It was supposed to be a road trip through Mexico and its cuisine. But March of 2020 had other plans. Soon, chef and YouTube host Rick Martínez found himself living in the Mexican city of Mazatlán. His story, along with vibrant photos of the food he found while traveling the country, are in his book ‘Mi Cocina: Recipes And Rapture From My Kitchen in Mexico – a Cookbook.’ He speaks with Texas Standard about what he discovered about himself, his heritage and the food he hopes to share with readers. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about how you ended up in Mexico. I gather you’re a native Texan.
Rick Martinez: I am born and raised in Austin, and lived in Dallas for a couple of years and then moved up to a very cold New York City where I was for 20 years. But my family, my grandparents were from northern Mexico. And that kind of planted the seed of wanting to explore my own heritage. Obviously, growing up in Austin, I was very much a part of Texan culture and loved barbecue love Tex-Mex. But I just wanted to understand where my family came from. And that was really the impetus for wanting to write this book and research the book by traveling down to Mexico and just understanding the people and the food better.
I was thinking, March of 2020. Where were we? Did you just happen to find yourself down there during lockdown?
Yeah. So I had actually started the research in October of 2019 and I was traveling through the northern states at the end of February. I was forced to come to South by Southwest to speak. And then, South By got canceled. Then all my jobs in New York got canceled. And I was like, do I want to go back to New York and get stuck in my little apartment or just hunker down here? And I decided that I was going to go find a beach and I would wait till COVID passed and then I’d start traveling. That never happened.
And originally it was going to be a very different book. It was going to be more of a modern Mexican cookbook. But as I started traveling and I started better understanding the culture and the cuisine, I felt like there are so many dishes that most Americans just aren’t aware of. I think in America we love Mexican food, but we only ever eat tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos and enchiladas. And that’s just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. And there’s so much diversity in the geography and the climate and the people and trying all this food that I’d never even heard of, that there was no research for, because it’s these tiny little towns making amazing food. And I wanted to highlight that. I wanted to give people new things to cook and new things to enjoy and love about Mexico.
Tell us a little bit about what you discovered.
One of the things for me that was so amazing because it was a road trip. I had flown to Mexico before. But when you fly in, you only ever see the place that you’re arriving to. And by driving, you get to see the landscape change. You get to see the produce change slowly, and you get to taste those changes as well. And so the amount of seafood – I was aware of the coastline, but their seafood is just so much a part of the cuisine in this country. Beyond ceviche, all of the different fish preparations, crabs on the Gulf Coast, lobsters and oysters and clams and shrimp on the West Coast. It’s just really incredible. And I love seafood. And that was another big draw for me, andone of the reasons why I decided to move to Mazatlán. The seafood and the lobsters are incredible here.
Is there a particular dish that comes to mind when someone asks you, ‘hey, give us an idea of something specific that you found?
Here in Mazatlan, one of the things that I love eating the most is aquachile is like a ceviche. It’s basically fresh-cut shrimp. Every morning the shrimp boats come in around 6:30 a.m. and all of the shrimp goes into the markets. And seafood is always eaten in Mexico early. So it’s a breakfast or early lunch situation because that’s when it’s freshest. And so a lot of these vendors will take this fresh shrimp, they’ll butterfly it and then when you order it, it’s tossed with a salsa verde, which is typically lime juice, pureed serranos, sliced red onion, avocado, a little bit of cilantro and lots of fried tortillas and crackers to serve it with. It is so good. And the shrimp is so incredibly sweet. Growing up in Texas, I always thought Gulf Coast shrimp was going to be better, but the Pacific shrimp is just insanely delicious.
I’ve talked with a lot of authors over the years, and often when they’re putting their book together, they’re doing their research and making discoveries. There’s a moment – sometimes it’s an epiphany, sometimes it’s a discovery. Did you have one of these moments in the course of writing this book that stands out to you as an especially memorable moment, a turning point, or someone made a big impression that affected what you ended up writing?
I think it was actually before I wrote the book. This was back when I was 19 years old. I traveled to the interior of Mexico for the first time. Growing up in Texas, I thought my family were the poster family for a Mexican American family. And we had been called Mexican all our lives, and that wasn’t bad. But I thought we represented the people and the food. And I got down to Mexico City and Guadalajara, and this was nothing like what we ate. This is nothing like Tex-Mex food. It’s nothing like the food of my family. The people didn’t look like we looked like. And I was just kind of blown away.
And I remember, I called my mom and I was like, ‘I don’t understand. I thought we were Mexican and I’m here, and nothing about this looks familiar.’ And that’s really the moment where I was like, I need to explore. I need to understand where my family comes from, where our food and our traditions come from. Because it’s not it’s not here, it’s not in the central part of the country. And in fact, it took me about 17,000 miles of traveling before I actually started to find people and food that reminded me of home.
What are you hoping the reader will take away from the book? Will they make someone want to visit Mexico or try to whip up something in the kitchen? Or what did you set out to do compared with what you ultimately wound up with?
I think what I would really love to do is change the perceptions of Mexico and the people and the cuisine. I think, at the time that I wrote this proposal, there was – and actually there still is – a lot of negative press around Mexico. And I wanted to change that because Americans love Mexican food. it’s one of the the things that we eat most often Taco Tuesday is a big thing. I think there were 6 billion tacos eaten last year alone. And so I want people to explore and I want to take some of that fear that people have, away. And so by traveling around the country and presenting all of these photos that I took throughout my travels in the book, along with all of these recipes that I hope people love and start cooking in their own kitchens, I hope it just makes people feel like, ‘I do want to I do want to venture out beyond Cancun or the big touristy places and try something new, and try that mole in Oaxaca or those caldos in Chiapas.