Cooking Like a Mexican

Fish tacos
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

I am always happy and grateful when my readers and friends ask me to write about something special, or they share information with me about new cooking trends. It is always helpful because it lets me to know what are they interested in reading about.

Recently, a friend sent me an email about a new food trend in the States that they are calling “Cali-Mex.” Hmmm, that sounds interesting, I thought. However, after doing some online research, I didn’t really see a difference between Tex-Mex food, which I’ve already written about, and Cali-Mex food.

Cali-Mex offers some different styles of Mexican dishes, like enchiladas and fish tacos, using new ingredients. I’m not against this because, as I always say, cooking is about creativity and imagination. Just don’t call it authentic Mexican food.

fishtaco.JPGFor this column, I decided to write about fish tacos. They’re very popular in Baja California and Americans love them, and it was here in the Baja that fish tacos were created.

This dish emerged between 1960 and 1961, in a casual and curious way in the city of Ensenada. It was created by a fisherman named Mario, known mostly by his nickname, “Bachihualato.” The name means “dry cornfield” and was also the name of the neighborhood Mario grew up in.

In the beginning, he used to sell carne asada tacos at a site known as the “Black Market,” because species like abalone, lobster and shrimp were sold there even though they only licensed for sale to certain fishing cooperatives.

Over time, Mario’s customers, almost all of them fishermen, started asking him to fry the whole fish they caught, mostly spine fish like corvina, halibut, bass, barracuda and rockfish. Knowing that cutting fillets from these fish was difficult, and it would be hard to remove the spines, he started to cook “angel,” instead. Angel was a type of shark that was abundant in the bay, but the fisherman couldn’t sell them because people had a mixture of fear and loathing for this type of fish. The sharks got tangled in the fisherman’s nets and were tossed onto the beach because nobody wanted them.

Shark meat didn’t have a good reputation back then, but tacos were well received by tourists who came from the United States and Tijuana just to taste the unusual, boneless fish tacos. Most people didn’t know that the angel was a shark, and Bachihualato’s culinary creation enjoyed a certain amount of fame.

Eventually, Mario realized he needed a way to keep the fish fillets from sticking to the bottom of the pan, so he started experimenting with breading, sprinkling a little flour on the fillets. Soon, his customers, fisherman and tourists alike, were requesting the breaded fish for their tacos.

The creation of fish tacos is without doubt an 100% Ensenada tradition. Their creator never imagined his dish would become such an important contribution to the Mexican, and international, food culture.

When you’re serving these tacos, be sure to include a mixture of half sour cream, half mayonnaise. This can be either spread on the tortillas or used for dipping the fish pieces in. Fish tacos are also typically topped with shredded cabbage (purple or white) and served with two types of salsas, pico de gallo or green salsa.

 

Ingredients

2 lbs of fish fillets (white fish is much better) or shrimp

2 cloves garlic, cut in half

Oil for frying

For the batter:

1 ½ cups flour

6 oz. ice cubes (so the batter will be super cold, which makes it very crispy)

6 oz. beer

½ teaspoon of baking powder

1 tablespoon of dry oregano

1 ½ tablespoon of mustard (this will give the batter a nice color and a special flavor)

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut the fish fillets into small rectangular pieces. If you are using shrimp, don’t cut them, just remove the head and shell. Season with salt and pepper and marinate in water with garlic for two hours.

2. While the fish is marinating, mix the rest of the ingredients to create a batter. It should be about the same consistency as pancake batter.

3. Heat the oil until it’s hot enough to fry. The amount of oil you need will depend on how much fish you’re cooking, but it has to be deep enough to fully cover the fish pieces. And if you’re not sure if the oil is hot enough, drop a little batter into the oil; if it starts to bubble and the batter turns golden brown and floats within a minute, it’s ready. This is a very important step. If the oil is not hot enough, the mixture won’t stick to the fish and it will be a mess.

4. Add the garlic to oil. Let the cloves brown and leave them in the oil, even if they start to look burnt. This helps flavor the oil, and also helps keep the oil from burning. (These are the old Mexican ladies’ cooking secrets.)

5. Coat the fish strips with the batter and fry until they have a nice golden color. Drain and pat with a paper towel to get off any excess oil.

 

Salsa Ingredients

Pico de gallo

1 diced tomato

½ finely diced onion

A few stalks of cilantro, chopped

 

Green salsa

1 avocado, mashed

1 small bunch of cilantro, chopped

2 Serrano chiles, diced

Salt to taste

A little bit of water or beer for consistency

For both salsas, all you need to do is to mix everything together in a bowl.

 

Warm the tortillas and spread on the mayonnaise and sour cream mixture. Add the fish strips, pour on as much of each salsa as you like, then top with the cabbage on top and that is it! Comer! (This means, lunch time!)