Thursday, August 19, 2010

Born in the USA, part 1

We are sitting around the break room, having tea (at least, everyone else is having tea). Somehow the conversation makes its way to Mexican food. Someone says, "so what's the difference between a fajita and a burrito?"
"It's just the way it's rolled up at the ends or something, right?"
I sigh - heavily. "A fajita is more a way of cooking, not just something that's rolled slightly differently to a burrito."
"But on the box of fajitas you buy at the store, the instructions say to wrap the tortilla around the meat..."
"You shouldn't even be able to buy a 'box of fajitas.'"
"Yes you can."
"It makes no sense."
"So what is a fajita, then?"
"Like I said, fajitas are a way of cooking something - you take scraps of meat and maybe some vegetables and cook them in a skillet..."
"Or a frying pan?"
"Yes, fine, or a frying pan. Or a wok, if it's all you have."
"A skillet has the wavy bottom part."
Sigh again. "And you then serve the cooked meat and vegetables with tortillas, but you can simply use the tortillas to pick up the food...." Here I make a pinching-scooping motion with my hand, the way one does with naan bread at an Indian restaurant. There's a pause.
"So then, what is a burrito?"
"That's when you wrap a bunch of fillings in a large tortilla, coat it with something, and bake it."
"But then what's the difference between a burrito and an enchilada?"
I can see I'm getting in too deep - do not cast your pearls before swine, or, translated, do not try to teach British people about Mexican food. "Enchiladas have a very specific sauce." I remember bringing my one can of Stokes Green Chile to a bar-b-que, sharing it rather than hoarding it for myself, trying to show my friends from the UK the glory that is Tex-Mex. The response was less than ideal. It looks like vomit, one of them had said flatly. Yes, well, I can think of a few unappetizing things that vindaloo looks like, but that doesn't mean it isn't delicious.
I would later discover that "fajita" is a Mexican term meaning "little belt," and that as such, fajita was not just a way of cooking but specifically a way of cooking skirt steak. Skirt steak, or more specifically, flank steak, is tough and is normally marinated, but this also allows it to last longer than a normal cut of beef - ideal in the hot climates of northern Mexico. Fajitas, like fondue or curry, were a way of making what little food there was keep, and last, as long as possible. A long cry from the nonsense you can buy in Britain now.

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