To fry or not to fry the noodles?   Books and Food: The Secrets of Mexican Cuisine

By Carole Reedy

Oh, the joys of living in or visiting Mexico where meals are celebrated and are a significant focus of the day. And half the fun lies in researching and preparing recipes or searching for yet another gem of a restaurant If you read this column monthly, books are yet another passion in your life. So here we combine the two.

Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless? The Debate

Both of these famous award-winning chefs have written several books about Mexican cooking. Bayless hails from Chicago, where he owns several popular restaurants, including Frontera Grill, XOCO, and Tompolobampo. Be prepared to stand in line for a table as Bayless’ restaurants are among the most popular in the city. His books, Mexican Everyday and Mexico: One Plate at a Time, transform the sometimes arduous task of Mexican cooking into a simpler format for busy 21st century home cooks.

Kennedy, the grand dame of Mexican cooking, is an encyclopedic chronicler of regional cuisine. She has written numerous books, the most popular being The Essential Cuisines of Mexico and The Art of Mexican Cooking.

Here are some comments from their fans. It appears that both authors have something different to offer.

“Kennedy’s Cuisines of Mexico is as fine a treatise on Mexican cooking and ingredients/methods as you will find. Her The Art of Mexican Cooking is a later work, and the two form as good a base as one could want. Even in Mexico I believe Kennedy is looked on as definitive.”

“As others have noted, both authors offer a great deal. Kennedy certainly gives you a broader picture and understanding of the landscape of Mexican cuisine. Bayless’ recipes are winners and will certainly ensure accolades from your guests. I turn to Bayless for surefire hits and use Kennedy when I want to explore a particular recipe, region or ingredient a bit more.”

“Another stunner is Patricia Quintana. Her recipes are perhaps a bit more complicated, but they are sensational. Her book, Feasts of Life, is outstanding.”

“Kennedy’s recipes seem to have a more traditional feel them, mainly because specific regions of origin are included (Michoacan, Yucatan, etc.). A lot of her material also seems to be derived from old family recipes.”

“I have Bayless’ Mexican Everyday book. I think it’s great. My favorite part is all of his suggestions for changes, substitutions, and variations for the recipes. He calls them “riffs.” They are really great and help you understand that the recipe is just a starting point and not something set in stone.”

Chiles and Corn

Another popular author of Mexican Cuisine is Karen Hursh Graber, who has written two different, useful, and informative books about the unique cuisine of Mexico. Her Cuisine of Puebla, The Cradle of Corn is available at

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the town of Cholula was a ceremonial center and home of pre-hispanic street food, which was sold to worshippers who thronged to the great pyramid. Graber spent many years living in this unique town and recreating the recipes of the ancients. The book, however, explores the different regions of Puebla and gives more than 75 recipes as well as advice on cooking techniques and ingredients.

An aside: A trip to Cholula is a delightful experience. There you can view and visit a cathedral and the Aztec pyramid on which it is built–you will never experience anything else like it. Other numerous, small churches are amazing with their hundreds of little angels peering down at you.


Take This Chile and Stuff it (available on Amazon). This book offers authentic recipes for chiles rellenos (literally “stuffed chiles”) along with creative and enticing fillings. Included are hints on handling chiles and adjusting the heat. We mentioned this book as a great stocking stuffer at Christmastime. It’s a clever gift for your friends who already have all the basic cookbooks on their kitchen shelves.

Karen (Kitty to her friends) has been writing about Mexican food for years. She lived in Mexico for 25 years and still returns to continue her quest for the best restaurants and recipes. You can find her articles in as well as in National Geographic. In 2007 she was awarded the magazine industry’s Folio Award for a series on the history of Mexican Cuisine that appeared in the Chicago-based magazine El Restaurante Mexicano.

We asked Graber how she became interested in writing books and articles about Mexican Cuisine. She writes to us from Ecuador, where she is spending the summer (and surely learning about their cuisine): “I began cooking Mexican food by helping my comadre in Cholula (Puebla) cook for the baptisms, communions, and weddings of her children. She had 16 of them, so it was a lot of cooking. It made me realize that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time and energy expended in the kitchen and the quality of the food that comes out of that kitchen. Regional Mexican food is labor-intensive, and the result is a vibrant, world class cuisine. One of my favorite Mexican cookbooks is Alquimias y Atmosferas del Sabor by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, chef and owner of Mexico City’s beloved El Bajio restaurants. Food writer Valentina Ortiz Monasterio has said that there are two kinds of cooks–those who fry the noodles before making soup and those who don’t. Carmen fries the noodles.”


Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is likely one of the most popular novels published about Mexico that also whets the taste buds for typical Mexican cuisine. It was made into a successful movie. Esquivel uses the technique of magical realism to combine the supernatural with the ordinary. Beginning with January, the book is divided into 12 sections, each leading off with a Mexican recipe, and then each chapter outlines the preparation of the dish and ties it to an event in the protagonist’s life. Sound a bit too clever? It works though.

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel by F.G. Haghenbeck. Recently discovered notebooks among Frida Kahlo’s belongings at her home in Coyoacán, Mexico City, are the resource and impetus of acclaimed Mexican novelist F.G. Haghenbeck’s new novel. He imagines that one of the notebooks is a gift from her lover Tina Modotti, “The Hierba Saint Book” (The Sacred Herbs Book), filled with memories, ideas, and recipes. Haghenbeck explores Frida’s exciting life among celebrities, her art, and her relationship with Diego Rivera. “Combining rich, luscious prose with recipes from The Hierba Santa Book, Haghenbeck tells the extraordinary story of a woman whose life was as stunning a creation as her art.”

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