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“True Mexican cuisine is fresh, healthy and extremely delicious.” – Travis Harvey

Mexico is a large, varied and historically layered country and as such, so is its cuisine. Reducing it to a couple of dishes that essentially define “Mexican” cuisine outside of Mexico is a natural tendency but one that doesn’t even begin to explore its full richness and potential.

Recently, a lucky group of students from The Essential Ingredient Newcastle’s cooking school were joined by Travis Harvey, head chef at the TEI Rozelle cooking school, Mexican cuisine aficionado, and director of the De La Tierra cooking school. You can check out his blog here.

Before returning to Sydney, Travis spent 12 years working as a chef throughout Central America and while based in Oaxaca, started the De La Tierra cooking school. It is with an intimate knowledge of the Mexican culture that Travis teaches his widely popular cooking classes in Australia, giving new insight into a cuisine that has been evolving for almost 10,000 years.

Fresh and dried chillies are always present in Mexican cooking but not as you might assume. Most dishes aren’t hot but they are always served with a range of fiery salsas. Minsa, in the top left corner, is a corn flour used to make tortillas. It is available in yellow or blue.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Travis after the class to set the record straight on what makes an authentic Mexican fiesta, Salud!

NOVOGASTRIAN: As a chef, how do you explain your love affair with Mexico and its cuisine?

TRAVIS HARVEY: Mexico has always fascinated me for a variety of reasons, but the fact that so many staples of the international pantry are native to Mexico is particularly interesting. Start with tomato, chilli, chocolate and vanilla then add zuchinni, corn, avocados and the list goes on. The way these ingredients are used and combined in true Mexican cuisine is fresh, healthy and extremely delicious.

NOVOGASTRIAN: How would you describe authentic Mexican cuisine for those of us who have only tasted it in Australia?

TRAVIS: Mexican cuisine uses texture and deep savoury flavours to great advantage. Crispy slow cooked pork in a freshly toasted tortilla with a little avocado and some pickled onions (with a bit of chilli of course) is a great example of bringing together bright fresh flavours in a simple way. Mexican food is not generally hot, though there are always hot to very hot salsas to accompany any meal.

A student makes fresh handmade tortillas by placing a small ball of corn masa (Minsa + water) in a tortilla press and flattening it firmly. It is then carefully transferred to a comal and heated until slightly golden and lightly puffed.

NOVOGASTRIAN: What are the essential ingredients of a true Mexican feast?

TRAVIS: Fresh handmade tortillas, good salsas and taco fillings, good friends.

Students prepare a few different salsas with combinations of tomato, avocado, peppers and chillies. Salsas are vibrant, fresh and HOT!

NOVOGASTRIAN: I just wrote a blog entry on Ancient Grains which were once a staple part of the Inca and Mayan diets. Do these grains still form a part of a traditional Mexican diet? What is the significance of these grains in the national cuisine?

TRAVIS: Amaranth was a very significant part of the mesoamerican diet pre 1491 when Colombus arrived. Some cultures in Mexico used amaranth to create idols particular to their gods and faiths. The Spanish priests outlawed the growth and consumption of amaranth for this reason, so it fell very much out of the diet.

It is still consumed very commonly in Mexico as “alegrias” ( joys), which are the puffed amaranth grain bound and pressed with a very dense sugar syrup. Once the tray of puffed amaranth has set, it is cut into bars and eaten as one might eat a muesli bar. The leaves and whole grains of amaranth are still grown and consumed in soups, tacos a few other dishes.

The fresh tortillas were pinched around the edges to contain the fillings. Tortillas are topped with ‘frijoles revueltos’, a delicious and rich black bean puree, crumbed goats cheese topped off by a little bit of salsa roja (red salsa) and coriander to make a little starter called ‘memelitas de queso y frijoles revueltos’ or memelitas with cheese and refried beans.

NOVOGASTRIAN: When will you be back in Newcastle for your very popular De La Tierra Mexican cooking class?

I will be back as soon as we can work out a new date. I always enjoy coming up and meeting the people in Newcastle, the classes have been really great.

NOVOGASTRIAN: They sure have. Thanks Travis and hasta luego!

We’ll be sure to keep you informed when Travis is back in town and until then, bon appetit of course!

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