Rick Stein takes a nostalgia trip to the place that blew his 21-year-old mind

by Fiona Rae / 12 June, 2018

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Rick Stein.

In 1968, Rick Stein tasted Mexican food. Now he’s back in California and heading south on the Road to Mexico. 

The chef from Cornwall is off on another adventure. Driving a powder-blue Mustang convertible, Padstow’s finest is travelling from San Francisco to the Yucatán Peninsula in Rick Stein’s Road to Mexico (Food TV, Sky 018, Wednesday, 8.30pm).

This time, it’s something of a nostalgia trip. In 1968, with the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ in his head and the wind in his hair, Stein set out on his own Pacific Coast Highway adventure. But instead of turning on to LSD and free love, he tuned into the tastes and flavours of Mexico.

“I’d never tasted food like it,” he says. “I had never tasted an avocado, I tasted coriander and hot tortillas for the first time. Slow-cooked meat flavoured with herbs. It really blew your mind.

“Back in the 60s, nobody in the UK knew about Thai food, Vietnamese or anything else. All we had were Indian restaurants, which were very British-oriented, and so were Chinese restaurants. So to get at this fantastically vibrant cuisine at age 21 was a turning point in my life.”

The seven-part series begins in San Francisco, where there are dishes that go back to the Californian gold rush and Depression-era macaroni and cheese. There’s amazing noodles in Chinatown and restaurants now occupying the famous Cannery Row. The Mexican influence includes enchiladas, guacamole, burritos and slow-cooked beef.

“There’s a big debt in California to Mexico, mainly because it was part of Mexico once and, as many Californians would tell you, virtually everything that is grown in California is grown by Mexicans.”

After his 1968 trip, Stein didn’t return to the UK and immediately open a restaurant – he had a brief career as a nightclub owner – but he believes his street-food experiences rubbed off.

“I think the simplicity of it, and the immediacy of it, certainly influenced me. Probably my menus in the UK have always had an element of chilli or heat, and that’s partly due to Mexico.” Naturally, it’s the Mexican seafood he loves the most.

“In a place called Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula, they do a fantastic prawn dish, which is prawns deep-fried in coconut batter with a papaya sauce, which is bloody brilliant.

“I love ceviche, I love a good taco, I’ve never, even in somewhere like Australia, tasted avocados quite as delicious as Mexican ones. They use them almost like a dollop of cream on the top of something, because they’re so rich.”

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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