fray. Sure, Mexico City is hectic here, but it’s also authentic. Everyone shops here – young and old, wholesale buyers and ordinary folk. It’s the soul of the city. And we are in Mexico because the food here is more interesting than elsewhere. It combines indigenous and colonial influences, there are Caribbean traditions, but also some very different kinds of regional fare. Mexican cocina is Aztec, Spanish, Arabian and French, fish and meat, wild and spicy. That’s why UNESCO has included it in its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
We’ve seen the city, now it’s time for the ocean. That’s the plan anyway. We’re headed for Baja California, but we set off down south. A friend offers us his truck. Tramping up the path to his bungalow on the beach at El Pescadero, we catch a glimpse of the perfect offroader: all-wheel drive, Japanese engine, black tinted windows and a thick layer of desert dust on the paintwork. Hell, this will do us just fine! We stock up on basics: a hammock each, a machete, ponchos for the desert nights, sombreros for the heat of the day. The first hundred kilometers are a breeze. Giant cactuses line the highway. Disaster strikes at noon in the middle of nowhere. Outside, the tar shimmers. Inside, a red warning light comes on. A jet of steam hisses from beneath our hood. We have to stop. The heat whips our faces. We wait.
Cars whiz past every half hour. We wave, but no one stops. After two hours – we’re already gearing up for a long, cold night – a pickup pulls over. What a coincidence: The driver is a mechanic and has a small garage in the next village. He tows us there, gives the car a once-over. The water pump is shot, so is the thermostat. We continue our trip with new parts, in the dark.
Some travelers fear criminals on Baja’s overland highways, but a very different danger lurks among the cactuses: At night, the route north morphs into a zoo. Cows cut across lanes, wild donkeys sleep on the median strip, coyotes chase hares in the passing lane. Next morning, vultures descend to pick the roadkill from the asphalt. You can even bring your own roadkill to some stalls and they’ll throw it on the grill, but we pass. Instead, we stop in Buenaventura at a great sandy bay on Bahía Concepción next morning, where two old Harley-Davidson bikers have built a beach restaurant. We’re lucky: It’s Tuesday. Taco Tuesday!
The first senior bikers roll in, grab a beer from the unmanned tap and help themselves to grilled jalapeños. A stocky old geezer ambles out of the kitchen, grumbling that they could at least wait for the proprietor. They look like they know each other. We are pretty glad to see him plonk not beer, but a pot of pitch-black coffee down in front of us – and cups with red hearts and the words “I Love You” so perfect for the setting. Taco cookbook authors that we are, we peek in the kitchen. Standing at the stove, a short Mexican woman is turning slabs of meat on the hot plancha, the grill. When we reveal the purpose of our trip, she proudly tells us about her pineapple salad dressing, pork chops braised in the slow cooker and the achiote marinade she uses for her chicken. This is exactly what we’re looking for. Our favorite dish is camarones al coco: head-off shrimp that she rolls in crushed Cornflakes, salt and grated coconut before frying them in hot oil. Our mouth explodes. Sombreros off to her!
Icy walls and coyotes, Guerrero Negro
We drive for hours along the coast. Our destination: the Wall, a legendary surf spot many have heard of, but few have actually been. No regular car could handle this road, but ours takes the driest of river beds and the steepest of canyons in its stride. Roll it, and you’re in trouble; there’s about as much infrastructure here as on the dark side of the moon. Once at the wet wall, we live up to our reputation as the worst-prepared travelers on the continent. The water temperature is just 18 degrees Celsius and all the other surfers are sheathed from head to toe in neoprene. So we stride to the break in shorts as though it were Hawaii, telling ourselves suits are for bankers and lawyers. Blue-lipped, we surf a few waves. We had planned to end the day with a campfire cooking session, but the stiff breeze here is spoiling our fun, so we decide to move our camp into the desert.
Our menu tonight consists of all we could find at a small truck stop and carnicería (meat shop): beans, ground meat, chili peppers, tortillas, beef steaks, avocado, peppers, limes and onions. During a siesta in our hammocks strung between two cactuses, we hit on a brilliant idea: a Mexican take on Bud Spencer’s bean stew! Looks tasty in the movie and has to be eaten straight from the pan, making it feasible for us. We build a small campfire from dead agave leaves and dry scrub. The stew is soon ready – the campfire blazes hotter than any gas stove – and it tastes like a genuine Western stew! The chilis we slipped in make our eyes tear up. At least we’re eating our food the way the locals do.
It’s dark when, utterly sated and lost in thought, we find our peace shattered by a howl. First just one, then more howls from different directions. Are there wolves here? We listen hard, straining to identify the night noises. Someone laughs. Or was it something that laughed? Coyotes! That’s how they communicate, we recall. What has slipped our mind, though, is whether these wild dogs are dangerous or not. What happened again in those Karl May stories? Did a fire frighten them? Or attract them, perhaps? Then again, what did May know. He was never in the Wild
West. We grope for the machete. Nothing. We creep to the car and sleep off our meal – until a clatter awakens us! The desert is bathed in moonlight so that we can see the cowering shadows slip away into the bushes. We leap out of the car to see why they were here. The remains of our bean stew, forgotten beside the fire, are slowly spilling onto the ground beside the overturned pot. The coyotes came to sample our firefood straight from spice hell. We go back to bed, knowing that they won’t be back. At least not before they’ve visited a water hole.