It was supposed to be a trip to Mexico and its cuisine. But for March 2020, there were other plans. Soon chef and YouTube host Rick Martinez found himself in the Mexican city of Mazatlán. His story, along with vivid photographs of the food he found while traveling the country, is in his book Mi Cocina: Recipes and Delights from My Cuisine in Mexico – A Cookbook. He speaks to the Texas Standard about what he has learned about himself, his heritage and the food he hopes to share with readers. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little about how you ended up in Mexico. I take it you’re a native Texan.
Rick Martinez: I was born and raised in Austin, lived in Dallas for a couple of years, and then moved to very cold New York, where I lived for 20 years. But my family, my grandparents were from northern Mexico. And it kind of sowed the seeds of a desire to explore their own heritage. Obviously I grew up in Austin and was part of the Texan culture and loved barbecue, love Tex-Mex. But I just wanted to understand where my family came from. And that really motivated me to write this book and research the book and go to Mexico and just understand people and food better.
I thought March 2020. Where we were? Did you happen to be down there during the lockdown?
Yeah. So, I started my research in October 2019, and at the end of February I traveled through the northern states. I had to come to the South via the Southwest to perform. And then South By was cancelled. Then all my work in New York was cancelled. And I thought: do I want to go back to New York and be stuck in my little apartment or just hide here? And I decided that I would go find a beach, wait until COVID passed, and then I would go traveling. It never happened.
And originally it was supposed to be a completely different book. It was supposed to be more like a modern Mexican cookbook. But as I began to travel and understand the culture and cuisine better, I began to feel that there are so many foods that most Americans simply don’t know about. I think in America we love Mexican food, but we only eat tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos and enchiladas. And that’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. And the geography, and the climate, and the people, and the fact that I’ve tasted all these foods that I’ve never even heard of, for which there was no research, because these tiny towns cook amazing food. And I wanted to emphasize this. I wanted to give people something new to cook with and something new to enjoy and love Mexico.
Tell us a little about what you found.
One of the things that was so amazing to me is because it was a trip. I have already flown to Mexico. But when you arrive, you always see only the place where you arrive. And while driving, you will see how the landscape changes. You will see the products slowly change and you will also be able to try these changes. So, the amount of seafood – I knew about the coast, but their seafood is an integral part of the cuisine of this country. In addition to ceviche, all kinds of fish dishes, crabs on the Gulf Coast, lobster, oysters, clams and shrimp on the west coast. It’s just incredible. And I love seafood. And that was another big plus for me and one of the reasons why I decided to move to Mazatlán. The seafood and lobster here is incredible.
Is there a particular dish that comes to mind when someone asks you, “Hey, tell us about something specific you found?”
Here in Mazatlán, one of the things I love to eat the most is ceviche-like aquachile. They are basically freshly chopped shrimp. Every morning the shrimp boats arrive around 6:30 AM and all the shrimp go to market. And seafood in Mexico is always eaten early. So, this is the breakfast or early lunch situation, because that’s when it’s freshest. And so a lot of these vendors take these fresh shrimp, they cut them into butterflies, and then when you order them, they mix them with salsa verde, which is usually lime juice, serrano puree, chopped red onion, avocado, some cilantro, and a lot of fried tortillas and crackers to serve it. It’s so good. And the shrimp are incredibly sweet. Growing up in Texas, I always thought Gulf Coast shrimp would be better, but Pacific shrimp are just insanely delicious.
I have spoken to many authors over the years, and often when they put together their book, they do their research and discoveries. There is a moment – sometimes it’s an insight, sometimes it’s a discovery. Did you have one of those moments in the process of writing this book that you remember as a particularly memorable moment, a turning point, or did someone make a strong impression that influenced what you ended up writing?
I think it was before I even wrote the book. This was when I was 19 years old. It was my first time in the hinterland of Mexico. Growing up in Texas, I thought my family was the epitome of the Mexican American family. And we’ve been called Mexicans all our lives, and that wasn’t bad. But I thought we were representing people and food. And I got to Mexico City and Guadalajara, and it was nothing like what we ate. This is nothing but Tex-Mex food. It’s not like my family’s food at all. People didn’t look like us. And I was just shocked.
And I remember I called my mom and said, “I don’t understand. I thought we were Mexicans and I’m here and nothing about it seems familiar. And that’s really the point where I thought I needed to explore. I need to understand where my family comes from, where our food and our traditions come from. Because it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist here, it doesn’t exist in the central part of the country. And in fact, it took me about 17,000 miles of travel before I really started to find people and food that reminded me of home.
What do you hope the reader will take away from the book? Will they force someone to go to Mexico or try cooking something in the kitchen? Or what did you intend to do compared to what you ended up getting?
I think I would really like to change the perception of Mexico, the people and the cuisine. I think that at the time I wrote this proposal, there was and still is a lot of negative press around Mexico. And I wanted to change that because Americans love Mexican food. it’s one of the things we eat the most. Taco Tuesday is a big deal. I think 6 billion tacos were eaten last year alone. And so I want people to explore, and I want to take away some of the fear that people have. And so by traveling around the country and presenting in a book all these photographs that I took during my travels, along with all these recipes that I hope people will love and start cooking in their kitchens, I hope that this will just make people feel like “I really want to, I want to go outside of Cancun or the big tourist spots and try something new and try that mole in Oaxaca or those caldos in Chiapas.