LONDON, Ont. - If you know the difference between a chimichanga and an empanada, you're probably already a fan of Mexican cuisine. If not, you may not realize what you're missing.
That's one reason a Canadian book publisher has just released a Mexican cookbook by an author from Las Cruces, N.M.
"It (Mexican food) is actually becoming extremely popular all across Canada and the States," says Martine Quibell, manager of publicity for Robert Rose Inc. of Toronto. "There is a huge demand for it right now and we're just trying to fill that market."
Kelley Cleary Coffeen, author of "200 Easy Mexican Recipes: Authentic Recipes from Burritos to Enchiladas," says her previous cookbook, "300 Best Taco Recipes," did very well in Canada.
"I think what we've seen is that Canada is very open and interested in this type of cuisine because you don't have those neighbourhood eateries, taquerias (taco shops), on the corner because the population is not reflective of that.
"So people really would like to learn how to cook good Mexican food."
In the introduction to her latest book, Cleary Coffeen writes: "Mexican cuisine is really about layering flavour upon flavour, adding freshness and spicy accents all at the same time."
You can take a basic taco — a soft corn tortilla with shredded beef, for example — "and depending what you layer it with, you can completely change the whole entree," she explains.
You can shred iceberg lettuce or change it up with a mix of greens that includes radicchio and arugula.
"There are so many different types of cheeses you can use. The basics are Monterey Jack cheese and cheddar, but you can move into Mexican cheeses and that just adds a different layer of flavour. And then of course your salsas completely change everything. You can do a green chili-based salsa or a tomato-based salsa or a citrus salsa. So that's what I mean by layering flavour."
Another thing she loves about Mexican cooking is the "simplicity in methods and variety of ingredients." It means there's lots of room for improvisation and for cooks to use ingredients that suit their tastes to "make it their own."
"What I really wanted to do in this book is give you the basics and the foundation for good Mexican cooking and then you can take it from there. If you're experimental in the kitchen, you can do some really wonderful things with all of these recipes."
And you needn't be afraid of the heat, says Cleary Coffeen. Although chilies and hot peppers are featured in some recipes, "Authentic Mexican food is rarely spicy. That's one of the very big misconceptions."
There are regions where the success of a Mexican dish is measured by the heat and New Mexico is one of them, she says. In Las Cruces, one of the chili capitals of the world, the hotter the better.
But more than heat, "taste, texture and freshness are essential" to good Mexican food, especially when it comes to selecting the right produce — buying the freshest ingredients available and not slicing and dicing until the last minute.
"Good Mexican cuisine is something that everyone can enjoy. If you want to spice up your Mexican food, you add salsa."
Melanie Wendt, co-owner of Under the Volcano, a Mexican restaurant in London, agrees. Only a couple of dishes on the menu are inherently spicy, she says.
"Everything else we make mild and then we can spice it up in a variety of ways" if that's what the customer wants. And a surprising number of people do.
Under the Volcano opened in 1974 and was not only the city's first Mexican restaurant, but it was also one of the first ethnic restaurants of any kind in the area, Wendt says.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Cleary Coffeen credits the Taco Bell fast-food chain with bringing "recognition" of Mexican food to a wider North American audience. Millions of Mexican families had moved to the United States from 1942 to 1964 to work, mainly in the produce industry in southern California, and brought with them their recipes and cooking methods. But when Taco Bell opened its first franchise in the early '60s, it "created a phenomenon that connected with a culture," not just in the American southwest but nationally and then internationally.
There has been some "Americanization" of Mexican food, says Cleary Coffeen. Burritos and fajitas, for example, were developed in the U.S. and are not traditional Mexican fare. But it's more a case of "building upon" authentic Mexican cuisine than changing it, she says.
Her book is being distributed in Canada, the U.K. and Australia, as well as the U.S., and she says she made a conscious effort to use ingredients that are readily available everywhere. In some cases, she also offers suggestions for substitutions.
"It's a part of our culture now," she says. "It's a true passion that we have for Mexican cuisine."
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.