To help us get a local perspective of Mexican cuisine here in Bristol, we took the time to sit down with the lovely folks behind Otomí, a Mexican import store in Bristol's Clifton Village.
H&V - How did you start Otomi?
Otomi - Around 2006 my business partner, Alex, and I started the store. He's Mexican and was a neighbour of mine in the UK and I helped him decide what things to import. Initially we were selling things like art and dishes, but then moved into food after business took off.
Alex missed a lot of food from Mexico and we saw there was a bit of a paw for it, so we started looking into food. Back in the 90s and early noughties people thought Mexican food was like Tex-Mex; very heavy, very spicy, very stodgy, lots of cheese. We didn’t really push the food side of the business, we just listened to what people were after. Now food is probably the majority of the business.
H&V - Is there a much of a Mexican community in Bristol?
Otomi - Well, yes and no. There’s a lot of Mexicans in Bristol, but we hadn’t met many of them until we opened the shop. There’s hundreds of Mexicans in the city, but all of them are coming for different reasons; students, work, people who married English partners. Because of that there’s not a solid connection between them all, which is why you don’t see a community in the same way you would if lots of people from one place came all at the same time.
Outside of that, a lot of our customers are people from the states who missed out on Mexican foods since it’s a part of their culture just as much as it is for Mexico. It’s quite a lot like Indian food is in the UK, it’s almost as much part of our heritage as it is in India.
H&V - Do you think there’s been a change in the perception of mexican culture and food in the UK?
Otomi - Not really, since there aren’t so many Mexicans in the UK or there aren’t outwardly Mexican areas in the UK, there’s not much room for big changes. There hasn’t been a negative view of Mexican culture, but it’s mainly been the food that’s gotten more popular.
H&V - Are there any favourite Mexican ingredients that you wish were more well known in the UK or that you wished more people used in general?
Otomi - Yes, huitlacoche! It’s basically a fungus that grows on corn husks, kinda like a truffle. It looks absolutely awful, it’s this black sludgy paste. The first person that tried it must have been exceedingly brave or perhaps very drunk, but it has this really great woody sweetness. It’s really great smeared on the inside of quesadillas or things like that it’s absolutely great. Surprisingly, it’s also really good on pasta and things like that. It has a really delicate but strong flavour, if that makes sense. We have some of that on it’s way back into the store now.
There’s so many ingredients in Mexico that I love. Another one is cactus or nopales, which not enough people even realise you can eat.
H&V - Are there any tips people can do to improve their Mexican cooking at home?
Otomi - The main thing is to keep it simple and fresh. A lot of the lovely flavours from Mexican food are just down to things that occur naturally in fresh produce, like corn or the vegetables in a salsa. Using a lot of unprocessed ingredients will heélp you get that.
Similar to with a lot of Asian food you're always safe using lots of lime and tasting as you go to get a balance of citrusy, sweet, and spicy flavours to get balance.
Other than that, you really need corn tortillas. Even the corn tortillas you find in the supermarket now will still have wheat in them. We’re quite glad about this because we’re constantly going through tortillas, it’s one of our biggest products.
H&V - Are there any ingredients that have become harder to find in recent years due to things like biodiversity loss or climate change?
Otomí -Yes, part of Meixco was the first place in the world to grow vanilla. Before it was grown in Madagascar, it grew in parts of Mexico. There was an insect that lived on the vanilla plants that would pollinate them; they didn't have that insect when they tried to grow vanilla elsewhere, so Mexican vanilla is the only one that doesn't have to be pollinated by hand or machine.
We found some of this Mexican vanilla a few years ago, it was quite expensive but it was great quality. In recent years the weather has changed or there’s been droughts and it's been impossible to grow it anymore, so now there's very little of it even in Mexico. I feel it’s only right to keep it where it’s grown if there’s not enough of it.
H&V - That’s really cool, I love hearing about the history of how foods moved around and originated.
Otomi - I find it fascinating. When people talk about foods being authentic, it really gets to me because no food is really authentic. Say, mole, Mexico’s traditional dish. When the Spaniards arrived (before they realized they’d all be killed) a Mexican nun was tasked with making a dish to welcome the Spanish. She used all these ingredients the Spanish had brought with them along with ingredients native to Mexico and now it’s Mexico’s national dish. As far as there’s been man, we’ve taken foods from one place to another and traded them to create new things.
H&V - What are the attitudes towards vegetarianism and veganism in Mexico? I think of Mexican food as often being very meat-heavy, is that changing much?
Otomi - Yes, it is quite meat heavy but I think that’s gradually changing. There’s lots of foods that are naturally vegetarian but they’re usually considered side dishes. On top of that, lots of these dishes will use things like stock made with animal products but no meat and they’ll call that vegetarian. I think because there are vegetarians in Mexico, that will change a bit.
On the whole if it’s not meat as the basis of food in Mexico, it’s usually fish. There are a number of restaurants in Bristol that do a really good job of mimicking things like fish with things like jackfruit, but it’s more rare in Mexico.