LMexican cuisine may conjure up images of tacos al pastor (with roasted pork), meat-stuffed enchiladas, or fish-topped tostadas, but, says Thomasina Miers, historically, Mexican food has focused much more on fruits and vegetables. “It is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and the basis of the diet is corn, beans, zucchini plants, tomatoes, chili peppers and wild herbs,” says Miers, 46. Mexico has around 50,000 native plant species (according to some estimates), and some 200 varieties of chilli alone, compared to around 1,500 in the UK and Ireland.
The protein often came from moles (a type of traditional sauce made from beans), “enriched with lots of ground seeds,” adds Miers. “The real way [de hacerlo] It is usually very complicated, since it has 37 ingredients”. (But don’t worry, she has recipes with only eight.)
“Many housewives in Mexico make their own vinegars at home with guava, pineapple or apple,” he says.
The idea of filling your diet with a rainbow of vegetables is very much the focus of his new book, Meat-Free Mexican (Mexican food without meat). “I think these days we’re starting to think a lot more about food as medicine, which I think is completely correct,” she says. Furthermore, “people are looking to eat less meat anyway, because environmentally, the amount of meat we eat is a total catastrophe.”
For Miers, who won MasterChef in 2005 and is the brains behind the successful Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca (where 50 percent of the menus are now vegetarian), he says, “I love that old-fashioned Mexican food and the modern way we’re kind of starting to eat, they feel very in synergy together.”
From plant-based versions of Mexican classics like beet ceviche, chard and celery root enchiladas, chickpea rancheros, and cauliflower tacos, to vegetable dishes that celebrate Mexican spices and flavors, like Baked Sweet Potato Gratin with Chipotle and Tamarind and Baked Polenta with Veracruz Sauce, her eighth cookbook (and her third focused on Mexico) is, like all her recipes, for “people on the go.” So while some are longer, it all feels doable for the time-hungry generation.
“I’m a working mom,” she says, “I’m constantly short on time. For me, food has to fit into busy lives.” There’s even a place for “TexMex” food, with their “chile con carne,” a handy family favorite.
“Some people spend two days making a recipe and that’s great, and I used to do that, before the kids,” adds Miers with a smile. “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 from scratch because they taste great and are so easy). Likewise, if it’s midweek, I’m going to buy some and that’s fine.”
The mother of three first fell in love with the food of Mexico while traveling there between school and college. Before that, he had always thought of Mexican cuisine as American-style TexMex, but eating in the valleys of Oaxaca, the coast of Campeche, and the tropical jungles of Veracruz, and falling in love with the “color, vibrancy, creativity ” soon opened his eyes. She later returned to live in 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 sauces on the tables,” he says, reflecting on the early trips that inspired his career. “They are made fresh every day, they are different in each canteen you go to or in each [puesto de] street food, each cook has their own special recipes. They’re all packed with vitamins and minerals and goodness, fresh and sparkling.”
Surprisingly, they reminded him of home. “My mother always used to make homemade mayonnaise, barbecue sauces, ketchup bases, mint sauce and horseradish cream, so I felt that the Mexican way of eating with sauces in food was very similar to the way we eat in Mexico. Great Britain: We love to pour sauces on food.”
“I love adding layers of flavor to things. The sauces, the chili oils, the moles, to me it’s not just the levels of goodness and nutrition, but also the flavor, texture, and color. And it brings life to all the food.”
Guacamole, and avocados in general, may be a staple in Mexico, but its environmental footprint (for a fruit) has weighed heavily on Miers’ mind. That’s why Wahaca put an alternative guacamole on his menu last year: “wahacamole” made with British fava beans.
“Avocados are lovely, but as a luxury,” she says. “Anything that grows within 50 or 100 miles of you is a great staple to eat because it has less of an impact. Exotic fruits are great for special occasions, but having them as a mainstay in your diet will be bad for 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 yes, they come from the other side of the world, it’s about putting everything in proportion.”
The impact on the environment is the main reason Miers is a flexitarian. “I usually eat meat if I am in control of where it comes from. Factory farmed meat is a big no for me, in terms of welfare and emissions.”
“Beef, like probably four times a year. We buy chicken in the market once every few weeks, because we buy expensive chickens that are fed on grass and not on grains that are grown in the Amazon basin. I think that for me that is the key: is the animal that I am eating affecting the tropical forest of Brazil? Well, if they are, I don’t want a piece of it, personally.”
For the future of our planet and our children, we have to eat less meat, he urges. “We are still opening factory farms and the government is talking about lowering carbon targets,” she sighs. Runoff from the large amount of animal waste on factory farms often pollutes nearby rivers, according to Food Print, “so I’d rather not eat chicken if it’s from a factory farm near a river,” says Miers.
We have become too used to eating what we want, whatever it costs for the planet, he 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 pleasure, but within limits. It’s not about having what you want, when you want, but about flavor and joy,” says Miers.
“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 humanity, apart from anything else, it doesn’t seem to make sense to me.”
‘Meat-free Mexican: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes’ by Thomasina Miers (published by Hodder and Stoughton, £25 (US$31.39); photography by Tara Fisher), is available now.