Chef Josefina Santacruz loves more than anything to eat. With an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, what she likes best is “street” or common, casual food. “I love garnachas, sopes, tacos — above all I like anything as long as it’s good, clean and high quality,” she says.
While she cooks for a living, she considers herself a professional eater. A capitalina — born in Mexico City — Santacruz studied at the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked kitchens at home and abroad, notably as executive chef at New York’s Pámpano. She also has hosted Spanish-language television cooking programs.
Maintaining an avid interest in Mexico’s traditional cooking, she is a vocal proponent and aficionado of street food. Currently she runs the kitchens at Sesame and Paprika, located in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma neighborhood. Sesame’s eclectic menu features simple street food-style items from Asia. Classic dishes such as pho and siu mai are neither toyed with nor deconstructed, just artfully and lovingly reproduced. It is a kitchen without precedent in previously Asian-food-starved Mexico. Paprika, recently re-located to Roma from nearby Juarez, offers Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African fare. We sat for a chat out on the sidewalk terrace one quiet, breezy afternoon, surrounded by turn-of-the-century mansions and passers-by walking their dogs or returning from a yoga class at the nearby Buddhist center. A far cry from the urban chaos people associate with the world’s fourth-largest metropolis. Santacruz doesn’t see Mexican and Asian cuisines as all that different as our conversation reflected.
With a background in Mexican and classic European cooking, and a strong political interest in our traditions, how and why did you get into Asian cooking?
Well, I went to CIA and studied classic European techniques and traditions. But I always loved my national cuisine and missed it when I lived in New York. Being in New York and London, I discovered Asian food — I was especially taken with Thai and Indian. And I took a class at CIA in Asian techniques. Then after traveling to Asia, I realized that its food has many similarities to Mexican cooking, most importantly that the best food is found on the street and is cheap. That’s something I really believe about our cuisine!
How is what you cook related to traditional Mexican cuisine?
So many ingredients used are in common, like cilantro, chilies, ginger, many spices, fruits. It’s the way of combining them that makes things taste different.
What are your favorite dishes at Sesame?
Ay, ay, ay! That’s like asking which is your favorite child! I do love the dumplings, the lettuce “tacos” of beef, and a dish I invented that’s kale with tofu. Mostly I try to reproduce typical street food that we don’t have here in Mexico as “authentically” as possible, that is, true to how they are done in their countries.
People here are only just learning about Asian food that isn’t sushi or American/Chinese. And they’re open to it. I’ve been to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and am planning to go to Thailand this year, but I’ve had amazing Thai food in London and New York.
What is your latest ingredient obsession?
I think it must be kaffir lime. It’s the queen of herbs, so unique and perfumy! And something we don’t know here. Once again, in Mexico we use many unique varieties of citrus including lime and orange leaves, so the idea of using leaves to flavor sauces is similar to our traditions.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
On the street! Without a doubt, it’s street food. I don’t eat Asian, nor, for the most part, in fancy places. I love Mexican street food — it’s the best.
What’s your ideal meal?
You mean like your ideal last meal? Well, it wouldn’t be caviar or foie gras or any of that. Maybe some amazing quesadillas. Definitely a bunch of small plates to share. I like the idea of tasting many unusual flavors.
What’s the most memorable meal of your life?
I would say the first time in my life I walked out of a restaurant and thought “Oh, my God, if I die now I will go happy!” was at Daniel in New York. I had eaten an amazing risotto with saffron and lobster. That was definitely it.
Where do you see the restaurant scene headed here in Mexico City?
It’s getting much better. When I was a kid, it was mediocre Italian, French or Spanish food. There were hardly even any nice Mexican places! Now, there is much more variety, and more important, the chefs are finally recognizing the incredible riches we have as far as local ingredients, and taking advantage of them. Also, although a few more pretentious restaurants are more concerned with the “look” than with taste, we’re returning to the idea that eating is to enjoy, it’s about pleasure. There are so many new places opening up that there’s fierce competition amongst them, which is a good thing.
And in Mexico in general?
Although the best restaurants were always in Mexico City — we are, after all, the center of everything commercial, economic, cultural — it’s great to see all these great “chef” places happening in the provinces. Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla, Mérida, Oaxaca, Tijuana — they all have very good restaurants, often celebrating their local regional cuisines. This is a great thing; it makes me happy.
And what are your life plans?
Ha, to keep cooking! I’m involved in a new place nearby called Barra Criolla. And I’d love to have a place that serves small plates of interesting things. I don’t know, couscous, dumplings, like “Around the World in 80 Days” kind of cooking. I don’t do fusion: To “fuse” two or more cuisines well you have to master all of them. I don’t pretend to do that. What I do do is interpret. Of course, no matter how traditional the recipe for a dish I make is, it’s going to be my interpretation of it that I end up with. I want people here in Mexico to be able to taste foods from other countries and have the experience you would have if you were there. That’s my dream.
Main photo: Josefina Santacruz cooks Asian food in Mexico City. Credit: Peter Norman
Fist published in 2014 on Zesterdaily.com
Sesame / Páprika Cocina de Especias
Sesame and Páprika are chef Josefina Santacruz’ venues for authentically prepared Asian street snacks from Thailand to India and North Afrika, respectively. No fusion here, everything is prepared as it would be in its homeland. At Sesame, try the pho, the famous beef noodle soup from Vietnam, it’s divine; dumplings are the best in town. Standouts at Paprika are a fragrant Iranian rice generously endowed with nuts and dried fruits, rich lamb meatballs from Turkey and the lightly sweet and aromatic Moroccan bastilla – chicken pie – here presented as mini empanadas. Dishes at both are small and wallet-friendly, meant to be shared. And both venues feature lively bars.
Colima 183 (between Jalapa and Orizaba), Colonia Roma
Open: Tuesday to Thursday 2 to 11.p.m, Thursday – Saturday
until 2.a.m., Sunday, 2 – 8.p.m.
Páprika Cocina de Especias
Orizaba 115, between Chihuahua and Álvaro Obregón
Open Tuesday – Wednesday 2 – 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday until 2 a.m., Sunday until 6.
Tel. 5533 0303