Food: Thomasina Miers on sustainability, meatless Mexican cooking and why avocados aren’t for every day

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MasterChef winner and co-founder of Wahaca chats with Lauren Taylor about biodiversity in Mexico

Mexican cuisine may conjure up images of tacos al pastor (with barbecued pork), meat enchiladas or fish tostadas – but Thomasina Miers says that historically, Mexican cuisine has been much more fruit and veg-based.

“It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and the staples of the diet are corn, beans, the zucchini plant, tomatoes, chili peppers and wild herbs,” says Miers, 46. year. Mexico has about 50,000 native plant species (by some estimates). ), with some 200 varieties of peppers alone, compared to around 1,500 in the UK and Ireland.

The protein often came from moles (a type of traditional bean-based sauce), “enriched with lots of ground seeds,” Miers adds. “The authentic way [to make it] it’s often very complicated, with 37 ingredients.” (But don’t worry, she has recipes with only eight).

“Many housewives in Mexico make their own vinegars at home from guava, pineapple or apple,” she notes.

The idea of ​​packing your diet with a rainbow of vegetables is central to his new book, Meatless Mexican. “I think we’re really starting to think of food a lot more as medicine these days, which I think is absolutely fair,” she says. Plus, “people are considering eating less meat anyway, because for the environment, the amount of meat we eat is a total disaster.”

For Miers – who won MasterChef in 2005 and is behind the successful Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca (where 50% of the menus are now vegetarian) – says: “I love this ancient Mexican cuisine and the modern way which we all kind of start eating, feeling very synergistic together.”

From plant-based versions of Mexican classics, like beetroot ceviche, celeriac and chard enchiladas, chickpea rancheros and cauliflower tacos, to vegetable dishes that celebrate spices and flavors Mexican dishes, like Chipotle and Tamarind Sweet Potato Gratin and Baked Polenta with Veracruzan Sauce, her eighth cookbook (and her third Mexico-focused) is, like all of her recipes, for “people who are busy”. So while some are longer, everything seems doable for the time-poor generation.

“I’m a working mom,” she says, “I’m perpetually short on time. For me, food has to fit into busy lives.” There’s even a place for Tex Mex, with its ‘chile non carne’ – a handy family favourite.

“Some people will spend two days making a recipe and that’s great – and I used to do that, before the kids,” adds Miers with a laugh. “But not everyone has that time.

“What I love about Mexican food is that you can spend a weekend making your own flour tortillas (I love making flour tortillas because they taste so good and ‘they’re really easy). Also if it’s mid-week I just go buy some and that’s fine.”

The mum-of-three first fell in love with Mexican food while traveling there between school and college. Before that, she had always viewed Mexican food as American-style Tex-Mex food – but eating in the valleys of Oaxaca, the coast of Campeche and the rainforests of Veracruz, falling in love with “the color, the dynamism, creativity” quickly opened his eyes. She later moved back to Mexico City and opened her first Wahaca restaurant in London’s Covent Garden in 2007 – there are now 13 across the UK.

“When I look back now, the first thing I think of is the salsas on the tables,” she says, thinking back to the early trips that inspired her career. “They are fresh every day, they are different in every canteen you go to or in every street food [stall], each cook has his own special recipes. They are all packed with vitamins, minerals and goodness, they are fresh and tangy.”

Surprisingly, it reminded him of his home. “My mom always used to make homemade mayonnaise, barbecue sauces, ketchup bases, mint sauce and horseradish cream, so I felt like the Mexican way of eating with salsas drizzled with food actually resembled the way we eat in Britain – we like to spoonfuls of sauces over food.

“I love layering flavor on things. Salsas, chili oils, moles – to me it’s not just about quality and nutrition levels, but flavor, texture and color. And that brings all food to life.”

Guacamole — and avocados in general — may be a staple in Mexico, but their environmental footprint (for a fruit) weighed heavily on Miers’ mind. That’s why Wahaca put an alternative guacamole on its menus last year – “wahacamole” made from British broad beans.

“Avocados are adorable — but like treats,” she says. “Anything that grows within 50 or 100 miles of you is a great staple because there’s less of an impact. Exotic fruits are great for special occasions, but having them as a mainstay in your diet will be bad for you. the environment.

“I’m a cook,” she says. “I wouldn’t be without my coriander seeds and my star anise and my cinnamon stick. But yeah, they’re from the other side of the world, it’s all about putting everything in proportion.”

Environmental impact is the main reason Miers is a flexitarian. “I usually eat meat if I control its origin. Factory-farmed meat is a big no-no for me, in terms of well-being and emissions.

“Beef, I eat it probably four times a year. We buy chicken at the market once every few weeks because we buy expensive ones that are grass fed and not grain grown in the Amazon basin.

“I think for me that’s the key – does the animal I eat have an impact on the rainforest in Brazil? Well, if they do, I don’t want a piece of it. , personally.

For the future of our planet and for our children, we must eat less meat, she insists. “We’re still opening factory farms, and the government is talking about lowering carbon targets,” she sighs. Runoff from the huge amount of animal waste in factory farms often pollutes nearby rivers, according to Food Print – ‘so I’d rather not have a chicken if it came from a factory chicken farm near a river’ , explains Miers.

We’re too used to eating whatever we want, regardless of the cost to the planet, she suggests. But we can still enjoy plenty of food responsibly. “Cooking should be fun, it should be about feeding the people you love, it should be about enjoyment, but within limits. It’s not about having what you want, when you want it. want, but it’s all about flavor and taste, and joy.” Miers said.

“Why should we eat meat all the time at the expense of species decline and insect extinction and the total destruction of our soil? For the future of mankind, apart from anything else, It doesn’t seem logical to me.”

Meatless Mexican: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes by Thomasina Miers is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced at £25. Photograph by Tara Fisher. Available now.

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