World Chefs: Sauces are key to Mexican cuisine

By Richard Leong

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Knowing how to make moles, adobos, salsas and other condiments is the secret to Mexican cooking, chef Robert Santibanez says in his new book "Truly Mexican."

The classically-trained chef believes his book, which he co-wrote with J.J. Goode, offers techniques and tips on ingredients that lend authenticity to cooking Mexican dishes at home.

The Mexican City native, who now lives in New York City, spoke to Reuters about chiles, the complexity of Mexican sauces and what it is like working for rock musician Carlos Santana:

Q: What do you want to achieve with your new book?

A: "It's more intensely focused on the ingredients itself and the techniques needed to be transformed into the flavor profiles in Mexican cooking. There are platforms of flavors, textures, colors and smells that identify each cuisine.

"When you taste something, it's definitely Chinese or something that's definitely Mexican, and it's because of the techniques people apply to transform those ingredients.

"Everybody grills, everybody boils, everybody steams. The sauces and condiments to me are the most important part. It's what goes with it that makes it Chinese or Mexican. It's how you saute and how you use the chiles. That's why it's so intensely related to the ingredients. Every country makes a tomato sauce. Why does one taste Italian and the other Mexican? It's all in the technique."

Q: Is there a hunger for more authentic Mexican flavors?

A: "The general public is learning more and more about the cuisine. Americans are getting more knowledgeable than before. There has definitely been an increased interest especially in Latin cuisine and within Latin cuisine, Mexican cuisine. People are starting to realize that a burrito filled with rice and beans is probably not very Mexican. It's an American invention. I think now everyone knows that. Big (Mexican food) chains are looking at more authentic flavor profiles."

Q: Is there a commonality that binds all the sauces in Mexican cooking?

A: "I don't think there is a uniting factor. I don't think you can treat Mexican cuisine like French cuisine with building blocks of sauces. We do have families within those sauces. There is one way to do a chile rub and another for an adobe. Everyone makes it differently. Everyone changes the amount of spices, the amount of heat levels and the proportions of spices."

Q: Would you compare Mexican sauces to Indian curries?

A: "There are different kinds of curries and there are different kinds of masalas. At the end, they are all pretty similar. They are all very different regionally but they are all pretty similar. They always demand how much the cook knows, how much to toast, what and how much to add of each spice, how much you blend that and how much you grind that."

Q: What advice do you have for roasting chiles?

A: "You need to practice. You need to learn and to buy all these different chiles and test them. You need to smell and touch them. It's not like you could throw them in a pan and you are ready to go. Mexican cooking is not about that. Nowadays you have these great bottled things over the years. You could throw some chicken in the pan and add this sprinkling of something and it tastes fine. But you need to buy them (chiles) and understand them. They are your base of the flavor profile. So if you want to achieve that flavor profile, you need to know the chiles first."

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