‘The taco was a way of life’: Edson Diaz-Fuentes on growing up in Mexico (Evening Standard)

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Column - Food Memories

Edson Diaz-Fuentes, co-owner of new Shoreditch restaurant Santo Remedio, remembers his childhood experience of the Mexican food markets, by Victoria Stewart

For Edson Diaz-Fuentes, growing up in Mexico City was “a childhood surrounded by food” in which “one of the fundamental things was always going to the markets with my granddad or with my mum, or with my grandmother. You’d go to the market to eat, and to buy products to cook at home.”

In Mexico, he describes, each neighbourhood has its own market, each specialised in different things, meaning that if you wanted more than one thing, you’d have to visit different markets to get them. So for his birthday, he remembers, “my grandma used to ask: ‘what do you want to eat?’ and I’d ask for tamales or something, and so it would be a whole trip in one morning going from one place to another to get the best produce, and asking the lady or gentleman what was available. There were no supermarkets then.”

In between each place, Diaz-Fuentes and his grandmother would have a snack before moving to the next market.

“There’d be a tortilleria and because the traders often tried to make friends, especially with kids, we’d go and we’d have just one tortilla, freshly made, freshly cooked, we’d add a little bit of salt, and that was my treat. Then at the next market it might have been a nectarine or some fruits with chilli powder on top. It was all cheap and seasonal at these markets.”

At certain times of year, the the locals would celebrate different things – like courgette flowers, for example. “When that was in season, everything in the market would be around courgette flowers, from quesadillas to stews, different dishes.”

Another treat was often chicken flautas, “which I probably had twice a week. They were those little crispy rolled chiquitos or tacos, with a little bit of crema (because we don’t have sour cream in Mexico), and queso fresco on top, and having one would make my day. If I passed an exam or got good results, my mum would get me those.”

Today, he says the markets are still “amazing. When I go back, some of the sons or the grandsons of the old traders are there now. There are very, very traditional markets where people have traded for years and years, who just specialise in goat meat, for example, or just vegetables or something. And it’s well known that if you want a specific vegetable from the state of Oaxaca, you need to go there to that market and get it right from there – because it’s so reliable.”

Cactus – often grilled – was a normal part of the diet, too: “We eat a lot of meat, so we have the cactus as a part of a vegetable side dish. If you ordered three tacos, you’d have another with cactus. But otherwise cactus is steamed or boiled and then chopped and prepared in a salad. You’d go to the market and ask the lady for a small or medium bag of salad and that is still very, very common. It’s our fast food in Mexico City, where instead of cooking all the time you might go to the market, and grab a prepared salad.”

Meanwhile it was the mighty taco that formed many of Diaz-Fuentes childhood food memories – but he says his mother would never serve them the way they serve them (ready done) in his Shoreditch restaurant.

“My mum would cook the dishes, the stews, the chicken, and the beef, and she’d put the tortillas on the side, so you’d make your own tacos. The salsas are really, really important. For us as a kid they were not spicy – as you don’t like spicy things as a child – but it was really fresh salsa, and you’d have them right next to the chicken and the garnishes, the salsa verde, the onion, the coriander.”

For this chef, “the taco was a way of life” – but it wasn’t limited to home cooking. Come Friday at 3pm, his grandmother used to collect him from school and they’d buy barbecoa tacos together.

“There was a period when it was mandatory to go and eat tacos at the market. Each stand in the market has its own speciality. You’d go to one place and you’d get the best beef barbecoa tacos, and right next to it was a different barbecoa, done in a different style, from a different region. As well as that, each place has its own unique salsa. Noone says what’s in it – they will say tomato or tomatillo base but the rest is a secret. And when I grew up, around the time of high school, it was like ‘oh you have to go here, because the beef taco is the best cure for a hangover, or the best cure for… anything really!’ And for me it was just about queueing, seeing the steam, seeing the people, and ordering just one taco for myself as my treat.”

Edson Diaz-Fuentes is the co-owner of the new Mexican restaurant, Santo Remedio, 22 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3AY; santoremedio.co.uk

Follow Victoria on Twitter @vicstewart

Article appeared in Evening Standard, June 2016