VERACRUZ, Mexico – Mexican chef Raquel Torres Cerdan learned to cook on the fires of the most remote indigenous communities in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz, where every seasoning has a personal and community history behind it.
“Indigenous cooking is all simplicity and contact with the land,” Raquel said in an interview with EFE.
For more than 30 years, this brown-skinned woman with simple manners has traveled around indigenous areas of the mountains and coast of the Veracruz region on the Gulf of Mexico to discover the roots of native cooking.
“The seasoning of indigenous dishes is the personal history of whoever does the cooking, the history of his or her community and surroundings,” said the anthropologist, 70, who dedicates her life to preserving the recipes of the Mesoamerican peoples.
From the 10 native groups that inhabit large territories, she learned the best Indian dishes, from the mint cakes with purple maize atole of the Otomi people, to the beans seasoned with the quelite herb of the Nahuatls, to the steamed tamales of the Temek and the crabs and turtles in green mole sauce of the Totonacas, and so much more.
Torres understood the cultural, family and personal significance of the different foods, and said that pre-Columbian cuisine “sums up history, culture, traditions, passions and emotions.”
“We have a rich cuisine, and with every change of season we can dine in a different way, because nature is very generous.”
In the most remote areas, she said women use just what they have around them: aromatic herbs from the patio, maize and beans from the fields, and the animals and insects of the land they live on.
Torres said that as a young girl, she “never liked cooking and never even learned to cook eggs.” Her mother, Guillermina Cerdan, never taught her any of her own kitchen skills, since in the past, cooking gave women “control” over the family.
But when her father rose from being a farm hand through many trades to finally own a popular restaurant called La Parroquia, she had an awakening.
“When I entered La Parroquia and saw a man” dedicated to international cuisine, “it was great discovery: there were cuisines different from the one at home,” she said.
Her decision to rescue native cooking first came when she opened the restaurant “La Churreria del Recuerdo,” and discovered, when she sought to expand its menu with dishes from over 130 years ago, that there wasn’t a single recipe book of dishes “for the poor.”
“There wasn’t one recipe book of the food I ate as a kid and that decided me. Recipe books are made for those who know how to read and write, in other words, for the rich, and I ate food for the poor,” Torres said.