The Yum List chats with Chef Carmela of La Mexicana, Authentic Mexican Cuisine in Kuala Lumpur
Why Malaysia? What drew you to setting up a Mexican restaurant in Kuala Lumpur?
Initially I came with my husband for a work project but the Mexican Ambassador encouraged me to establish a "real" Mexican restaurant. I am deeply grateful for the support of His Excellency Jorge A. Lozoya and for Patricia Vazquez Marin for their enthusiasm.
From what region in Mexico are you originally from and what is a typical dish from that region?
I was born in DF (Mexico City) but my mother is from Guadalajara in Jalisco State (Mexico’s second largest city). My father emigrated from Italy and like many others immediately fell in love with the culture, warmth and passion of Mexico and its people. Each State of the Republic has its own individual and original products, therefore its distinct flavors.
Jalisco has many different dishes and is considered by many to offer the finest food in all of Mexico. The Pozole soup is a meal in itself with an abundance of different flavors and ingredients, all based around succulent kernels of maize. “Cacahuazintle” is also typical of this region and will soon be featured direct from Mexico to our menu, so dont miss it. Another typical dish which is already among our appetizers is the hot Tortas Ahogadas which can be a tasty snack or a main meal, spicy, hot and delicious anytime.
In our kitchen at La Mexicana we cook with the maximum quantity of original and authentic Mexican products (we are even growing some here). It has not been easy or cheap to bring fresh products such as Nopales (Cactus) but it has become one of the most popular dishes at La Mexicana. Mexican cuisine needs a lot of preparation time and at home we have a glass of Tequila and perhaps some Botanas (appetizers) to help the process along. For this reason the Lunch Hour is so famous in Mexico, because no-one knows exactly when it starts and even less when it will finish. I know its not easy to change the World to the idea of a Mexican Lunch Hour but I am doing what I can to try give the World this concept, so civilized and delightful.
Is all Mexican food spicy?
No, on the contrary. We have dozens of types of chili and while some are very hot indeed, many others have a soft subtle flavor. This is another marvelous aspect of the age old Mexican traditional as we possess such a huge quantity of flavors and of chilies and spices we can play with the flavors, colors, textures and heat. Most dishes have spicy sauces and condiments on the side and you can adjust the "heat" according to your taste.
What are typical drinks in Mexico? Does everyone really drink shots of tequila for breakfast?
Tequila is the national drink of course and is served at almost all social occasions. Breakfast usually not, but certainly a small glass with sangrita, lemon and salt before lunch is almost obligatory for any Mexican. Even my mother has a glass of Tequila before lunch to open the appetite. And its good for your heart! (improves circulation) Tequila and more recently Mezcal has experienced a boom and has become very popular in Mexico, before, during and after meals. Try the Anejo (aged) for a fuller flavor and the silver for a lighter taste.
How did you get into the industry? What led you to become a chef?
Like most chefs my passion comes from a long love affair with good food on both sides of my family. Life revolved around the table in Mexico (as in Italy) and good food is central to every social occasion. My family has a passion for food and I embrace the passion and also feel it is my duty to protect the wonderful culinary heritage we have in Mexico and protect it from its nemesis, the Tex-Mex Style.
What's something you'd like Malaysians to know about Mexican food?
I would like Malaysians to know our cuisine is not Tex-Mex.
TexMex was born in Texas in the USA which of course originally was part of Mexico and of course many “Mexicans” stayed on the “other side” as we say in Mexico and of course made a fusion by combining the tastes of both sides of the frontier, hence Tex Mex which should not be confused with the authentic Mexican cuisine. It is for this reason that I have given myself the job of demonstrating the real flavors of the Mexico, this fascinating country of contrasts, flavors and regions. True Mexican cuisine comes in a multitude of varieties of ingredients to suit all tastes and of course we have one of the longest culinary traditions in the World. The UNESCO recognition of Mexican Cuisine as part of the Cultural Heritage of Mankind in 2010 gave us great pride and we want Malaysians to see for themselves why we deserved this award.
What's your favorite Malaysian dish?
I am a huge fan of noodles and while I realize this is more drawing on the Chinese Malay traditions I cannot help but enjoy the handmade noodles we have here in Malaysia. I also of course enjoy the fresh seafood that makes me feel at home. The abundance of fresh crab, prawns and all types of fish are a delight and of course for desert mangosteen, mangos and lychees as well as my personal favorite, chilled watermelon are just wonderful.
Thank you Chef Carmela!