Unlike the hordes of travellers adding Mexico to their travel bucket lists, Peter Kuruvita had never considered the vast Latin American country as a dream destination.
Strange, then, that the London-born, Sri Lankan-raised, Australian-based chef chose Mexico as the setting for his latest television series.
“I was full of the same preconceptions others would have – that it’s a dangerous place and riddled with drugs and gangsters,” says Kuruvita.”But that’s all part of the allure for me – I like a bit of danger. But even then, I don’t think Mexico was high up on the list.”
It was the show’s executive producer, Henry Motteram – who had worked with Kuruvita on previous series My Sri Lanka With Peter Kuruvita and Island Feast With Peter Kuruvita – who convinced the chef that Mexico should be next on their list.
“It would seem there is no other cuisine more prevalent but misrepresented than Mexican,” Motteram says. “Everywhere in the world you can find a Mexican restaurant with its bright sombreros and cartoon Mexican characters with huge moustaches adorning the walls, and in just about all of them you can get nachos dripping in cheese … and as delicious as this may be to the unaccustomed palate, as any true Mexican will tell you, this is not Mexico!”
So in Mexican Fiesta With Peter Kuruvita, which begins on Food TV this Thursday, the chef travels from the north of the country to the south, covering more than 5000 kilometres in his search for the essence of Mexico – not only its cuisine, but also its people and its history.
As you’d expect from a series presented and co-written by Kuruvita – a renowned chef and restaurateur who operates four restaurants in Australia and Fiji – food obviously plays a vital part in each episode.
Starting in the northern border town of Chihuahua, he makes his way south, visiting cities, mountain towns and coastal villages; meeting locals and sampling traditional dishes along the way.
He experiences Mexico’s culinary and cultural diversity, from fish tacos on the Baja Peninsula to slow-cooked goat in Guadalajara; from peyote in Real de Catorce to blue corn quesadillas in Mexico City; and hot habaneros in the Yucatan Peninsula to fried iguana in Chiapas.
And as fans of the street-style restaurants and food trucks popping up all over New Zealand will attest, Kuruvita discovers Mexican food is about far more than supermarket dinner kits and chilli con carne.
“[There’s] no sour cream, nachos don’t exist, no hard crispy tacos,” Kuruvita says of authentic Mexican cuisine.
“We wanted to demonstrate the breadth of cuisine … showcase the possibilities of cooking Mexican at home without a store-bought packet, and give viewers the chance to create foods that are usually simple, always delicious and filled with the fun and vibrancy of this amazing country,” says Motteram.
For Kuruvita, it was essential the series had more to offer than just delicious recipes. “I think people need to not just see the chefs’ cooking, but also a little bit of the history – the history blew me away there,” he says. “The history and the civilisation have been going for centuries and I think that’s important to portray. And also, who would have known Mexico was such a beautiful and diverse place?
“But the thing that got me the most was the passion and the love and the family-oriented people, and the pride in their food and who they are. It was really good to go out there and see the real Mexico.”
Such an epic journey had its trials, of course. Kuruvita and the crew faced many obstacles during filming – not least an encounter with “a very drunk gangster with a massive chrome-plated gun”. But apart from that, Kuruvita says, he rarely felt unsafe.
“We never got harassed,” he says. “People were genuinely happy to see us. When people travel they need to realise that when you go to party places you don’t go for the culture and that’s where people get in trouble – that’s where the drugs are, that’s where the kidnappings are, that’s where the really bad things are.
“But we stayed away from all of those. We didn’t see tourists until we passed Mexico City, and that was halfway through our journey.”
The biggest challenges the crew faced were logistical. For instance, in the first episode, Kuruvita cooks beef short ribs with pico de gallo sauce … on the edge of the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua – the largest canyon system on Earth.
“These scenes take up to five hours to shoot as everything needs to be perfect: the light, the food, the props and the technical equipment,” says director Josh Martin. “To get to our clifftop location, there is a narrow passage with room enough for one person and certain death on both sides. Peter has been sitting on the very edge for about two hours, alongside a brand new Mexican gas bottle with no regulator.
“The wind keeps gusting up the edge of the canyon, causing the flames to flare up and we have nowhere to run if the unthinkable happens … I was clutching a fire blanket in a heightened sense of stress the entire time, but looking at it now, the scene is spectacular and peculiarly serene.”
For Kuruvita, the most memorable thing about his Mexican adventure was the people he met.
“Just the everyday person – the fisherman, the villagers – so warm and such wonderful people who would share the shirt off their back, give you their last tortilla,” he says. “Mexicans don’t wear sombreros and sit in corners half drunk on tequila; they’re actually very active people who, if anything, like to dress like cowboys. I loved the characters there.”
Kuruvita learnt much about creating authentic Mexican cuisine – shortcuts, he says, are easily transferable to any home kitchen.
“I think the main thing is to understand the chilli, and secondly, realising that the world of Mexican food revolves around the salsa. And once you’ve got those two, you’re well on your way.
“The technique I love in Mexican food is you burn the hell out of everything. If you make a mole, everything is burnt. You take the seeds out of a chilli, you burn them black. You get a tortilla, you blacken it. When you’re making some salsas, you blacken the tomatoes, you blacken the chillies.
“For me, it’s really important that any place I go, I don’t want to just go there and eat something, I want to learn the secret of it. Every cuisine has different secrets and I believe I learnt the secrets of Mexican food.”
Martin hopes the series will encourage viewers to discover more about Mexico’s food and the country.
“I hope that over the course of these 10 episodes, our viewers will look at the country in a different light,” he says. “We tried to show the incredibly rich, proud and varied cultures that exist – a collection of cultures that stretch back many thousands of years.
“I want viewers to be salivating as they watch, even if they’ve just had dinner. And maybe, just maybe, their wanderlust may rouse and they’ll start thinking about a trip to Mexico.”
Peter Kuruvita’s Mexico Top 3
“A very old silver mining town in the middle of the Copper Canyon, surrounded by amazing hills. In the canyon live the Raramuri, the original Indians, and they were very welcoming. You could tell people were tense because the gangsters are in those areas; it’s quite close to the border. There was a big fiesta on and they did this amazing parade and everyone came – the gangsters, the military, the police, plus bands. It was a really fun environment.”
“It’s a really beautiful city and there was a town called Zacatecas, an old town which was long abandoned, which was pretty intense as well. It wasn’t dangerous, just incredible – full of history and beauty.”
“What stood out the most was coming down into Oaxaca and San Cristobel, down in the south near the Guatemala border. The Spanish architecture there and the food scene and everything is incredible; beautiful clothes and amber and the lifestyle the people lived, rich in history.”
Mexican Fiesta With Peter Kuruvita, Food TV, 8pm Thursdays from April 24.
Written by KATHY HEGARTY