Our cookbook of the week is My Mexico City Kitchen by acclaimed chef and restaurateur Gabriela Cámara. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Contramar’s signature red and green grilled red snapper, chicken or pork in green mole, and Nutella flan.
Pescado a la talla – grilled whole red snapper served with a stack of warm corn tortillas – is Contramar’s signature dish. When chef Gabriela Cámara opened the Mexico City institution two decades ago, a beachside palapa (open-air restaurant roofed with palm thatch) was your best bet for the traditional dish. Now, as a testament to her innovative and far-reaching style, its popularity has spread far beyond the surf.
Typically slathered entirely with red chili sauce, Cámara’s version reflects the preferences of her family. Part Mexican, part Italian, she likewise divides the fish; painting one side with a tart and smoky red adobo, the other with a salsa verde-esque green sauce. A striking contrast of complementary colours, the preparation offers options in terms of palate: Spicy or mild, or a bit of both.
In her debut cookbook, My Mexico City Kitchen (Lorena Jones Books, 2019), Cámara gives the dish further flexibility: The option of using fillets instead of a butterflied whole snapper. “It really makes it adaptable to cooking at home,” she says. The same is true for the other 150 recipes: Whether originating in her home or restaurants, Cámara was adamant that the book be eminently cookable; not a “restaurant book.”
From learning how to make tortillas as a child in Tepoztlán (a town south of Mexico City in the state of Morelos) to cooking alongside her nonna, who instilled a no-waste philosophy at a young age, she sees her professional cooking as being rooted in the home kitchen. For her, “there has never been a huge difference between the two.”
In addition to sharing some of her favourite recipes in the book, she reflects on the evolution of her food in Mexico City, a city she’s returning to this summer after moving to San Francisco to open the acclaimed Cala in 2015. (Cámara will serve as food policy adviser to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.) Perennially her home base, it’s a move she’s looking forward to, in large part because of its distinct food culture.
“I love that people really enjoy eating, and really take their time in eating. Of course, it’s become more of a luxury, especially the time part,” says Cámara. “But in general, I feel people in Mexico still really enjoy these pleasures of life. Eating or conversing with family, with friends … every time I go back to Mexico I’m just delighted to be there because it’s so lovely.”
She explains that the same gap she saw in San Francisco for her style of Mexican food was what inspired her to write My Mexico City Kitchen. Rather than a highly technical book, or an anthropological or encyclopedic examination of Mexican cuisine for an English-speaking audience, it represents how she cooks and eats.
“It’s very obvious that (other North Americans) have this crazy delight in Mexican food but also are not very knowledgeable about it in general,” says Cámara. “The Mexican diet is much more than carne asada or burritos or hard-shelled tacos. It was important to me to make it a really comprehensive selection of home cooking that’s popular in Mexico City.”
Cámara made her name with seafood at Contramar, and her love of fish and shellfish is well represented in the book. She credits the minimalistic and intuitive approach she’s honed primarily to working with seafood from the outset of her career. While she doesn’t feel the need to alter tradition for the sake of it, she isn’t constrained by time-honoured techniques or preparations either.
“I’ve given myself the liberty of creating and substituting things with what’s available. With seafood you’re always improvising depending on what you have that’s better,” she says. “In terms of my own cooking, I’ve always been more interested in how things taste than in following recipes very orthodoxly.”