Kuora: The fascinating appeal of Mexican food in China

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on February 22, 2018:

Do Chinese people like Mexican and/or Tex-Mex food?

Over the years I’ve fed Mexican food — not absolutely 100 percent “authentic,” but pretty close — to dozens of Chinese friends while living in Beijing. They’ve eaten enchiladas, adobo, arroz, frijoles, carnitas, machaca, various tacos, tortilla soup, and much more. And every single one of my Chinese friends has not only loved it, but heaped on seconds and eaten to nearly the point of discomfort.

I think there’s actually a huge overlap of familiar ingredients. Chinese food has lots of unleavened breads like tortillas, it has onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, cumin, chilies, and of course your basic meats like pork, beef, and chicken. The only common ingredients in Sonoran or other northern Mexican food (the American sort) that aren’t common in Chinese cooking are cheese and corn tortillas. (Chinese do eat corn meal, but it’s not generally made into tortillas, and it’s not treated with lime; it’s usually coarse-ground and made into a porridge.) Limes and lemons aren’t all that common (sure, there’s “lemon chicken,” though I’ve rarely seen that in China), but not unfamiliar of course.

The things they’ve gone absolutely nuts for are, in my little sample, are

  • The chili verde chicken stuffing of the sort I put in burros or enchiladas: lots of chicken leg and thigh meat slow cooked with tons of green chilies, onions, garlic, cumin, salt. They love that stuff.
  • My homemade enchilada sauce. A generous selection of dried chilies, ground, then added to a flour roux with chicken stock (from the above chili verde chicken)
  • Our homemade hand-stretched flour tortillas. Yes, flour tortillas are gringo, but hey, I grew up in Tucson and the flour tortillas you could get there were insanely good. Apparently Chinese bing typically didn’t contain that little dollop of lard that seems to give them that nice stretchy elastic property.
  • Pico de gallo. My Chinese friends all comment that it’s like “Xinjiang salad,” which is true: That typically is a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro, and green chili peppers, so you can see why it’s similar.
  • Machaca and carnitas. Well duh, who doesn’t love that?

The only imported ingredients when I make this are the chilies and the cheese, or when corn tortillas are on the menu, either store-bought corn tortillas or homemade ones if I happen to have found masa harina. I’ve done Mexican dinner parties without imported chilies too, and it’s turned out just fine: Bought a bunch of peppers and dried ’em at home on my radiators one winter. You can get domestic Chinese cheese that’s close enough to Monterrey Jack or even to queso blanco that you can use it, so actually you can go with no imported ingredients. Jasmine rice I suppose comes from Thailand, so maybe technically that’s imported too.

When I’ve had my Chinese friends in the U.S. out for good Mexican food they’ve gone nuts, too. My wife, a native Beijinger, adores it. We’re fortunate to live in a place now with many good Mexican eateries. It ain’t Tucson, but after 20 years in China, during most of which I had to make it myself if I wanted it, it’s a tremendous blessing.

Kuora is a weekly column.