Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Celebrating Mexican Cuisine at Frida

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner at Frida Restaurant, here in Toronto, by the Mexico Tourism Board.  The dinner was held to celebrate the first ever gastronomy recognition by UNESCO for Traditional Mexican Cuisine. Acknowledged as an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of increasing globalization, Traditional Mexican cuisine - ancestral, ongoing community culture, the Michoacán paradigm is now part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an elite list of traditions, practices and rituals that
encourage intercultural dialogue and shared identity. Mexican cuisine is one of the first cuisines or national food offering to be declared a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage and was officially recognized on November 16, 2010 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.*

Traditional Mexican cuisine reflects a comprehensive cultural model of farming, community and ancestral practices, and culinary techniques. Native ingredients such as tomatoes, squashes, avocados, cocoa and vanilla make up some of the basic staples of Mexican cuisine and help create many of the States regional and national identities.*

I felt honored to be asked to be a part of such a special celebration and was even happier that it was in honor of Mexican food, one of my favorite types of food.  This recognition of a traditional cuisine on a global level shows even how important food is to culture and how important it is to share these traditions with each generation.  It shows the impact that passing down recipes and stories can have and furthers my believe that food is as much about the story and experience as it is about filling your tummy.

I've been wanting to go to Frida for quite some time especially because as I've mentioned before good Mexican is few and far between here in Toronto.   And Frida falls into the far category, the unfortunate fact is that it took Mama Shack and I an hour on a brutally cold night to get across town. But get there we did and after you hear about the fabulous meal we had, you will see why I'll brave the drive again to bring the boy to Frida.  

We opened the meal with a glass of prosecco and an introduction and toast from our host Guillermo Eguiarte, Director, Mexico Tourism Board.  He thanks us all for being there and talked a little bit about the importance of the UNESCO designation.  It was clear that he and his guest including the Mexican consulate were very proud of this special honor.  Then our chef host of the night, Jose Haddad, came out from the kitchen to tell us a bit about our meal. 

The amuse bouche was inspired by UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic centre of Mexico.  Chef Haddad gave us three tastes of traditional Mexican street food. First was a Tostada de Tinga, chipotle and tomato braised onions.  The onions were packed with flavor and that pleasant slow burn that chipotles bring to the party, sitting atop a crispy tortilla for some nice crunch.   I generally like onions, but Chef Haddad took them to another level with this bite.  Next was the Volcan de Cabrito en Salsa Verde, braised goat with salsa verde with Oaxacan cheese melted on top. The goat was ever so slightly gamey and went so well with the tart salsa verde and savory melted cheese. Yet another full-flavored bite.  Last, but certainly not least in my book, was the carnitas taco.  Carnitas are truly my favorite and exactly the flavor I was hoping to end this course with.  The carnitas lived up to my expectations, perfectly tender and paired wonderfully with the rich and creamy guacamole and the crunch of the mini taco shell.  It was a mix of textures and flavors that was my ideal.  After this first course I was a happy girl and ready to return to just eat the carnitas tacos, with a side of chipotle onions and goat.

Our next course was a traditional Tortilla Soup.  Again Chef Haddad came out to talk about the dish and it's inspiration UNESCO World Heritage site Luis Barragan House & Studio.  I have to be honest, I couldn't really pay attention to what he was saying because the wafting aroma of the soup was so completely distracting.  I do know that the house & studio are representative of the Modern Movement.  But more importantly in the soup I smelled tomato, pasilla pepper, cilantro, just a hint of chicken stock.  When it was finally OK to have a taste I couldn't help but dive right into the creamy soup with just the slightest bit of heat.  Even though it was a big bowl of soup and I knew I had three more courses, I couldn't help but politely slurp it all up.  This soup was comfort food at it's best, warming and hearty on this blustery night. 

Chef Haddad found the inspiration for the second course in one of the new  seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza.  The Pescado "Xtickin Chic" was a pacific seabass marinated in Annato Garlic and cooked in a banana leaf and topped with pickled red onions, and as we were told was a traditional Maya preparation in the spirit of the Mayan ruins that were the inspiration.  It was a feast for the senses from the interesting presentation, to the scents that hit me when I pulled open the banana leaf, full of lime, garlic and fresh perfectly cooked seabass, to the flavor and texture when I tasted it.  The fish was cooked perfectly, tender and flaky and made even better when tasted along with the pickled onions.   The fish was paired with a local Ontario wine, the Henry of Pelham Off-Dry Riesling because as Chef Haddad said when they can't get Mexican they go for Canadian, in the spirit of supporting local.  The wine was a perfect paring with the fish, really rounding out the course. 

At this point, I have to say that I was pretty well stuffed.  The food was delicious and yet I knew I had two more courses coming.  Mama Shack was more conservative as she ate, saving room for each subsequent course, I couldn't exercise the same restraint though.  It was a shame since the next was one of my favorite Mexican dishes Pollo en Mole Negro Oaxaqueno, which is chicken in Oaxacan Black Mole.  The mole was inspired by the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro or the Silver Route. Though my photo doesn't depict it as well as I'd like, this dish was amazing.  Traditional black mole has something insane like 30 ingredients and can take days to make, this is why I've never attempted it myself and now knowing where I can find it so well done will likely keep me from trying it anytime soon.  You could smell and taste those thirty some odd ingredients in the full-bodied sauce.  From the cocoa to the chile to the sesame seeds to the cinnamon to so many more you could taste it all and yet it all married into a delicious sauce that I'd happily drink on it's own.  While I couldn't fit much of the chicken into my overstuffed tummy I definitely ate as much as possible, even just taking little tastes of sauce as the course progressed.  It was paired with one of my favorite Mexican beers Negra Modelo which was yet another perfect food and drink pairing.  The beer really held up to the flavorful sauce and made it even better, as if that was possible. 

Last but certainly not least was dessert.  The Pastel de 3 Leches or Tres Leches Cake was what I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint.  The cake just burst with coconut milk flavor with each and every bite.  Along with the cake was a traditional Flan and Bunuelos con Miel de Rosas.  I didn't catch what the Bunuelos were exactly but they were reminiscent of fried strips of flour tortilla rolled in cinnamon and sugar and they were divine.  Flan is not my favorite and unfortunately this one didn't change my opinion, but after a meal where I enjoyed everything else to have one not be a home run is ok in my book.  Dessert was paired with an Anejo Tequila that had been aged in oak for a year and a half.  Now I am not a tequila drinker, but I took a little sip of this and it was actually delicious and I could see how it went well with our desserts.  

We finished with a Thank You from Chef Haddad and Senor Eguiarte, and rolled ourselves the door into the cold to begin our trek home.  All in all it was a wonderful evening and I think both Mama Shack and I are looking forward to returning to Frida sometime soon. 

Frida Restaurant
999 Eglinton Avenue West

About the Mexico Tourism Board
The Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) brings together the resources of federal and state governments, municipalities and private companies to promote Mexico's tourism attractions and destinations internationally. Created in 1999, the MTB functions as an executive agency of Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat, with autonomous management and the broad participation of the private sector. The MTB has offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America. 

* These sections were pulled from the Mexico Toursim Board's press release.

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