Read, Write, Run, Roam

You can take the girl out of Chipotle, but you can’t take Chipotle out of the girl: American expats and Mexican food


 

Two years ago, I briefly joined friends who were taking a year-long trip around the world. We met in Thailand while they were eight months into their adventure. Over Chang beer and fiery noodles, I asked them what they missed about America.

I thought they would say “knowing the language,” “fabric softener,” or “hot showers and air conditioning.” The answer was none of the above. They missed Mexican food.

Now that I have an extra appreciation for how our friends felt, I’m even happier that we tried Mexican food in Thailand. It was a mad experiment in international food relations. Our burrito was more of a spring roll, with thoughtfully applied ketchup in place of salsa. Mexican food in Siem Reap, Cambodia was a little better.  The “guacamole” was bright green and appeared to be made of peas, but at least the consistency was right. The chips were made of crispy rice paper and the salsa was edible. I watched my friends savor each bite and thought, these poor souls. They simply don’t remember what it tastes like.

Mexican food is a uniquely American experience. You’d think it would be a uniquely Mexican experience, but no. Unless you live in Texas, the Southwest, or Southern California, “Mexican food” is a bizarre hybrid of American, Latin American, Caribbean and South American cuisine. It’s massive burritos with sour cream AND guacamole, margaritas from a machine, Cuban black beans, and deep-fried taco bowls with salad inside (you know, so it’s healthy). It’s kind of disgusting, and I totally miss it.

This year, I can relate to my worldly friends more than ever. Belgrade doesn’t really do Mexican food. Serbians are generally not fond of anything spicy. Mexican ingredients are rarer than an empty seat on the 41 bus line. Black beans? Forget it. Hot sauce? Ha! Cilantro is the Bigfoot of Belgrade markets–people claim they’ve seen it, but they can’t remember where. If they do find it, they paid a huge price and then never see it again. Maybe that’s how I should have spent my time here–forming a black market for cilantro and picante sauce.

There are Mexican restaurants in Belgrade–just not any good ones. Beans are canned and bland. phyllo dough is used instead of tortillas. Some grocery stores do sell flour tortillas (how are Serbians using these?) so at least I can make my own fajitas and tacos. It’s not quite the same.

Fortunately, we found authentic American-Mexican food at Iguana. Unfortunately, Iguana is in…Budapest. Yes, that’s three hours away, but we travel there pretty frequently and three hours is a lot closer than Texas. When the craving gets too bad, Muz and I count down the days until we’re back in Budapest so we can get the best quesadillas this side of the Atlantic. On our last visit, we even ordered jalepeno poppers.

I wouldn’t order these in the States if you paid me, but here they were good. Actual jalepenos, lightly battered, served with a local cheese that was a better replacement for cheddar and sour cream. What’s that on the side? Why, it’s a Michelada: a delicious concoction of lime juice and beer with a salt rim. Technically there should be some tomato juice too, but I’m not complaining.

We’ve been to Iguana five or six times this year, and it never failed to make us happy. It’s a little slice of home in a part of the world where “run for the border” has an entirely different connotation. But now that we’re leaving, I can’t help but wonder if I even remember what it should taste like. I guess I’ll find out soon.

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15 responses

  1. VP

    Actually, Serbs usually DO like their food spicy. 🙂 I guess it’s less prevalent in the younger crowd, but the older people really appreciate some spicy paprika (rule of thumb: the smaller they are, the spicier they are). If you are eating “pečenje”, it can’t be done without some “ren” (horseradish) – the latest trend is to water it down with milk (!!) and wash the taste off, but the hardcore ren is so strong that you can smell an open jar a room away; if you try to inhale really hard over a jar, expect to be dazed and confused for a few minutes. Basically, if it doesn’t clean your sinuses from that horrible flu you’ve been carrying for weeks now, it’s not good ren!

    On the other hand, I haven’t really had Mexican food, ever, so perhaps there are levels of spiciness I just can’t fathom. 🙂

    October 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm

  2. True, I should have specified that Serbia has hot peppers, but they’re used differently and sparingly here. I have had amazing ren but it’s such a different taste that I didn’t think about it in relation to Mexican food. Mexican food is spicy but it’s nothing like Thai food….another cuisine I am excited to have again! It will help me get over the loss of ajvar, burek and prsut.

    October 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm

  3. VP

    Oh yeah, I forgot about ajvar – it’s possible to make it *really* spicy, but it’s not done commonly at all anymore. And, besides, the spiciest “ajvar-like” food I ever tried is Georgian Adjika: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adjika

    October 19, 2011 at 8:27 am

  4. Anonymous

    It is so true that spicy here is different to the authentic Mexican tastes and even Indian. I have yet to try Iguana but have heard lots of good reviews. Oh, but do miss Chipotle and a good quesadilla. Living away from Belgrade is more of a challenge for hunting down certain ingredients and finding the authentic restaurants too! Enjoy your first taste of Mexican when you get back and think of us internationals when you do:)

    October 19, 2011 at 8:53 am

  5. I will eat Chipotle in the name of expats everywhere!

    October 19, 2011 at 9:31 am

  6. VP, it says it’s vindaloo strength! I am intrigued. Have you have seen this in Belgrade?

    October 19, 2011 at 9:32 am

  7. Anonymous

    I can so relate. I already can’t wait for my next trip back. 😉

    Cilantro is actually pretty easy to find at Kalenic. I don’t go that often for it, but have found it every time I’ve looked. There are several people that have it. You just need to use the British English name when you ask: coriander.

    October 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm

  8. I can’t believe I’m learning about this now!

    October 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm

  9. BD

    I LOVED Iguana! Great Mexican food!

    October 20, 2011 at 5:08 am

  10. VP

    No, I haven’t seen any adjika in Belgrade – I’m sure there’s some to be found but I’ve no idea if it’s any good. When I tried it it was actually from Georgia, home-made and all (and it rocked!).

    October 20, 2011 at 9:23 am

  11. Yum. I will have to make a Georgian friend back in the states!

    October 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  12. FiReSTaRT

    Serbs not liking spicy? Things must have gone down the tubes since I’ve left or you gotta hit Leskovac!

    October 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  13. When you get here, you, me and my Serbian girlfriends are going for Mexican, immediately. ❤

    October 22, 2011 at 4:31 am

  14. Hehehe.. My dad used to be a chef and has sent me many original Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes to try here in BG. He knows we don’t have a large Mexican selection. And many of his recipes are his one based on his time in Mexico and Panama throughout his military career. Nachos is so far the only place I really like for okay Mexican.

    Maybe we can arrange something after I try a few recipes (haven’t had the time to perfect them yet) and when we build our house… you and your muž can come out to the new house and have Mexican food!! :)))

    Definitely miss it, that’s for sure!

    October 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

  15. I used to think I’d be the Belgrade millionaire queen if I could buy a stan with a large-enough balcony to grow mass quantities of Cilantro and Jalapenos. And then I’d sell to all the ex-pats and open a “real” taco stand near the bus station. Ah dreams!

    November 3, 2011 at 2:57 am

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