Tex-Mex cuisine has taken its share of slings and arrows over the years. Truthfully, Adán Medrano has no real issues with processed cheese or greasy refried beans. But in his recent cookbook, Truly Texas Mexican, the San Antonio native outlines a different kind of Texas cooking, with recipes that rely upon fewer—and fresher—ingredients. Medrano’s history of what he calls “Texas Mexican” food begins centuries before the first Europeans set foot in the United States, with the simmering beans and roast wild chiles of the tribes that first inhabited the Lone Star State, and continues into the homes of families across the Southwest today—including his own.
Why did you decide to write a book about Texas Mexican food?
I was born in San Antonio, but for twenty-three years, I traveled through Latin America, Asia, and Europe for work. I have cooked my whole life, and when I was traveling, I saw how important food was culturally. When I returned to the United States, I entered the Culinary Institute of San Antonio to earn a certificate in culinary arts. There, I learned about the cuisines of Mexico, Peru, and Argentina, but saw that the foods of my people, my family, weren’t featured. That was odd to me, because we have a beautiful cuisine. I researched this book for three years, and it was important to me that it was published by a university, because I want the archeology, the stories, the recipes—all of it—in there.
What’s the difference between Tex-Mex and Texas Mexican?
I should say first that I think both are great, and people enjoy both, and making a distinction is in no way disparaging one or the other. But the first big difference is historical, and the second is the flavor profile. Texas Mexican food, which is our indigenous food, goes back 10,000 years, because that’s how long our people have been in Texas. We’re called Mexican-Americans because this area was part of Mexico, but we’re indigenous to this land. Tex-Mex only dates back to about 1900, when the Original Mexican Restaurant opened in San Antonio. And then the flavor profile: Our food is characterized by very subtle flavors. When we make pinto beans, we don’t add oil, hardly, and we don’t add bacon, because we want the flavor of the beans to develop as they cook. We also have a greater range of chiles. You’ll notice that the Tex-Mex flavor profile focuses on fewer chiles, has a heavy emphasis on frying, and uses a lot of processed cheeses. When my mother made enchiladas, she always used queso fresco.
What would you say is the definitive Texas Mexican dish?
I’ll give you two things: the enchilada and the meatball, actually. The enchilada links us to other regions of Mexico. I say that Texas Mexican is a regional Mexican cuisine, just like in Oaxaca, or in Puebla. And when we make enchiladas, we focus on the chiles, just like cooks in other regions of Mexico. It’s not about the cheese, and it’s certainly not the amount of oil in the recipe. Our enchiladas show how we combine native ingredients, like chiles and tomatoes, with foreign ingredients like onions and cheese. And then the meatball emphasizes how international our food is. The Spanish word albóndiga actually came from Arabic first, and now we have twisted it to make it ours in two ways: with ancho chile and with tomatoes, both native. We have adapted it and made it delicious.