Interview with an Innovator

Wahaca’s Thomasina Miers: ‘It’s really important to keep changing our menus’

The queen of Mexican street food on her new test kitchen, the chillies that excite her and why sometimes you have to wait a few years for a dish to shine.

20 December 2017
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image credit: Tara Fisher

Miers on Paper – CV

  • Came to prominence in 2005 after winning MasterChef
  • Co-founded Mexican street-food chain Wahaca in 2007 with Mark Selby (not the snooker player)
  • Author of five cook books and writes a regular column for the Guardian

Thomasina Miers is an expert juggler. Not in the circus performer sense – although she may very well be skilled at throwing colourful objects into the air, we didn’t ask – but in the way that she manages to balance her work and home life. When we speak to her, she’s in the midst of launching the new Wahaca Test Kitchen in Shoreditch; she’s also just about to take her children to swimming class.

Talking to Britain’s queen of Mexican street food, there’s a real sense of the familial aspect of eating. And it all began with her mother. “She was definitely a housewife on a budget,” reminisces Miers, who remembers a childhood filled with marrows and mince. “I grew up sort of looking in the fridge and saying, ‘Look, can I cook something tonight with these ingredients?’ And she would just let me.”

But it wasn’t until she went to Mexico and really experienced the chilli that she had a real revelation about cooking. “I’d always thought chilli was about spice, blowing your head off, and then I discovered this whole world of flavour that I found really exciting.”

Miers still makes regular visits to Mexico, popping the odd ingredient into her handbag to get it through customs, as she seeks new inspiration for the food at Wahaca. In a normal week, she spends three days working on the brand’s 25 branches – including the test kitchen, which opened on November 27.

Here, she tells us about the ambitions for the new Shoreditch address, the future of Mexican food in Britain and the trends that have her buzzed.

 

As a child I wasn’t very good at playing with dolls. Cooking seemed much more fun, really creative, a good way to stave off boredom when I was young and at home a lot.

I started making pocket money from cooking for people’s dinner parties. And I got really into just reading new cook books and seeing what was going on in food.

I think I grew up appreciating affordable ingredients, like pulses and lentils and vegetables in season – because my mother always shopped in season because it was cheaper.

When I started travelling and discovering street food, I think it really struck a chord with me because it was common-sense cooking, cooking with staples that were actually really healthy. But then completely transforming them with a touch of spice or a bit of chilli, or harissa, or cumin, or coriander seed.

I’m quite excited about using Kampot chillies right now. With the Khmer Rouge, this peppercorn – which is like the king of peppercorn – was basically all but extinct.

We started cooking with pasilla de Oaxaca in Wahaca, which is a really lovely smoked chilli. But now it’s impossible to get hold off, because it contains this compound that has been banned by the EU.

Ancho chillies are becoming really well known, because they’re sweet and rounded in flavour and very rich, and they just completely transform all sorts of sauces without adding very much heat at all. They’re a bit like those nora peppers from Spanish cooking.

image credit: Cat Byers

We think about prawns and crabs and whelks and mussels as completely fine to eat, but when it comes to grasshoppers and ants’ eggs, we’re kind of a bit squeamish about them, but really it is just a kind of mental barrier.

I spend so much time in Mexico now, where eating insects is completely normal – and in fact ants’ eggs are a totally luxurious ingredient, really expensive. I don’t see the barrier anymore.

At Wahaca we’ve used cricket flour to make chocolate brownies. We really like experimenting with insect food, because it’s a really sustainable way of feeding people.

People still think of Mexican food as being quite heavy and quite cheese-based, and I find we’re still completely working at breaking down those preconceptions too. Mexican food is actually really fresh and vibrant, and the pre-Hispanic diet is really rich in protein and nuts and seeds and pulses – and it’s really healthy.

People are fascinated by regionality now. And just like you can get North Indian restaurants or South Indian restaurants, we’re just at that beginning of the journey in Mexican food, because people are only just realising how regional the food is. It’s not just Tex-Mex, which is what it was before.

Our new test kitchen menu is Shoreditch is very much experimenting with the pre-Hispanic diet. The salsas and the moles and the sauces are what really shine on the menu. Because before the Spanish arrived with pork and sugar, a lot of the cuisine was based on these very complex, rich but healthy nut- and seed-based sauces. You’d have a small bit of meat, and then these incredibly delicious sauces and salsas on the table, and I think our menu kind of reflects that.

We’ve got loads of vegetables on the test kitchen menu.  We’ve always had a lot of vegetarian food on the Wahaca menu, but we’ve really kind of cooking even more vegetables in Shoreditch, which is great.

What would I recommend in Mexico? There’s a new restaurant called Nexo, in Mexico City, which I thought was really, really sensational. Eating the food, the menu was like a tour of the different states of Mexico. So they’d have one dish that was a Yucatan special, or one that had influences from Oaxaca, or one that was Veracruzan in flavour. For someone who just loves the regionality of Mexico and who has travelled a lot, I found it really inspiring and fun.

I think it’s really important to keep changing our menus, because I think it’s important for our chefs to learn more. And particularly with our new site, it’s got a new kitchen layout, it enables them to cook different things more.

Things that we haven’t had a good response to, we had a pozole on the menu three years ago, which is an amazing clear broth with pork and white corn (called hominy). It’s really refreshing, it’s got fresh, raw radish and cabbage and fresh lime on it. But I think people were like, ‘Woah’ – they didn’t know what to expect. Broth was quite an alien world.

People are more experimental now. And in fact we’re about to put a pozole on our January/Feburary menu again. We’re going to use chicken instead of pork, and it’ll be like grandmother’s Mexican, clear broth. With bits of chicken and fresh cabbage and fresh radish and fresh lime. And it feels like a really lovely thing to eat in January and February.

I think you can’t just put things on once, and if people don’t try it just give up. Because often it’s the way you’ve put it on or the way you’ve described it. Or it’s just the timing is wrong.

Healthy food is not about avoiding food groups, it’s about cooking with fresh ingredients, as close to where they were grown as possible. And in season, that’s when they’ve got the most nutrients.

I think the most exciting thing right now is actually meat-free cooking. I think that really is here to stay.

The rise of veganism is fascinating, and although I don’t think it’s a way to control your diet, eating less meat is definitely how we’re all going to survive in the future. 

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