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Interview with Patricia Quintana

by Elaine Sosa

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Noted cookbook author and chef Patricia Quintana has written nearly a dozen books on the food of her fabled country. Several of them have been published in English, among them "Mexico's Feasts of Life," which discusses family celebrations (birthdays, weddings and religious holidays) and the foods surrounding them, and "The Cuisine of the Water Gods," covering both coastal and central Mexican cookery. This well-traveled chef studied in Europe under Bocuse, Troisgros and Guerard before returning to her native land and opening her own cooking school, where she taught for ten years. A passion for the foods and flavors of Mexico prompted her to start writing and sharing her favorite recipes. Quintana recently partnered with the Sheraton Maria Isabel in Mexico City to develop "Sabores de Mexico," a combination Mexican food fest and folkloric ballet (courtesy of the Ballet Folclorico Nacional de Mexico) now being offered in the hotel's Cafe Pavillon. I had the good fortune of being in Mexico City for opening night of this new dinner extravaganza and took a few moments to chat with the chef.

"What we're trying to do here is to preserve the special dishes of the repubic," says Quintana. "Whether it's Yucatan, Veracruz or the heart of Mexico, we are working with different ingredients and the stories behind them." As if to prove her point, one of the better appetizers on this new menu is the tacos sudados en canasta estilo Diego Rivera. "This is an idea I got from an article I read about fifteen years ago. Lupe Rivera, Diego's sister, told the story of how her brother loved steamed tacos. Although he painted all day long, he would always take a break to eat these little steamed tacos which were served piping hot in a basket. Now we've got them on the menu." Quintana is keenly aware of integrating the old with the new. "We're taking the stories of Mexico and presenting them in a new way by creating dishes with simple, nice and direct flavors. If you eat here, you'll be able to remember what you ate because it's straightforward and easy to understand."

Quintana shared her views with me on a number of things. On food as ritual: "Since prehispanic times, food has been a ritual. Through food you create a way to celebrate. That's what holidays are about: surrounding yourself with friends and family and creating a menu of feelings. It's a way to understand the concept of gathering." The role of food: "That's what the markets are all about. It's a gathering. You go to eat, you go to buy, you go to meet people. It's a way of communication." Mealtimes: "We favor the comida (late lunch) over sena (supper). We like to start with a big breakfast and then have lunch later in the day. Most people can't have three big meals and then go to sleep -- especially not with the altitude of central Mexico! So we focus on the midday meal."

Some of Quintana's keenest observations were on the role of regional cuisines: "Oaxaca has a rich ethnic heritage, a fusion of the native peoples, the Spaniards and the French after that. You can see it in how they handle corn tortillas and the moles, with their varying tints and types. The Yucatan also has an ethnic cuisine which is very European-influenced -- you can see it in the Dutch cheeses and how they are used. Veracruz includes the food of eight distinct regions in the state, from the interior to the coast. There's much of a Mediterranean influence here which you can see in how the fish and meats are grilled. And then there's Puebla, which combines aspects of the surrounding states plus the influence of the Spaniards after the conquest and that of the convents. Two of our main dishes come from Puebla: chiles en nogada (stuffed Poblano chilies) and mole Poblano. The moles were greatly aided by the spice trade, which brought us peppercorns and sesame seeds from Asia, among other ingredients. Moles are so unique: different consistencies, sweet or not, even a variety of chilies. A mole Poblano is completely different from a mole Oaxaqueno. It has to do with color, spices and seasoning and how they're combined and prepared."

Quintana is understandably excited about "Sabores de Mexico." "This is like my first restaurant. I'd always wanted to have a restaurant but couldn't find the right place. As a consultant here, I get to manage the fusion of the cultures in the food and combine it with the dancers and what they mean to our heritage. I feel as passionate about the dancers as I do about the food!"

Anyone looking for the essence of Mexico in one night need look no further than the Sheraton's "Sabores de Mexico." This is one food and dance experience which is as much substance as style and makes for a delightful evening. Best of the best on Chef Quintana's winning menu are the camarones empulcados (shrimp sauteed in mescal and pulque), the tamal del Istmo de Tehuantepec (a moist tamale stuffed with perfect mole chicken) and everything on the dessert cart (don't miss the chocolate torte or the lemon mousse). As if this wasn't enough, the best margaritas in Mexico City can be found right here: whether it's a margarita mixed with tamarindo y mango, flor de jamaica or Grand Marnier con limon, this is a sip you shouldn't miss.

Sabores de Mexico is featured in the Cafe Pavillon of the Sheraton Maria Isabel, Mexico City, from Tuesday through Sunday at 8 PM. Dinner is served until 1 AM; the Ballet Folclorico's hour-long show begins at 9:30 PM. Rates at the Sheraton Maria Isabel are USD $189 to $249 per night; check for special weekend and seasonal rates, an excellent buy.

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