Mark Bittman on Mexican food

Photo by Sally Stein

Mark Bittman, the New York Times columnist and cookbook author, is probably best-known for teaching people how to cook simply. His How To Cook Everything books have more than a million copies in print. He’s also fan of Mexico: Bittman has written about Mexico City woman chefs and the Condesa tianguis, and his columns occasionally include Mexican or Mexican-inspired recipes like tlayudas and Mexican chocolate tofu pudding. (The latter is insanely good with churros.)

Last week Bittman was among three American speakers invited to Puebla’s International Mole Festival. I snagged five minutes of his time, where he explained more about his love of Mexico.

Q: When did you first start traveling to Mexico?
A: I don’t know, 30 years ago. But seriously, really seriously, it’s been five years. In the past five years it’s become a priority.

Q: Why?
A: It should’ve been a priority all along. I saw the error of my ways. Look, you can’t go everywhere. It’s important for me to see as many things as I can see, globally. But my early loves were European and Asian cuisine, and I’d say I was first Eurocentric and then I spent a great deal of time in the late 90s/early 2000s traveling in Asia. I don’t have to apologize for this, but I mistakenly put Mexico not at the top of the list. But it’s worked out fine. It’s still here.

Q: What first captured your attention in Mexico in terms of the food?
A: It’s a really interesting question because the first couple of times I came here, I went to the Yucatán. Without being cruel, I would say that it ’s not — the way Yucatecan cuisine is presented to visitors is not the best. Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that. But I only learned that recently.

I think what really attracted me was street markets and street food in Mexico City. I have friends who’ve been kind enough to schlep me around and show me, probably starting eight or ten years ago.

And I have been nowhere. Let me say, I know more about Poblano food than about anything else, and I don’t know anything about a lot of them. So I’m totally a real beginner.

Q: Yeah, I was originally surprised to see your name on the list of speakers. I’d seen in some of your columns that you’d visited Mexico, but I didn’t know you had such an affinity that you’d actually come here to talk in Puebla.
A: Well. I’d go talk in Bhutan where I’ve never been, because an opportunity to talk to a big audience is an opportunity to talk to a big audience. You just get there early enough to not be an idiot about the food. And I have to say I’m not an idiot about Poblano food.

Q: You repeated yourself in your talk, when you mentioned innovation in Mexican food. You said twice that Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with. Why?
A: Because it’s really good. I mean that’s an easy answer. How are you going to make this food better? By adding soy sauce? By adding more cheese? By what? By turning it into pizza? If someone’s going to tell me I’m having a mole poblano pizza, that’s nice, but let’s not have that be a symbol of Puebla. What’s going to make it better? GMO corn and mass-produced masa is not going to make it better.

For further reading, check out Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column in The New York Times or his books on Amazon.

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10 Responses to “Mark Bittman on Mexican food”
  1. Nancy

    As a vegetarian foodie I have appreciated Mark Bittman’s reasonable perspective, and I am so happy that he has become interested in Mexican food. I bet you had fun chatting with him – thanks for sharing.

    • Lesley

      You’re welcome Nancy! Hope all’s well with you.

  2. Lesley, great post! I’ve always liked Bittman and I am in complete agreement with his remark “Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with.” I don’t yet know a lot about Mexican food, but what I do make I try to make authentically. Handmade tortillas and properly cooked rice, for starters.

  3. Ben

    Great interview Lesley. I didn’t know Bittman was such a big fan of Mexican cuisine either. One more voice that joins the ranks of Mexican food lovers :)

    • Lesley

      Thanks Ben, glad you enjoyed it. And on Mexican food — the more the better.

  4. Platanos Mangoes & Me!

    His book has been in my home for yars. WHat agreat interview…

    • Lesley

      Thanks Norma!

  5. Jack

    Congratulations Leslie on scoring an interview with truly one of the top names in food journalism!

    However, (and forgive me for being something of a wet blanket here)…

    “Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that.”

    To me it sounds like Mr. Bittman doesn’t venture too far outside of Cancun resorts. Saying it’s hard to find traditional Yucatecan food in the Yucatan is just nutty. (I lived in Mérida for a year and a half and have a pretty decent grasp of traditional Yucatecan cuisine. It’s not hard to find there nor anywhere else on the peninsula if you have a clue.)

    And the fact is I’m not too sure Mr. Bittman knows all that much about Yucatecan cuisine in the first place. Here he shares an ostensibly traditional Mayan salsa that I’m fairly confident does not exist: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/dining/08mini.html?ref=dining (Xek is a jicama salad, not a salsa.)

    I could go on and on. He’s published a lot more really sloppy journalism about Mexico and her cuisine, and been called out on it multiple times. For instance here:

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/365156

    Personally it’s going to take more than his say-so to convince me that anything has changed.

    Again I’m sorry for being critical, but Mr. Bittman has earned it.

  6. Marie

    SO JEALOUS! Congratulations to you for snagging a little chat with Mister Bittman, what a great opportunity. :) You asked him good questions, so good for you!

  7. Cheryl S.

    First, Leslie, allow me to thank you for your terrific blog.
    To comment on Jack’s, Mark Bittman comment.
    Wow! I agree with Jack 100%!
    Mr. Bittman is so much hype. He is part of the bevy of food celebrities that may, or may not, have talent but, he is definitely a “being in the right place at the right time” kind of guy.
    So, just because “he” says something is so, doesn’t necessarily make it Gospel truth.
    Every region of Mexico, in my experience, has delicious, amazing food easily gotten anywhere.

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