Mexico City-born chef Pati Jinich, an award-winning cookbook author and television host based in Washington, D.C., talks about the longevity of her PBS show, her latest projects and what it means to be a Mexican in the U.S., and shares her pairing suggestions for tequila and Mexican cuisine.
Claudia Alarcón: So, you’re starting the 12th season of your James Beard awarded PBS series, Pati’s Mexican Table. Congratulations!
Pati Jinich: Can you believe it? It has been such a beautiful experience because one misses Mexico so much. The nostalgia and romanticism that we Mexicans have for the Mexico we left behind is so strong, isn’t it? And Pati’s Mexican Table has not just allowed me to build a bridge between Mexico and the United States. I used to think that the program was to bring Mexico to the United States, but as the years went by I realized that it was a bridge to also make Mexico known to Mexicans, because now you can see the program in Mexico too. Most Mexicans are so unaware of our richness, our diversity; for example, people in Yucatan know nothing about the food from Sonora, and vice versa, right?
It’s been very humbling, realizing everything you thought you knew but you don’t, and my relationship with the audience has changed a lot. It’s very nice, because instead of being, “come with me to Mexico, I’m going to show you my country,” now it’s “come with me to learn everything I don’t know,” and then it becomes this relationship where the audience lives it with me, because now I go to more to places that I haven’t been before, like Sonora, Sinaloa, Baja California.
I also return to places, for example, this new season I’m going to Yucatan, and I’ve been there many times, but never with this lens that I’m going to see the whole state and not just sit in a restaurant. It’s getting to know the producers, the artists, the creators, the people.
Alarcón: To what do you attribute the longevity of the program?
Jinich: Right now, it’s an incredible moment for Mexico because there is an appetite to learn more about Mexico. I have never seen such an appetite, such an open, creative appetite. People want to go to the roots, because they know Taco Tuesday, but let’s look at the tacos arabes from Puebla, the cochinita pibil from Yucatan … and other things that identify us like mariachis, or birria which is so popular right now, and not to mention tequila.
As Mexicans, we have learned to better appreciate things that others see so easily as Mexican, yet we take for granted. For example, what’s happened with tequila. Yes, tequila is the drink of Mexico, but not everyone sees everything that’s behind it. We have grown from seeing tequila as something for shots to something to be savored. I feel that wherever you are in the world, be it Mexico or the United States, tequila has so much tradition, so much craft. It has its denomination of origin, it has to be made from blue agave, etc. It should be valued in the same way that people value the wines of France, or champagne for example.
It’s funny because when I first moved to the United States more than 20 years ago, when people came to visit, they always brought us tequila. My dad always arrived with a bottle of Gran Centenario in his suitcase. That is why I have been working with Tequila Gran Centenario for so long; it is such a good tequila, of such quality and tradition, and very popular in Mexico. The one I drink the most is Gran Centenario Plata, I really like it because it is clean and light.
Right now, the incredible thing about the time we live in is that all these elements that define our Mexicanness are now available in the U.S. Everyone has access to the things that defines us as Mexicans. I don’t need friends to bring it now, Gran Centenario is available here, in any city, even online. It makes me so proud when people say, hey, it’s National Margarita Day, or here comes Cinco de Mayo. You know that people are so willing to learn more.
Alarcón: You have been working with Tequila Gran Centenario for 6 years. Why?
Jinich: It is the only tequila with which I have worked, with which I always wanted to work, the tequila that my family and friends drink in Mexico, the tequila that my father brought me in a suitcase when I first moved here. It is a link that connects me to Mexico, and it makes me so proud that it is now so recognized here.
I have worked a lot with Gran Centenario to design pairings to show what goes better with what, to educate us and educate our palate. Like, if you are going to make something light like ceviche, or a seafood dish like chipotle shrimp with tequila, then you pair it with Plata. If you are going to eat a pozole, better a reposado, right? If you’re going to eat a birria, well, a cocktail or an añejo; it’s no longer like it’s tequila and I’m going to take a shot.
Alarcón: What have you developed these days?
Jinich: I am obsessed with all citrus fruits. And it’s true that just like with chiles, people tended to think that if you’re going to use chile it can only be one type of chile. But people have learned that it is okay to mix them! If you are going to make some eggs with jalapeño and you have a serrano and a chile de árbol, then even better! Chiles love the company of other chiles. I feel the same with ingredients for cocktails.
I made a margarita that has lime, lemon, orange, grapefruit, and tangerine. And it’s like an explosion of the entire range of citrus fruits, because you know that grapefruit is a little bitter and tangerine is sweeter. The yellow lemon that they use so much here in the United States is fragrant, the Mexican lime is more acidic. And when you mix them all it’s like taking this idea of playing with the cocktail that you’re going to drink.
That also has to do with the fact that I don’t have a great tolerance for drinking a lot of alcohol. The truth is that a small amount makes me sleepy. So, I really like to make cocktails where the cocktails are an experience that you can enjoy, right? Sure, there are people who like to drink faster, on the rocks, etc.
Alarcón: But there’s a time and a place for different tequilas, right?
Jinich: Right! For example, I like plata or añejo tequila on the rocks or by itself if I’m just starting to cook or if we’re about to sit down for dinner. But if is a cocktail, I like it to be exquisite, something to enjoy, something without too much ice and that it is not extremely sweet, that it tastes like tequila. I also came up with a margarita made with watermelon, grapes, lime and a little simple syrup, and you can add a slice of jalapeño if you like. It’s like an agua fresca. So, you become like an alchemist in your laboratory, and it’s fun.
Alarcón: What else is on your mind these days?
Jinich: Been thinking lot about the Mexican the concept of sobremesa – lingering at the table long after the meal is over, chatting over drinks or coffee. I remember when I first moved to the United States, and we started meeting people who invited us to their house for dinner. They’d say it starts at 6:15 and it ends at 7:45, and I was like, how can people know what time it’s going to end? How can you tell in advance when something will be over? It is impossible, that does not exist.
I feel that this is something very Mexican, a beautiful tradition that honors cooking, food, drink with a more dignified place, a place that is more appreciated. And a place where there is more connection among us. This after-meal thing, I feel that people from outside Mexico are liking it more. You have finished eating, but you can have another tequila, a cocktail, a coffee, and just relax and chat and connect with one another. And I feel that these after dinner chats allow you to feel that everything is alright.
After you’ve spent so much time and effort preparing the meal, squeezing the citrus for your cocktail, why not spend a bit more time conversing with friends? And you don’t have to wait for Margarita Day. You want a margarita? Invite your friends to make it with you, and create the space to enjoy it and share without having to leave at 6:45!
Alarcón: That is so Mexican, isn’t it?
Jinich: You know the concept that if more people come to dinner, you add more water to the soup? I feel the same with tequila. If you had a bottle and you are going to make margaritas for 10, then you add more ice to make it enough for 15 so you can welcome more friends, sit together a little longer, enjoy a little more. And it seems to me like there are certain iconic elements of who we are, that represent this attitude and its values, and the food, the tequila, the mariachis, all of these go toward connecting – let’s enjoy the life because it flies by quickly.
I just got back from shooting the second season of La Frontera, and I also found this attitude very much alive at the border, this attitude and values embraced by the people – holding on to our songs, our tequila, our food. They are the roots that keep us connected, right? And without necessarily thinking about it consciously, through all these things we are linking ourselves.
Alarcón: Tell me about La Frontera.
Jinich: I have a new project, which is a docuseries that aired on PBS, Amazon Prime, and was featured on Delta Airlines and Canada Air last season. You have no idea how many wonderful, unexpected stories we captured. Being in the U.S. for so many years while strengthening my roots in Mexico, wanting to keep the things we love so much from there but at the same time growing roots here in the United States, because my children were born here. So, La Frontera is a project where these two countries come together, and there is this third country, this third dimension that emerges.
It explores the border of the United States and Mexico, which is something so crucial for both Mexicans and Americans, through a food and culture lens, but this is a more journalistic project. The stories have more depth. For example, I went to Mexicali and met with the Chinese-Mexican communities, and you realize that when there’s a cultural mix of Mexican with another culture, the Mexican side prevails and becomes richer from the other culture.
It has been quite an experience, and throughout this process I have been in touch with what defines us Mexicans, whichever side of the border we are in. Above all, it showed me how Mexicans and what is Mexican enriches not only Mexico, but the United States and the world.
La Frontera premiers on Monday April 3, and will air the three first Mondays in April on PBS, and it will air later on Amazon Prime in Mexico and Latin America.
Pati Jinich’s Tequila / Food Pairing Notes
When pairing dishes with tequila, whether neat or in a cocktail, you want to ensure the ingredients highlight the tasting notes. Recommendations when pairing Gran Centenario Tequilas:
Plata – Given the lighter, sweeter notes, Plata pairs best with ceviches, fresh fruits such as pineapple, mango, passionfruit, and light salads.
Reposado – You want to highlight the spicier notes of the Reposado and pair with something that equally has a bit of spice, like a chorizo taco, or lighter cuts of meat.
Añejo – Goes well with bold, hearty flavors – perfect with a steak, chocolate desserts or coffee.
Watermelon Grape Margarita
“I absolutely love this margarita meets agua fresca cocktail. It truly goes with everything – from tortas to pizzas to tacos to salads. This twist on a traditional margarita has a velvetier body because of the watermelon, with a bit of tang from the grapes, and the perfect amount of bright, light notes from the Gran Centenario Plata Tequila.” – Pati Jinich
1 cup Gran Centenario Plata Tequila
2 cups frozen watermelon
2 cups frozen red seedless grapes
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup simple syrup
1 cup ice
2 slices seeded jalapeño or serrano chile (optional)
Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Garnish with lime wedge and fresh red grapes.