Editorial Feature

The Fascination with Otherness in the History of Gastronomy

Mexican chef Martha Ortiz on her country’s gastronomic heritage

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire – the largest political organization in Central America in the early 16th century – was an enormously important historical event. Almost 500 years on, its significance is still as relevant as ever.

Those who destroyed Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) recognized its exquisiteness. The Aztecs surrendered reluctantly to the conquistadors, believing those men, who had arrived by sea from the east, were the messengers of the great god Quetzalcóatl. Aztec cosmogony, expressed from its earliest days as a series of prophecies and predictions, would drag the empire into its own downfall.

Despite the Spanish overpowering the city, Moctezuma (the ninth ruler of Tenochtitlan, reigning from 1502 to 1520) was fascinated by "the other" and records show that this fascination was reciprocated. Later, "the other" would become all of Europe. It is a well-known fact that Mexico, through its land, geography, civilization, and history, shared its customs and ingredients with the world. These included a corn-based diet, manners and figures of speech, herbal medicine, chocolate, avocados, tomatoes, amaranth, a whole range of chilies, and peanuts.

Maria goes to Mictlán and returns victorious from Martha Ortiz (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Spain and Mexico are two sides of a single reality, united by history and culture. Although they are separated by geography, this is a minor obstacle that's easily overcome. Mexico may have officially been one of Spain's overseas possessions, but in a cultural sense (or, rather, an emotional one) Spain would not be the phenomenon that it is today without Mexico.

Mexico – a nation of gastronomy, sovereignty, and independence – has written its own history, its evolution, and its greatest culinary moments using ingredients from Europe. Its inhabitants have planted the seeds of national, gastronomic wealth and created the perfect fusion of personality and spirit.

Mexico is a precious jewel whose gifts of cocoa, chili, and tortillas are juxtaposed with Spanish ingredients such as sesame (which in turn came from the Moors – the result of another conquest), sweet wheat bread, and a few precious spices, creating the very best "barroco" sauce – the forefather of Mexican mole sauce – that runs through the veins of every Mexican.

Chichilo with beef cheek, exquisite esquites corn salad, banana in mescal and a sapodilla dagger from Martha Ortiz (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Cathedrals with crosses were built over temples with feathers. Clay pots were seduced by wooden spoons. Those same pots cooked overnight on wood fires, and a low flame, waiting for nightfall, to see the spoon placed on its hanger in the morning.

Our vast gastronomic inventory was developed gradually, but with deep movements that consolidated our culinary nation. Those breaths of mutual fascination create symphony and harmony in our nation, using sounds peppered with silence, colors, textures, and intoxicating aromas, combined to make the perfect recipe from the New and Old World. Mexican gastronomy recognizes its lineage and its heritage, which today forms a perfect, virtuous circle.

Crispy sphere of dark dough with liquid cheese and pipián sauce from Martha Ortiz (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

And so, through my own gastronomy I understand the journey taken by the mother and the father of my country. I don't make tapas; I make Mexican "antojitos" that are made with corn, by the hands of chefs who knead dough to the beat of their own music. And with that sound, the feast begins, bringing in dishes with a Spanish heritage but that, according to how I think, feel and am, have become dishes in their own right. They have become narratives which include – among hundreds of others – colorful tortilla soups, thick soups flavored with wormseed and garnishes, and ceviches (which have been appropriated not only by Mexico but also by me) with pineapple butterflies to lift the palate sky high.


Grouper ceviche with sapodilla and salted mandarin sorbet from Martha Ortiz (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

I now find intoxicating notes of ash and stone in the dark lifeblood known as black mole sauce, which transports me to Mictlán with María and the flavors of my story. This emblematic dessert of the Sweet Fatherland, which takes on a different appearance with every passing month, sometimes adorned with pink ribbons, or with freshly harvested corn, or smoked with guava, victoriously exits this sharp, stony path, which can at times lead me to reflect, but with more grace and character. These are the gastronomic jewels of the original, beloved Fatherland and are gifts from our fathers' land.

That is how I was born, how I grew up, and how I live. Standing up for an outward-looking Mexico – a gastronomic nation, the epicenter that sparks the interest of chefs worldwide.

I love being Mexican. And with that, I will end this piece and complete the circle of culinary textures.

Words by Martha Ortiz
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