When I was a little girl, there was an arts cinema in the shopping district of Johannesburg. In the holidays, the cinema would host little events for kids. One time, my brother Steve and I arrived to discover a talent show was taking place before the movie. Steve spotted the prize, a massive hamper of Cadbury’s chocolates. Wide eyed, he turned to me and said, ‘Nerak, please try your one and only party trick.’ Nerak, the restringing of the letters of my name backwards, was Steve’s affectionate nomenclature for me! By party trick, Steve was referring to my heartfelt, clown-like dance rendition of La Cucaracha which I would perform after dinner on a Friday night for my family. In aid of sibling love, I stood up that day, shed my little girl shyness and offered up an enthusiastic version of said song. To my surprise, I won the competition and we left with a year’s supply of chocolate. Ever since then La Cucaracha has held a special place in my heart. It’s no wonder that years later, when I created Saffron and Scarlett’s Day of the Dead party, La Cucaracha was high up on the kids’ activity list.
For that Mexican party, I dived deep into the history, culture and food of Mexico. I was able to bring the exquisite village of San Miguel D’Allende to life in a full-size, sugar-paste cake and my obsession with the Day of the Dead led to my hand-sculpting over one hundred sugar paste skulls for the celebration. That year, Mexico came to Johannesburg, complete with a Mariachi band in our garden. But for me, a party is always paired with pilgrimage; an educational visit to the country of a party’s theme so that Saffron and Scarlett can contextualise the party in the actual country. When it came to Mexico, the timing before the party hadn’t been quite right and so in this case, the party preceded the pilgrimage. Then this past December, the opportunity presented itself! Discovering Mexico was like falling in love all over again and re-discovering that inner child who could dance to a Spanish-Mexican ditty. What about Paris… and Provence you might ask? Well, let’s just be glad that the heart is a big space, with many rooms to love.
But here I am waxing lyrical… let me actually tell you about the trip.
We arrived at the airport and were welcomed by our Tulum taxi driver with big smiles, ice-cold baby Coronas (Caranita) and just the right amount of humidity. Some people dislike ‘hot and humid’, but for me, a little body in my hair and some glistening moisture on my skin makes me feel healthy and alive. I’d take that over blow-dried hair any day. We sped off to Tulum with that perfect amount of moisture rising off the skin. Welcome to Mexico.
After a twenty-hour journey it was a relief to collapse onto our beds in Tulum that night and drift into sleep, as the waves pounded the shore, a few feet away from our bungalow. The next day, the four of us got on bikes and headed for the Tulum Mayan ruins. We arrived at the ruins at sunset with the colour drenched sky peeking through crevices of the ruins. Unexpectedly, a local guide approached us who opened up the history and beauty of the place. We ended up staying with him till we were the last people there, with the final rays of daylight shining through a little opening in the ruins, a doorway to the gods, perhaps. There was a brief pause where we considered how grateful we were to be visiting as moderns, for in actual Mayan times our youngest daughter, Scarlett would have been sacrificed to the gods as part of our visit.
Tulum is a hippie-chic, eco-friendly village. It’s the real deal – off-grid and all! Power is sourced from a generator. The village strip is sandwiched between the jungle and the ocean and jungle it is. We dined in restaurants sans ceilings, ate food prepared by the best of Mexican chefs, using produce picked from jungle gardens that day, which they then cooked straight out of a jungle kitchen. This was #jungletotable on (natural) steroids. In the past, ‘eco-friendly’ may have conjured up images of a nudist colony with a drop-hole, but the eco-chic of Tulum spoke to me. To my surprise, I discovered a new alter-ego, a stylish hippie-chic Mexicana lass who felt right at home in Tulum culture.
One night, at a gorgeous little beach bar overlooking the ocean, while gentle waves licked the shore, with a moon rising overhead, we arranged to meet Gustavio, who was to become our tequila and mezcal shaman, initiating us to agave-based spirit wonders. Tequila… I have not such pleasant memories of you from my university days… But nothing could have prepared me for the pure and sublime meeting with ‘real’ tequila and mezcal on the beach that night.
Mezcal is an ancient spirit. An aperitif which aids in digestion and a general glow, it was once used as a courage tonic to help the Mayans war with the Spaniards. It is created from specific agave plants and over-cooked to produce an earthy, sexy smokiness. In general, I’m a red wine kind of girl, but that night I became a maiden of mezcal, sipping the spirit on ice (downing is so twentieth century!) and cleaning our palates between each sip with a half wheel sour orange sprinkled with worm salt. It was mid-sip and lick that Gustavio revealed that worm salt is made from… surprise… toasted worms, sourced from the agave plant itself. But the mezcal ship had sailed. I liked what I was tasting, and when Gustavio then brought out the chilli-fried grasshoppers, I took one breath and crossed the grasshopper rubicon.
By day, Tulum is a beach and bikini idyll. It’s randomly eclectic with a surprising psychic buzz; holiday makers might stroll through the village following signs like ‘follow that dream’ or ‘embrace the mystery’, rock on a hammock while reading a book or sway on a swing at a beach bar while sipping a matcha smoothie.
I found there to be a disproportionate ratio of swings to humans in Tulum. Maybe that’s why everyone is so happy.
People on vacation here might dine on vegan food after one of the many yoga classes on offer on virtually every street, or browse little shops, which with beguiling under-statement, sell high-end, uniquely beautiful fashion items. Then at night, as the sun sets, the restaurants become aglow with candle light and managers walk through their eateries waving incense as a kind of welcome benediction – to their guests but not the insects. Holiday-makers string on some clothes – and whether you are in your slip-slops or your evening wear – everyone looks beautiful in Tulum as they make their way to the jungle strip where the restaurants hug the frame of the village. In Tulum, traditional restaurant boundaries come down as the restaurant is in the jungle and the cooking intermingles with the eating. Every restaurant is a surprise story. What follows are some of my highlights:
Favourite Dish of the Holiday:
Mexican octopus (pulpo) is a real speciality. The octopus maya is native to the Yucatan Peninsula. It was truly, utterly the best octopus I have ever tasted in my life!
Favourite restaurant with a story:
At Nü, I was so enamoured with the food, I slipped into the kitchen to discover seven chefs from Mexico City who had taken a ‘brotherfood’ vow, emblazoned the heptagon tattoo on themselves (the emblem of their future restaurant) and then moved to Tulum to open Nü. I almost took on the tattoo to become the eighth chef.
David, Saffron, Scarlett’s and my most favourite Tulum Restaurant:
Kitchen Table received an encore from my family. My favourite was the octopus, Saffron and Scarlett loved the tuna and David’s winning dish was the pork ribs (my girls and I can’t take responsibility for what my atheist, Jewish husband eats!!) We then all indulged in the salted-caramel pot and David and I savoured the artisanal mezcal.
My Favourite Cocktail:
I’m not usually a fan of the common cocktail, which I find errs on the side of sticky and sweet, but the cocktails in Tulum are tempered by mezcal’s mature flavour. The smoky mezcal cocktail from Arca is now on my best list. Its mixture of tamarind, roasted pineapple and passion fruit, dressed with a lemon-grass straw (it is Tulum after-all), was everything a cocktail should be, flavourful with bite, a hint of sweet and a lot of swoon.
El Pez won the prize for best ceviche with fish just caught off the coast, offset by a delicious red-pepper reduction.
Best Birthday Dinner:
To celebrate my birthday we went for an eleven course meal to the table of Chef Eleazar Bonilla. Eleazar envisioned a twelve-seater restaurant, reminiscent of his home dining experience, replete with photos of his grandmother. Some highlights included a spread of corn tortillas in different colours drawing on the varieties of corn available. I loved listening to one of the chefs introducing each menu item to us in his melodious Mayan tongue.
Best non-Mexican Restaurant:
Posada Margarita is built like a little Italian enclave with guest huts and gorgeous little gift stalls surrounding a central eating area. Our feet tingled in soft, white sand as we tucked into balls of burrata.
Hardest to get into:
Hartwood is the essence of eco-green. Because there is so much hype, I thought I would be disappointed…but I wasn’t! I really loved everything about it, from the food to the space, to the ethos.
Most Traditional Restaurant:
I was so excited to discover this little restaurant which dripped with Mexican authenticity from the hacienda style windows to the skulls in the corners and nooks which held objects filled with religious and cultural significance. The place felt stripped of caricature. The style, the architecture down to the little altars conjured up memories of our Mexican party which had been exactly this; my personal quest to achieve a genuine Mexican aesthetic. It was a highlight to be welcomed into Mayan chef Claudia Perez’s kitchen and roll up my sleeves to help her in the preparation of a Mexican mole.
Most Trendy and Fun:
We went to Rosanegra, a Latin-American style dinner and party place, for one of my pre-birthday dinners. In the middle of sampling yet another heavenly pulpo, the room went dark, the music moved from ambient to party-vibe, the waiters transformed into something out of a Quentin Tarantino film and my daughters’ eyes opened wide in amazement. I won’t say more to preserve the surprise.
Nômade. Eaten reclining on floor pillows!
Best Street Food:
My husband David loves discovering good street food on our trips. Antojitos La Chiapaneca, a little taco bar, lived up to all expectations.
Acai bowls at Raw Love
Our Happy Place, the Cenotes:
The Yucatan region of Mexico has some of the most beautiful cenotes in the world. Cenotes are sinkholes filled with groundwater. The beautiful azure water is sourced from deep, subterranean pools. The Mayans believed these cenotes to be a portal to the underworld and they were often used as sites for ritual and sacrifices. Most are found in sheltered sites of rock and caves. Because they consist of rainwater that filters through the ground, the water in cenotes is often exquisitely clear. I remember the first time we descended to one, I could not believe something so otherworldly and beautiful existed. One needs to shower and strip off all sunscreen before descending into the mystic blue. Cenotes were our happy, healing, go-to place to bond as a family – and David used it as his local gym!
Valladolid and an Urgent Phone Call
After a week of grid-free, fine jungle dining, we left Tulum with a heavy heart. We bade farewell to lovely Gustavio and my exquisite girl-crush at the clothing store and we headed off on a road trip to Merida to explore the inland culture of Mexico. En-route, we stopped in Valladolid, at the highly recommended Hosteria Del Marques. Constructed in mid-seventeenth century, Hosteria del Marques was initially an old colonial home converted into an outdoor restaurant. A traditional hacienda courtyard paid homage to a central water fountain surrounded by plants and flowers. Patrons chatted intimately as they ate their lunch and the piece de resistance was a tiny Mayan woman donned in traditional Mexican dress, rolling out tortillas using nothing but authentic maize flour, salt and water. As David and Saffron settled in, Scarlett and I slipped out to visit the chocolate shop across the road. I must have been mid-chocolate bite when I received an emergency phone-call. ‘They are making the guacamole,’ cried David. Between chocolate and avocado, what’s a girl to do?!
We ran back… and just in time, for a man had wheeled out a little wooden trolley and was preparing the Lieberman table guacamole using an authentic molcajete, volcanic rock crafted as pestle and mortar. On his plate were the essentials for any guacamole: avocados, cilantro, chopped red onion, tomato and lime. Guacamole: a simple delicacy that can go so wrong. We watched as he removed the avocados from their skins and placed them bum-side up in the molcajete. He then threw the cilantro, tomatoes, lime and chopped onion onto the receptive green humps and mashed the ingredients with just the right vigour, leaving some chunks for texture. With a dash of flair, he seasoned at the end. Each guacamole is a once in a lifetime experience. You will never have that avocado again. I thanked David for the phone-call. SOS it was. And the adventure continued….
The Secret Ingredient
Feliz Navidad! We arrived in Merida the day before Christmas and drove through the town centre, frenetic with Christmas activity. People were buying all things ‘Navidad’. The objects most desired, in every colour, shape and size were… piñatas! Every shop burst with them and every shopper was holding at least one. As we drove further into the centre of Merida, I apprehended a sense of faded glory. Once upon a time, the wealthy sisel barons had populated the town bringing their architects from France to design Versailles-style mansions in the city streets. You may imagine that I felt right at home. These barons were famous for growing and then exporting the specialist straw carpets made from an agave species, to all corners of the world. We arrived at our hotel, Boutique by the Museo, located in a quieter part of town, and settled into our room on the edge of a beautiful pool centred hacienda style courtyard. The next day I was introduced to the chef, a gentle giant called Esteban who was to become my guide to the world of the local, Mexican market place. Each stall in the market was home to a specialist food in all its detailed glory. As we walked, Esteban exposed me to the many varieties of chillies. Together we felt the banana leaves, so central to Mexican cooking and we explored the different citruses, the knobbly lime and his smoother sister, as well as the now famed sour orange. I watched agape as women ground maize from husk to flour to dough – which we then bought. I also learned from vendor specialists about the multiple types of moles, the red and black varieties, the myriad ingredients that form the mole base and the different cooking methods; some are cooked underground, while others sweat in a fire.
When we got home, we tenderly wrapped a Mexican chicken in banana leaves and smothered it in a mole sauce. I believe even this chicken would have felt… it was a good way to go! We also made some homemade tortillas which you can see me rolling below. Throughout my travels in Mexico, I was often stymied by the complex flavours in the food. Usually I have a subtle palate and can pick up even the most elusive of ingredients but there was one flavour I couldn’t quite get my taste-buds around. Esteban was the one to finally explain to me that it wasn’t an ingredient so much as a method that often characterizes Mexican food: The food is charred!!! To accompany our chicken we made a charred tomato salsa. We took tomatoes and onions and we cooked them to a husky smokiness without a drop of oil. Then we threw in a special ground pumpkin seed mix, which added a nutty flavour and texture to the salsa. On our return to South Africa, to feed my new-found craving, I’ve been making up this pumpkin seed mix myself.
From Merida, we took a day-trip to Celestún, a beautiful fishing village famous for its pink flamingoes and the pink water they inhabit. Born with grey feathers, the flamingoes feed on a diet of algae, larvae and brine-shrimp which transforms their feathers from grey to pink. Their pinkiness gives new meaning to the adage, ‘you are what you eat.’ We also had one of the best seafood meals in Celestún, at Restaurant Los Pampanos, while sitting on plastic chairs sunken in soft beach sand.
From Tulum, to Valledolid to Merida, by the end of the trip, I was starry-eyed, hippie-chicqued, quacamoled, cocktailed, mezcaled and salsaed to my core. But there is just one postscript to my Mexico story. It starts and it ends with La Cucaracha. On our trip, I kept on teasing my family as we moved from restaurant to restaurant that tonight was going to be the night I would stand on the table and re-live my childhood, offering my La Cucaracha rendition to all and sundry. And then one day, it happened. It wasn’t in a restaurant or a space of public notoriety. It wasn’t even La Cucaracha. It was on a beach in Tulum. I felt the warm sand under my feet and the spray from the waves playfully kissing my skin and a surge of the most immense gratitude for the gift of life washed over me; for these travels, for the joy of food, for the pleasure of tasting and for the love of my family. I danced for the sheer joy of it, my own Karen-dance. And the reward this time?… the Mexican sand beneath my feet.
Sikil P’ak, Mayan Salsa
1 small red onion, quartered
3 large tomatoes, quartered
Quarter bunch of coriander, chopped
100 grams of ground roasted pumpkin seed*
A quarter cup of sour orange juice (alternatively, if you don’t live in Mexico :-), use equal measures of lime and orange juice combined to get a quarter cup)
Sea-salt to taste
Place your tomatoes and red onion in a pan on medium heat. Cook the tomato and red onion on the pan leaving it intact on one side until the skin is blackened. Then turn over and repeat. Do not use any oil. Using a pestle and mortar, add the cooked tomato and red onion. Pound gently. Continue to add the chopped coriander and sour-orange juice mix and lastly the pumpkin seed powder* continually pounding everything together with the pestle. The consistency is important, it should be a good balance of smooth yet still quite chunky. Season to taste, enjoy with corn tortilla chips, crudité or whatever moves you.
* To make pumpkin seed powder ( Pumpkin seeds are also known as pepitas which are green, shelled pumpkin seeds)
Preheat your oven to 150 celcius. Roast pepitas in the oven, close to the grill for about ten minutes. Grind them in a coffee grinder, or using a pestle and mortar.
The Perfect Guacamole Serves 4
6T finely chopped red onions
Chopped chillies to taste (I use about a teaspoon)
3 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro (don’t forget to the use stalks, that’s where the flavour lies)
1 teaspoon of salt
2 ripe avocados, cubed* (preferably Hass)
2 small vine ripened tomatoes (Slice them in half horizontally, cut out the stem ,scoop out the seeds and the centre with a spoon, and chop)
In a small bowl ,thoroughly mash the 2 tablespoons of the chopped onion ,the chillies, one teaspoon of the cilantro, and salt with the back of a wooden spoon until it is a juicy paste
If you want to know the best way of cutting and cubing an avocado, here it is…
Holding the avocado in the palm of your hand, cut it in half lengthwise around the pit with a paring knife. Twist the top half of the avocado to separate the halves. Carefully hit the pit with the edge of a sharp knife and twist to remove the seed. Slice it lengthwise into approximately quarter inch strips and then across to form a grid and make cubes. Scoop the avocado out with a spoon next to the skin. Do not mash! You want your avocado a mix of soft yet slightly chunky.
Add the avocado to the paste in the bowl.
Add the remaining onion, cilantro and all the chopped tomato, and gently fold to incorporate all the ingredients. Add more chillies and salt to taste.
Serve with freshly made tortillas or tortilla chips.
- Adjust the amount of chillies in the recipe for mild , medium or hot guacamole
- The key to this basically simple dish is the ripeness and freshness of the ingredients and that the chunky consistency allows for a beautiful retaining of the flavours.
- The flavour is best if the ingredients are crushed in a molcajete (a volcanic stone), or a mortar and pestle. If none are available, a metal bowl is fine.
See you in December in Tulum!! I will be the one on the table doing the La Cucaracha with David, Saffron and Scarlett a paler shade of crimson.
Adios for now,