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Gourmet chef Martha Ortiz serves Mexican food like you've never seen before

The Independent logo The Independent 05/10/2017 Kashmira Gander

© Provided by Independent Print Limited If you still think that Mexican food is about fat burritos from a box kit filled with anaemic salsa that tastes like ketchup, beige-green guacamole from a tube (why, God?) and mountains of melted cheese then chef Martha Ortiz is more than happy to prove you very, very wrong.

Ortiz is one of Latin America’s most celebrated chefs, the author of eight cookbooks on the region’s food, and the founder of Duclia Patria - her restaurant in Mexico City recently named 48th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Now, she’s set her sights on transforming the burgeoning high-end Mexican food scene in London at a restaurant adjoined to the InterContinental London Park Lane.

Visually, the dishes sing with Ortiz’s ethos to create what she describes as “feminine, historical, sensual, beautiful, lyrical” food, with colourful arrangements detailed with thoughtful embellishments. It’s hard, then, not to make connections with Ortiz’s family, as she is the daughter of artist Martha Chapa. Dishes on the Ella Canta menu - which translate to "she sings" - include include the crimson vampire ceviche with mango and sangrita sorbet, and the pato al mole negro balancing duck, plantain purée, red rice and black mole sauce. (The sauce alone features up to fifty different ingredients). Her signature guacamole with ricotta can meanwhile be found on the brunch menu alongside pomegranate and gold grasshopper, Oyster with tomatillo granite and Mexican churros with caramel and chocolate for dessert.

We spoke to Martha about the state of Mexican food in the UK, clean eating and the biggest mistakes people make when trying to cook her nation's dishes. 

What do you think of the current Mexican food scene in the UK? Do you find it pitiful?

Not at all. There has been a huge rise in the popularity of Mexican food around the world in recent years, and with this the authenticity and quality of the cuisine outside of Mexico has grown greatly – nowhere is this more evident than in London. My beautiful friends at El Pastor are making tacos with their own masa, Peyotito has fascinating and wonderful menus, and I adore Santo Remedio.

So I think we are getting to a point where everybody is singing about Mexican food together, that is why we say ella canta. We love to share with other chefs, guests and cultures the traditions, stories, flavours, and wonders of Mexican food.

What is the biggest misconception people have about Mexican food in the UK?

For many years there has been a confusion between Tex-Mex and true Mexican food. It is important to realise that Tex-Mex is an American interpretation of Mexican gastronomy, and while I understand that it has its place, it is very different to the authentic cuisine of my homeland. 

A tamal as designed by Ortiz © Provided by Independent Print Limited A tamal as designed by Ortiz What are some of the unique processes and dishes that diners can enjoy at Ella Canta?

At Ella Canta, we have a beautiful concept. We start with the cocktail menu entitled Mexico’s Gifts to the World. We have this, I think, wonderful way of talking about the key ingredients that Mexico has given us, a present to all other cuisines. Ingredients like amaranth, chile, maiz, cacao, that are all beautifully showcased on our cocktail menu. For the food, we have a very lyrical menu with very amazing dishes. We start with a new kind of ceviche that incorporates fruit, with a complex process and flavour and a beautiful presentation with butterflies – it is a fantastical dish. We also have chichilo, a mole sauce without the sweet. It has a strong flavour that you feel right in your heart and I think it’s wonderful. And talking about desserts we have this extraordinary mystic sauce that is made with chamomile and served with our corn and huitlacoche cake.

How difficult is it to source Mexican ingredients in the UK? What sort of lengths do you go to get the right ingredients?

To find authentic ingredients you have to bring them from Mexico, so we are making every effort to offer these: chile, cacao, mamey, maiz, etc. on the menu at Ella Canta. We have wonderful suppliers, and in many cases are able to go direct to the producers, working with people in Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City... This is also true in the bar, with Mexican spirits and an incredible range of tequilas and mezcals. That said, some of the best meat, fish, and vegetables can be found right here in the UK, so of course we use these ingredients too.

What do you want to teach people about Mexican food?

Mexican food is at once historical and visionary. It is the old and the new world together and I think that is where its strength lies. Tradition and modernity at the same time. That is the food of the future.

What is the biggest mistake people make when trying to make authentic Mexican food?

For example, people outside of Mexico often get confused with sweetcorn – that is not the flavour of the corn in Mexico, the maize. This is often seen when people make esquites with sweetcorn. So I think what you need to do first, is to have the key ingredients to make authentic food. If you make esquites with sweetcorn you will never have the flavour, the elegance that you have with Mexican maize. 

What ingredients can a Mexican chef never live without?

Oh there are several but I love the very smoked chillies, such as chile chilhuacle and chile pasilla mixe. They have a profound flavour, picante, an elegance, they are the aristocracy of Mexico. I adore these chic black chillies.

A dish of pork marbles © Provided by Independent Print Limited

A dish of pork marbles

You talk a lot about femininity. How do you think being a woman has shaped your cooking?

I think that being a woman is another key ingredient – the kind of fantasy and beauty we have in our souls. Women can use this like a pinch of salt or a sprinkle of sugar to add elegance, fantasy, and sensuality to our cooking. A pinch of beauty to all that we do.

What do you think about the 'clean eating' movement?

I am very liberal in all that I do and the freedom and variety in modern gastronomy is what makes it so rich and interesting. There are many super foods in Mexican cuisine, things like chia and tamarind, and I think clean eating is very interesting and with liberty people can make their own personal choices.

What food can you not live without?

Mexican food. I used to really miss it when I was away from home, but now when I am in London I have Ella Canta, or I can go to El Pastor, Peyotito, Santo Remedio, and I am happy.

Is there a food that you would never, ever eat?

I love to try different flavours, different processes, different colours in the food, but when that food involves voluntary cruelty to animals, I will never eat it.

Do you have any memories of food or cooking from your childhood that you think shaped your ambitions?

Of course, when I was a little girl I always said that I loved the Mexican flag and the eagle eating a serpent over the palace. I thought that that flag was talking to me and saying you have to become a cook. So in my memory, our national flag, it is gastronomical.

Please add anything else you feel is important

The authentic Mexican food at Ella Canta will also tell stories about the history and culture of my homeland. Painted Black will be the menu for Day of the Dead, Las Posadas in December, a menu for the erotic herbs that we have in Mexican gastronomy, another for the flowers of Mexico. The menu at Ella Canta is alive, constantly changing, and the theatre, imagination and stories will live through the flavours. 


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