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Food writer Nicola Miller opens the pages of a new cookbook and delights in the food of Northern Mexico

I usually include at least eight cookbooks in my seasonal round-ups. This time, I wanted to focus on just one - a book about the food of Northern Mexico written by a London-based Mexican author. Karla Zazueta is a recipe developer, cooking teacher and founder of the website Mexican Food Memories. Norteña: Authentic Family Recipes from Northern Mexico is her first cookbook.

“Even though I have been living in London for the last twenty years, I still cook the same family recipes I grew up eating. I’m living proof that you can take a Norteñan out of the north, but you can’t take the north out of a Norteña’s heart,” Zazueta writes in her introduction. Zazueta’s food is familiar because I lived in Saltillo, the state capital of Coahuila, a five-hour drive from the US border, and my diet remains heavily influenced by the food I ate growing up. But Zazueta’s book is not mired in the past. Her words and recipes show how this historic, regionally embodied cuisine has evolved at the hands of a contemporary cook. This former Saltillense is delighted.

It’s about time a good book about Northern Mexican food was published. In the UK, so many modern Mexican cookbooks focus on the food traditions of Central and Southern Mexico. You can boil this down further to our (relatively) recent national obsession with corn tacos, which is media-driven to a certain degree. Tacos possess photogenic, vibrant good looks, and their tactile, ritualised style of eating makes them extremely attractive to TikTok influencers, some recipe developers, and people who have spent a few weeks in Mexico, discovering themselves and decided this makes them uniquely qualified to pitch a taco cookbook or open a food truck. As delicious as they are, tacos made with corn tortillas have become a lazy Western synecdoche for Mexican food. Throw in Margaritas, Tequila shots and ‘guac’, and you have quite the cliché; an even more unimpressive feat when you take into account comments made by José R Ralat, an editor at Texas Monthly and author of the book, American Tacos, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “Mexicans have folded things in tortillas for thousands of years, but they weren’t always called tacos.”

Nortena, Authentic Family Recipes From The North Of Mexico by Karla Zazueta
Nortena, Authentic Family Recipes From The North Of Mexico by Karla Zazueta

Some more context: Northern Mexican cuisine has been indelibly influenced by colonialism, migration and its proximity to the USA. But ignorance of the complex historical interplay between Northern Mexico, Europe and the USA has produced a lens through which norteño food culture is seen by some Americans and Europeans as ‘less’ authentic and therefore inferior to pre-Columbian Mexican food traditions, in particular those from the Central and Southern parts of the country. Burritos are one casualty of this inverse snobbery: “I have been told the burrito is an American invention. Mexicans do not eat flour tortillas,” said Pati Jinich, the eminent Mexican chef and food writer. Zazuela writes about one of her first memories of food in Mexico where she ate a burrito made by her father as the family travelled to Sinaloa on a bus: “The smell of the soft homemade flour tortilla, stuffed with a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth shredded beef stew is something that always makes me think of home.” Burritos are genealogically Mexican no matter where they are made.

In northern Mexico, wheat flour tortillas are rolled and stretched rather than pressed and then cooked on a hot comal. Wheat arrived in the north of Mexico with the Spanish conquistadors, Zazueta tells us, and Indigenous people began to use it instead of corn to make their tortillas: wheat grows well in this part of Mexico. “Each state in north Mexico has its way of making tortillas – in Sonora, they are famous for their tortillas sobaqueras, a very large tortilla that is hand stretched and then cooked over an iron dome heated with wood. In Chihuahua, they add baking powder to the tortilla dough to make it puff easily. In Coahuila, the tortillas are a bit thicker,” she writes. Maíz tortillas are eaten, she says, but tend to be bought fresh from a tortilleria.

To begin with, Zazueta takes us through what she calls the Encenciales Del Norte (Northern Essentials), the tortillas, beans, salsas, and traditional beef dishes (Spanish colonisers introduced cattle and swine to the north) that are this cuisine’s fulcrum. A machaca (dried beef) recipe marries Indigenous techniques (the northern Tarahumaras and Yaquis tribes used to dry deer meat). It replaces venison with beef to form the basis of several recipes later in the book. Zazueta tells us the technique of pit grilling was introduced to the north by Sephardi Jews who settled in Nuevo León, writes about the cultural importance of Carne Asada and, later, offers two menus for a Northern-Style BBQ (Asada), one with beef, and one vegetarian. She even shows us how to make Cabrito Al Horno (oven-baked kid) at home, a recipe she adapted from the Sephardi tradition of outdoor spit-roasting. A side dish of Chilitos y Cebollitas Toreados (charred chillies and spring onions in a soy and lime marinade) tells its own story of migration by Chinese people to Baja California, Sonora and Sinaloa. The famous Sonoran hotdogs, where beef frankfurters are wrapped in bacon, fried, stuffed into steamed wheat bread buns before being garnished with a mixture of American condiments and Mexican chillies, are a wonderful example of Mexican culinary genealogy, whilst a chicken red hominy soup (Pozole Rojo de Pollo) retains a closer relationship to its Indigenous past: ‘Pozole’ derives from the Nahuatl word ‘pozolli’, which means ‘sparkling’, she writes.

Map of Northern Mexico
Map of Northern Mexico

I particularly love the sound of Pepinos con Limón y Chile (cooling sliced cucumber doused with lime juice, salt and chilli powder) a tribute to Tajin, the famous Mexican seasoning. There’s a recipe for Chorizo Vegano con Papas for non-meat-eaters, using vegan Mexican Chorizo made in Sinaloa, which tells us much about modern Mexican food trends (although you will probably need to use British-made vegan chorizo), a Caldo de Queso (cheese broth) made with Turkish green peppers instead of the challenging-to-find Anaheims, a Northern-Style Stuffed Cabbage (Repollo Norteno) that can be made with Birds-Eye chillies instead of the very Northern Chiltepins, and a multitude of salad and rice dishes. Zazueta’s experience of cooking Mexican food in the UK proves helpful for those struggling to find Mexican ingredients; she is generous with her advice, offering us a selection of menu suggestions at the end of her book, skilfully combining her recipes to cater for meals for a crowd or two, celebrations, crowds, for vegetarians and those in need of a quick weekday evening meal. Preceding this is the drinks section with a particularly strong set of recipes for agua fresca, the fruit-flavoured water offered at most meals in Mexico. Izquiate, a Chihuahuan drink made with chia seeds, lime and agave syrup, stands out, as does a recipe for Cafe De Olla (with accompanying history) and the Paloma, a classic tequila-based cocktail (Zazueta dubs this ‘Mexico’s gin and tonic’) flavoured with lime and grapefruit.

Northern Mexico is known for its creative use of seafood, benefiting from a coastline bordering the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the East, Zazueta says, and Del Mar, the fish chapter, does her region proud. Some favourites: classic Baja Fish Tacos, a prawn and cheese Taco Gubernador from Mazatlán in Sinaloa named for the visiting state governor by a local restauranteur, three different recipes for Aguachile in which raw fish is cured before being served with tostadas, a soup made with shrimp albondigas (little balls), and an unusual Caguamanta (skate wing soup) popular in Baja and Sinaloa. She also includes a recipe for fried cod fillets with herb sauce, a meal she frequently cooks at home in London to be eaten with her Spring Rice and a prime example of what Zazueta describes as “the recipes that are embedded in us, that we grow up with, cook and repeat – sometimes on a daily or weekly bas. . . [that] have been passed from generation to generation.”

Mexicans love sweetness. Zazueta acknowledges this in a chapter on desserts but warns us that she can only scratch the surface. In Mexico, people make multiple trips to their local panaderia (bakery) to buy bread, yeast-raised pan dulce and other delectable treats and there’s no shame in doing this. You see similar in France, for example. At home, they bake pans of Arroz con Leche, unmould the famous flan cousin to the French creme caramel, prepare sweet potatoes in piloncillo-infused syrup for Christmas, bake masa harina cookies called Coricos to be eaten at home or sold from stalls and, once upon a time, on trains, fry Chimangos (Baja fried dough pieces) for their children, and gather together to make hundreds of pineapple-stuffed tamales. Zazueta offers us recipes for all of these and more.

Norteña: Authentic Family Recipes from Northern Mexico by Karla Zazueta (£26 from Pavilion Books is published on April 25, 2024)

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022