Monday, June 13, 2011

Mexican Food in Europe

We had more friends from France stop by Amsterdam to visit us. That is one of the things I love about Europe. Want to visit a different country/culture? Just hop in your car. Frankly, it still amazes me that people wouldn't jump at an opportunity to live here. Not only is the lifestyle more focused on living than working (hello, five weeks vacation!), but the history and breadth of experience here is breathtaking. In fact, one of the few things missing here is Tex-Mex cooking.

Friends from France
More friends from France visiting us

We had a BBQ to welcome them and I decided to give them a taste of what it would have been like in Texas. I made a potato salad with bacon (something I'm not used to seeing outside of the southern US, though that could be coincidence), but I really went all out in making fajitas. They take a bit of work to make properly, so I marinated some meat overnight in lime juice, tequila, cumin, cilantro and a few other things. It came out fairly well (my wife says they were better than any she's made), but I already have ideas on how to improve them more. Still, serving the fajitas on tortillas with pico de gallo, grilled onions and sour cream was a pleasant treat.

Perhaps it should be my mission to convince Europeans that Mexican/Tex-Mex food isn't the awful crap that you get in restaurants over here. I've had "salsa" which tastes like peppered ketchup and I've had waitresses in "Mexican" restaurants tell me they didn't know what tacos were. And that time I had enchiladas wrapped in cold, unsteamed corn tortillas. Yuck!

No wonder Mexican food isn't popular over here. And you can't imagine what a pain the rear it is finding ingredients. You have to know that "cilantro" is "koriander" and even if the butcher understands English, there's a good chance he/she won't understand the names for cuts of meat. Skirt steak? What's that? You can also make fajitas with flank steak and apparently the term is flankensteak, but I didn't know that. Sigh. And where can I find the delicious green chiles which are ubiquitous in the US? There are American stores here, so I'm going to have to go hunting, but I don't hold out much hope.

And let's not talk about how I walked into a halal butcher looking for bacon.


  1. As someone who grew up with a mother who worked for years with Mexican migrants on farms, and eating Mexican food and listening to the music, I really can't say I've ever had real Mexican food in any restaurant, anywhere... but I'm sure Texas specifically has it's own unique cuisine.

    However I can almost console myself with the Tex-Mex of Rowwan Heze. It's so close.

    Oh and never trust anything labeled "pikant". Thats Dutch for "you might taste a bit of something if you're lucky". You might be able to substitute some Indonesian ingredients (from a good toko) for some of the Mexican ones you're lacking. Like, Indonesian sambal > Albert Hein sambal.

  2. The Netherlands aren't known for great food or high-cuisine. Anyone coming here, expecting this to have changed over the years, should really do their homework better.

    From the expats/foreigners that I know of that either spend some time here, or moved here entirely, food and weather are usually the two topics they (rightfully so) bitch about.

    However, the Dutch are notoriously known for their trading. This dates back to the 17th century even. Not having someone cooking decent meals for you, means you'll have to cook it yourself (Dutch people barely eat out in restaurants to begin with ... cultural thing, I guess (or the fact that restaurants provide crappy expensive food)). Local grocery stores tend to provide you with the absolute minimum of spices and ingredients to just keep you alive. Markets (on the street) and foreign shops, like the halal butcher mentioned, are your way to go.

    Due to historical reasons, these are usually either Indonesian, Surinamese or Turkish. I doubt you can't find your spices there. If so, post what spices / ingredients you're specifically are looking for.

  3. For spices you can also go to "De Peperbol" on the Albert Cuijp market, they have some decent stuff.

  4. It's not just that they don't know the English word for the cut of meat, animals are butchered into entirely different cuts in Europe vs. North America. So there may be no word at all for it because they don't make that particular cut. It's easiest to just specify which part of the animal's body and how you plan to cook it and let the butcher direct you.

  5. Same problem in Australia! Yesterday, I got served something that was almost unrecognizable that was supposed to be an taco. At least the salsa was spicy though.

  6. For green chilies, what they call "thai hots" is just as good. They're smaller and hotter than a serrano, but the taste is the same. They can be found in several stalls in the Albert Cuyp, and in "Tijn's toko", one block towards a side street in the Albert Cuyp. This toko sells Mexican products, like bottled salsas and canned green tomatoes (we buy these and canned cactus as well). What we get the most there is frozen white corn tortillas. They're not so good for soft tacos, but they become soft with a little olive oil, and they're good for tostadas and "sincronizadas" (what we call sincronizada is white cheese and ham between 2 corn tortillas, fried with a little oil on a pan, with guacamole on top). This weekend we made pozole, a mexican soup with hominy and pork, seasoned with a sauce made with dried chilies, and garnished with chopped lettuce, radishes and onion. The white corn for the hominy comes from the same toko. If you tell them you belong to the "mexicans in holland" Facebook group, you get 10% discount. :-)

  7. If you want good spices, peppers, chilis and such...

    Find where the 'asian' area of a town is and check out the stores, there.

    Other than that, grow your own!
    Most of these plants will grow quite happily in a flowerpot...
    (I have chives and 'chocolate' bell peppers at the moment. I also have fava beans, yellow onions, silver onions and red beets in flowerboxes on my balcony. )
    Freshly grown is better than dried...

    If you have access to large south-facing windows, it may also be an idea to look at
    (Yeah, I have a WF myself. I only have the bell peppers in it just now because I'm winding it down for my summer vacation. I also had sugar peas and lettuce in it. Tried chilis but they never survived the transfer... Will try again this fall... Others grow cherry tomatoes and even strawberries... )

  8. Coriander is the name for coriander pretty much everywhere apart from America, Mexico, and Spain, you know. :)

    Of course I had the reverse problem when I first visited Denver, wanted to cook curry, and was astonished that the Indian deli there had never heard of coriander leaves. I didn't even know to ask for cilantro then.

  9. "You have to know that "cilantro" is "koriander" and even if the butcher understands English, there's a good chance he/she won't understand the names for cuts of meat"

    Or, to be more precise, "cilantro" is koriander *leaves*. If you just ask for koriander, you may very well get grounded koriander seeds. Which, in the Netherlands, is also known as "Ketoembar" (from the Malay word).

    As for the cuts of meats - there's a lot more to it than names. The cuts themselves are different. The way Americans and Europeans cut up carcasses differ. And there are even differences between the British and the continental ways of butchering. Which is even more a pain when using American recipes in Europe than the American manner of using volume instead of weight measurements for ingredients.

  10. Oh gawd I did the it's. I hate it's for its. Hate it.