x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

South of the border ? celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated as a day of Mexican pride around the world and an excuse to indulge in the national cuisine.

Oscar Selfa, left, and Fernando Fernandez in the Amerigos restaurant kitchen on Yas Island with two Mexican dishes: ceviche de atun and gambas saltedas al ajillo.
Oscar Selfa, left, and Fernando Fernandez in the Amerigos restaurant kitchen on Yas Island with two Mexican dishes: ceviche de atun and gambas saltedas al ajillo.

An against-the-odds victory in a distant battle was responsible for Cinco de Mayo becoming an international celebration of all things Mexican. Nearly 150 years after the Mexican army defeated a much bigger French force on May 5, 1862, a similarly protracted fight with a Cinco de Mayo theme is going on in the UAE. For Oscar Selfa, the Mexico-trained chef de cuisine at Amerigo's restaurant on Yas Island, the foe is not military but his battle is no less difficult and one, some might say, with even worse prospects of a favourable outcome: finding good avocados in Abu Dhabi.

"We try and fight every week. We bring them in from Kenya," he says. "And every time we bring them in, we have to send a lot of them back." Acceptable avocados come eventually, Mr Selfa says. "But you have to fight. And you have to fight a lot." Anyone who has bought avocados in the UAE will recognise his predicament but the challenge will be more acute today when Mexican wannabes and aficionados join with the modest Mexican outpost in Abu Dhabi to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, as the date is expressed in Spanish.

After all, authentic Mexican food without avocados is a bit like an American breakfast without saturated fats or an Australian meal without meat. Unconscionable. But that is just one of the battlegrounds involved in producing Mexican food, a cuisine that has long been under-represented in Abu Dhabi's dining scene. With the support of the Mexico-born restaurant manager Fernando Fernandez, the two have found sources around the world to ensure they produce the real thing rather than a dumbed-down version.

Chillies are sourced from Mexico and fresh tuna is bought from the same European company that services the notoriously picky Japanese sashimi market, all augmented by the best local products, such as prawns caught in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman. Amerigo's opened as part of the hardest of hard openings when the enclave of hotels sited beside the Yas Marina Circuit was rushed into operation just in time for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 1.

Having gone from building site to boom town, it then turned eerily quiet immediately after the race, but through a combination of good facilities and prices well below the average for hotels in the capital, patronage has crept back up. Last month, the Park Inn - in which Amerigo's is located - was back to full occupancy, with a flow-on effect at all three restaurants in the hotel. For those who love Mexican food, today is the biggest test for Amerigo's since the Grand Prix.

The irony is that Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger deal outside Mexico than it is within the nation, where the most important patriotic holiday is September 16, the anniversary of the rallying cry in 1810 that sparked the war of independence. Eleven years after that call to arms, Mexico was free. But then 40 years later, President Benito Juarez announced a moratorium on interest payments to the countries to which the republic owed money and France, Spain and Britain invaded.

It was in the process of this incursion that a Mexican contingent of about 4,000 soldiers was outnumbered two to one by the French when the two forces met near the town of Puebla, east of Mexico City, on May 5, 1862. Mexico's improbable victory was the first time the French army had been defeated since Waterloo, but it only delayed the eventual re-occupation of Mexico. The French withdrew again in 1867, but by that time Cinco de Mayo had already been adopted as a day to be celebrated by the United States, which had been a staunch opponent of the reoccupation.

Soon May 5 was designated as the United States celebration of Mexican culture, just as St Patrick's Day, Oktoberfest and Chinese New Year serve as the respective national themed days of Irish, German and Chinese culture. All of this brings us back to Amerigo's and the hunt for good avocados. And that instantly got my full attention, as a recovering guacamole addict forced to go cold turkey in the UAE because the varieties available locally feature what seems to be a nanosecond time span between being as hard as a cricket ball and as soft as a water balloon.

But there on the very first item on Amerigo's menu, just under the heading of "Botanas y Entradas", is guacamole, followed by a flurry of other Mexican culinary standards such as quesadillas ("little cheesy things" in Spanish), enchiladas, fajitas and tostadas. Fernandez is predicting a busier version of a normal day: "We're doing nothing special for Cinco de Mayo. We'll plan just a normal menu. Cinco de Mayo is not that big in Mexico, but we're expecting a lot of people."

He added: "It's the idea of Mexican heritage - a lot of Americans celebrate it and they feel that eating Mexican food is a kind of festival." With a Mexico-born manager and a Mexico-trained head chef - not to mention an interior design thankfully free of ersatz sombreros and fake ponchos - the commitment to do Mexican food properly rather than dumbing it down is demonstrated by the experience of watching Selfa produce one of the kitchen's signature dishes, ceviche de atun.

"It's tuna marinated in lime juice, salt and pepper and some tomato and onion and coriander," he explains. "It's a recipe in Mexico and Colombia and Peru. In Mexico it's more spicy but it varies even within Mexico. In the Gulf of Mexico, on the Atlantic side, they use tomatoes and in some areas of the Pacific they use limes. In some areas they use different chillies. "In southern Mexico they use more spicy chillies and in the north they use less spice."

By the time he's given a brief genealogy of the dish, it's gone from being a slab of pink tuna to being cut into cubes and then marinated in the lime mixture. "It only needs to marinate for a couple of minutes," he adds. "It's enough." Then it's served with some slivers of dried plantain and slices of the hard-fought-for avocado. The secret, he says, is the tuna, flown in fresh each day from Europe. If that's not up to standard, nothing can save the dish.

But all the ingredients are nearly as important, hence the effort to source the best they can find. Finding Mexican chillies is made easier by the existence of a Dubai-based distributor (Fernandez worked at a Mexican restaurant in Dubai before moving to Yas Island). Selfa, originally from Barcelona, said he always knew that Mexican and Spanish cuisines were closely aligned but it took a long spell in Mexico and learning from the locals to truly understand it.

"I knew many things are similar but with the different names. "It's very similar - except for the chillies. In Spanish food, people don't add too many chillies. Being in Mexico was a good experience. I was there for six months. "You feel different when you're in the proper place and the guy is cooking in front of you. "When you learn the proper way to do it, it's different to the way you do it at home."

Just to show that the local produce can be good enough, the next dish is Gambas Saltedas al Ajillo, using tiger prawns from the Arabian Sea. There's an elegant simplicity to the dish, with some garlic and tomato in oil, and once again, it's ready within just a few minutes and it's time for us to go from watching the food to sampling it. Selfa is barely into the first syllable of asking what else we'd like to sample when my answer emerges with what I suspect is indecent haste: "Guacamole." "Er, please" is then added as an afterthought, far too late.

And within a few minutes guacamole is delivered to the table outside overlooking the golf course, accompanied by corn chips. Conversation ends for a few minutes as I reacquaint myself with the real thing: chunky bits of avocado with just the right balance of other flavours. This, I decide, has been a battle worth fighting.