Several years ago, acclaimed Houston chef Hugo Ortega — originally from the slums of Mexico City — traveled 4,000 miles across Mexico with his father and his brother Ruben.
Their collection of tastes, personalities and stunning photographs conjure a vibrant portrait of a national cuisine.
Part cookbook and part travelogue, “Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico” is full of exotic yet familiar recipes: a citrusy ceviche with fresh blue crab and a sour prickly pear called xoconostle; a chunky auburn salsa of peanut and pumpkin seeds from the state of Michoacán; tortillas the color of wine.
Ortega, who will speak at the Tucson Festival of Books Culinary Tent March 15, came to the United States at 17 and worked his way from dishwasher to executive chef of Backstreet Cafe in Houston.
Many of the recipes in his book draw from Ortega’s time living on a family farm in Puebla, Mexico, a colonial city southeast of the capital. A highlight is the cilantro-spiked crawfish and cactus-paddle salad Ortega would eat from a plastic bag as he walked through the market with his mother as a child.
A large section of the book also is dedicated to the colorful ceviches of Baja California and the southern port city of Veracruz. Many recipes from Mexico City, such as the tacos and fried masa cakes, called antojitos, can be a little labor intensive, requiring you to shape the dough and prepare the frijoles a day in advance. The heavily detailed process is a testament to the traditions and work ethic of Mexican street vendors: the tireless nation of workers who form the backbone of Mexican cuisine.
Ortega will speak at 10 a.m. March 15 (see “About This Series”).