Fish tacos are ubiquitous when it comes to Mexican menus and we have Baja California peninsula to thank for that.
The peninsula in the north of Mexico is big on seafood and it’s where the popular tacos, filled with lightly battered fillets, originate. For an authentic Baja California bite, the fish is stuffed into a flour rather than corn tortilla, as the northern part of the country tends to use flour tortillas.
Baja California cuisine is all about eating seafood by the water, so it makes sense that Calita, a 26-seater marisqueria — or seafood restaurant — that features this cuisine has opened in Sydney’s coastal Bondi.
Calita’s head chef, Jorge Alcala, 28, worked in the Hotel San Cristobal in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, a state on the Baja California peninsula, as well as Mexico City’s famous seafood restaurant, Contramar, before he came to Sydney.
For Alcala, the food of the Baja California peninsula is all about freshness. You cook what the fishermen caught that morning. “The product is fresh, not frozen. The fish is straight from the ocean and we prepare it the same day,” he says. “The food in Baja is a lot of seafood, in tacos, tostadas, mains and we eat a lot of lobster.”
Meat is on the menu in the north of Baja California, but the tip of the peninsula around Los Cabos and Todos Santos is dominated by seafood.
“The fish is straight from the ocean and we prepare it the same day.”
Aguachile is one of the region’s specialities. It translates to ‘water with chilli’, but Alcala says that instead of water, locals use lime juice.
“It’s really traditional in Mexico, it is made with lime juice, coriander, garlic and onion. It can be red or green, depending on what chillis you use. For green colour, we use fresh chillies and for red, the chiltepin (bird’s eye) chilli,” Alcala says.
As it’s a raw dish, the salsas served alongside it also need to be raw, rather than roasted.
The big difference between an aguachile and ceviche is that the latter isn’t hot.
“Aguachile is always spicy. We are Mexican, we really, really, really like spicy,” he laughs. “Also, with ceviche, you precook it in lime and it’s already done. Aguachile is cooked at the moment. It will cook in one minute and everything that goes in is raw, which is why it needs to be fresh. You can have the best aguachile mix, but if not fresh, it won’t work.”
The exception to the raw rule is calamari and octopus, which need to be cooked for a minute before going into the aguachile mix.
You always need to have saladitas, tostadas and salsas in a marisqueria.
If you’ve indulged in too many margaritas, chances are you’ll order vuelve de la vida the next day. This Baja California hangover cure is almost like an edible Bloody Mary, a mix of seafood, tomato and clamato juice served with saladita (salada) crackers.
“It means ‘return to life’. Saladitas is very Mexican. You can use corn chips, but if you go to any marisqueria in Mexico, you will have it with saladitas,” Alcala says.
“There is a rule in Mexico, you always need to have saladitas, tostadas and salsas in a marisqueria.”
The region’s drink is called agua fresca, which translates to ‘refreshing water’. It’s a mix of fruit, water, lime juice and sugar that’s often sold in street food stalls, served out of an oversized jug called vitrolero.
“When I talk about it with people, they [describe it as] ‘like a juice’, but it’s not a juice, it’s a flavoured water,” Alcala says.
“Jamaica water is one of the most popular, from the fruit of the hibiscus plant. The other one is horchata de coco, made with rice. We soak the rice and then we blend it with coconut milk and the water and the sugar and the cinnamon. It is really popular in Mexico and it’s a very classic recipe, it comes from Spain.” TASTES OF BAJA
Bajan fish seasoning
“This classic Bajan seasoning is typically made using local herbs, garlic, onion and, of course, fiery Scotch bonnet chillies. In Barbados, the seasoning is usually stuffed into the fish cavity, but I like to slash the fish a few times on each side before rubbing in the seasoning so the flavour really permeates the flesh. Just like the locals, I used whole plate-sized snapper, lightly dusting them in seasoned flour before shallow-frying in plenty of oil, but you could use any firm, white-fleshed fish, and even cook it on the barbecue or in the oven, if you prefer.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
The Spanish influence in Baja California cuisine is also evident in the spices used, such as saffron. For example, you’ll find saffron-infused mayonnaise in the lobster tacos.
Co-owner Pablo Galindo Vargas, 40, says, the cuisine is swayed by Asian food, too. “There was a lot of migration of Chinese people during the second world war. They stay in Sinaloa, then come to Baja California and a lot of them start to have a lot of influence. They brought the poppy seeds.
“Soy sauce is used in Baja California, a lot of the ceviches use the soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar.”
Vargas is confident that Australian diners are ready for a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t have chilli con carne on the menu. As part of the Milpa Collective group of restaurants, which includes Carbon and Sonora, he is opening restaurants that focus on regional cuisines. Vargas is even growing different kinds of heirloom corn to make their own tortillas for a more authentic experience.
“In Mexico, the restaurants are very specialised, either they are regional cuisine or places where you can only get one thing. If you go to most of the Mexican restaurants in Australia you will get a combination of different cuisines,” he says.
Vargas is keen to introduce specialised Mexican restaurants to Australia. “Maybe [we could have] one [restaurant] that will be Oaxacan, or just do one dish. People is getting much more educated about what is Mexican food.
“I came to Australia 11 years ago and I got a little bit depression that it was a lot of Tex Mex in a lot of places. Since those times, it just keeps evolving and people are willing to discover different things.”