Whenever students ask me what my favorite regional cuisine is I always say that its impossible to choose a favorite because blah blah blah… but the real answer is Mexican food. Mexican food is extraordinary. Both ancient and exciting, deep, rich and complex, yet bright and fresh. It contains multitudes. I’ve been interested in Mexican cooking almost as long as I’ve been interested in food, so I’ve had some time to pick up some knowledge and, more importantly for what today’s post is about, some books on the subject.
Me being unable to cope with how good the food was in Mexico ca. 2019
So rather than you having to decipher some arcane codex to gain the secrets of the ancients, let me just tell you about five of my favorite books on the topic:
- The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy
When it comes to cookbooks, Diana Kennedy is the best culinary ambassador the English speaking world currently has (sorry, Rick Bayless). She dedicated her life (1923-2022) to learning everything she possibly could about Mexican cooking, and this book is my favorite of hers to actually cook from. It’s extremely approachable and beginner friendly while still keeping recipes true to their roots. Whenever I just want to know the standard way of making any Mexican dish I look here first.
- Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico by Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral
This stunningly designed book chronicles the cuisine of the Los Angeles restaurant Guelaguetza. The food is unpretentious Mexican home cooking at its best. This is reflected in the accolades they’ve garnered including a James Beard award, and Jonathan Gold’s (perhaps our country’s greatest ever food critic) contention that “Guelaguetza is the best restaurant in the country.”
The book insists on doing things the right way, which means sourcing avocado leaves, hoja santa, epazote, and other Mexican ingredients that have not always been included in books aimed at the casual home cook. That said every ounce of effort spent finding the stuff needed to try out these recipes will be worth it. If you want your cooking to most closely resemble that of your favorite neighborhood Mexican spot (or perhaps even surpass it) this is the book you should turn to.
- Mexico from the Inside Out by Enrique Olvera
Enrique Olvera is probably the most famous Mexican chef at the moment. Off the back of his flagship restaurant Pujol’s spectacular success he opened a restaurant in NYC, and appeared as the focus of an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. His fine dining take on Mexican food is fresh while still keeping the spirit of Mexican cooking as its guiding force. This is not French fine dining with Mexican ingredients, it starts with traditional Mexican flavors and techniques and uses creativity and finesse to translate them into some of the most interesting and invigorating plates of fancy food you’re likely to find.
This book includes all of the restaurant's most famous recipes including the fabled mole madre which the restaurant continuously maintains and at the time of writing is roughly 3000 days old. For an idea of the effect that mole can have see the first picture in this post.
- Rosetta by Elena Reygadas
Rosetta restaurant and its sister bakery Panaderia Rosetta are two highly regarded establishments in Mexico City. Though I’ve never been to the restaurant, I have been to the bakery, and my goodness it is sublime. Stocked with excellent breads and pastries one of which—the rol de guyaba—is on my list of the ten best things I’ve ever eaten, and the recipe for which is in this book. Aside from baked goods (which make up a relatively small portion of the recipes in the book) it’s full of interesting and inspiring modern recipes that are informed by both Italian and French cooking, but are still firmly Mexican in spirit. Elena has a clear voice as a chef, and it comes through beautifully in this book.
- Oaxaca al Gusto: an Infinite Gastronomy by Diana Kennedy
This is one of my favorite cookbooks ever. It takes just one region of Mexico (Oaxaca) and goes through it with meticulous attention to detail. It is organized by geography (a section for the city, the coast, the isthmus, etc.) and Diana has personally travelled to all these places, sometimes having to travel hours on foot with a guide to visit villages where the residents only speak their indigenous language in order to record their traditional recipes.
As far as I can tell Diana considered this her magnum opus, and to be sure it is a masterwork. It contains recipes you absolutely will not find anywhere else, and is an indispensable repository of the cultural and culinary heritage of one of the greatest food regions the world has ever known. Don’t expect to be able to cook every recipe (unless you have a source for Chicatana ants, and other obscure insects and wild Mexican florae), but what you can’t cook is still excellent for inspiration and cultural knowledge. Diana was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle (the highest honor awarded by the Mexican government) for her work; chief among them this book. Highly recommended.
I hope this roundup helped you enter the world of Mexican culinary literature, and maybe even to up your Mexican cooking chops. If so I encourage you to check out our upcoming Culinary Adventure: Trip to Mexico class.