Decoding Kolkata's Growing Love For Mexican Cuisine

Kolkatans are more curious than ever to look beyond takeaway burritos, movie theatre nachos and what a discontented Anthony Bourdain pegged ‘bro food.’ With a spate of new Mexican brands promising authentic fare and the growing love for the concept of tapas, the city’s foodies are finally waking up to the true essence of Mexican cuisine, which has recently been recognised as an ‘Intangible Heritage’ By UNESCO.

This year, Kolkata entrepreneur Saket Agarwal, who co-founded Manifest Hospitality, introduced the Mexican diner and bar Mehico, in Park Street, which is built to mimic an Oaxacan cantina. On the menu are elotes, enchiladas rojo, cochinita pibil, a dreamy blueberry cajeta flan and a lot else. Agarwal reveals that he made sure ingredients like the stringy, Oaxacan cheese or the earthy Masa tortillas are represented just right for local foodies who are yet to have their tryst with down-to-earth Mexican cooking.

“Our menu is inspired by my wife and I’s journey around Mexico, which helped us concentrate on hand-picking the right dishes; some of which are a first to be introduced in not just Kolkata, but India too,” Agarwal shares.

“We rounded up Habaneros, Anaheim peppers and a host of other flavourful chillies, which would help match or surpass the spice level that India loves so much. We also wanted to offer as diverse a menu as possible, hence we picked several meats and paired them with different cooking styles. For example, we have deep-fried Baja fish tacos, but also a delicious grilled Fish a la Contramar,” he points out. 

“I remember the first time I tasted achiote at a Mexican diner in Bandra, it is such a distinct memory because I recall it so well,” says Anindita Basu, a Kolkata-based freelancer and foodie. “Some of the elements in Mexican cuisine are quite specific and hard to capture if you’re not working with fresh ingredients. I think this is what appeals to Kolkatans as well. Most local foodies have never experienced this form of cooking, just a Texas-ified version,” she adds.

So, what’s working?

Debojyoti Sarkar, the Executive Chef at Roots feels the chemistry is just right between Kolkatans and Mexican cuisine, especially given the latter’s spice-forward palate. “The chemistry between Kolkata and Mexican cuisine is famous because the cuisine is flavourful, it can satisfy hot and spicy palates really well,” Sarkar says.

Kolkata’s love for seafood has been quite key to the city’s connection with Mexican food, feels Agarwal. “The rich blends of spices, alongside sharp elements like chilli, coriander and lemon are all things that India uses in its cuisine, so, the introduction of authentic Mexican food to Kolkata has gone very well. Alongside the flavours, Kolkatans' affinity with fish and all types of meat can’t be understated, and with Mexican food, those elements are the central heroes,” he says.

For locals who appreciate bold flavours and are used to the intense notes in their tangy phuchka water or jhalmuri, Mexican cuisine offers a haven of possibilities and pairable options. “For me, it’s the colours! I love how vibrant and bright my plate looks every time I order Mexican food, be it a salad or something else. I think the flavours are so well-rounded. Despite not being used to it, I can wrap my head around it very easily, there’s a sense of familiarity,” says Radhika Manchanda, a city-based business owner.

‘Pair What You Like’

There’s definitely a market for authentic Mexican menus here, feels chef Urvika Kanoi, who also owns the popular South Kolkata Cafe The Daily. Kanoi just brought her Mumbai-based Mexican brand Cafe Duco into the city, as a delivery kitchen. “Kolkata has a market for the cuisine, the flavour palate is very similar to Indian food,” Kanoi points out. Sustainability is a major connection between Mexican and Indian cuisines, including Bengali food, considering how it relies on local produce.

“We’ve put a lot of work into making it authentic and sourcing the ingredients. A lot of it is local and sustainably planned. However, we are flying in chillis, adobo etc because they're quite essential to the cuisine. We make everything in-house, including the tortillas, dips, salsa and oils," Kanoi shares.

The availability of low-calorie, freshly made options is also what makes Mexican food a big crowd-pleaser, especially with fitness enthusiasts. “Mexican flavours pack a punch but they also offer a lot of freshness. It's not very heavy and there are enough diet-friendly options in terms of grills, salads and ceviches,” Kanoi ventures. 

One of the best things about Mexican cuisine is its malleability, feels Agarwal. You can pair any components together and chances are it’ll tie in quite well, especially if there are cocktails in the mix. Mehico’s bar menu has a winning line-up with picks like the Doña Perfecta (patron, pomelo, pink guava, prickly pear, and clarified agave, served with a guava macaron), Cantarito (tequila, grapefruit soda and citrus juices, served in a Tajin-rimmed clay vessel) and more.

“We have seen people going for main courses to make their entire meal, while others choose to stick to appetisers and cocktails. In both categories, our sales have been equal. Our diverse cocktail menu also caters to all flavour pairings, whether you need something dry to pair with our richer dishes, something sweet to bring the heat down, or need something spicy to take things up a notch,” says Agarwal.