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Author Esteban Castillo is the creator of the popular blog, Chicano Eats.
In Chicano Eats, Esteban Castillo shares his version of Mexican-American cuisine.
Michelada ribs from Chicano Eats.
Mac and queso fundido from Chicano Eats.
Our cookbook of the week is Chicano Eats: Recipes from My Mexican-American Kitchen by Esteban Castillo. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Michelada ribs , mi abuelita’s tacos de papa (potato tacos), and mac and queso fundido .
Trusting the sense of touch liberates your cooking. Hands are indispensable tools in the kitchen — a direct sensory line offering immediate feedback. Freed from following step-by-step instructions, you’re able to act on instinct instead. Second nature to some, others cultivate this faith over time. For author Esteban Castillo, learning to trust his hands brought him closer to the taste of home.
With one foot in Southern California and the other in Colima, Mexico, some of Castillo’s most vivid memories involve watching his abuelita (grandmother) Nina’s hands at work. Making cheese using milk from his abuelito (grandfather) Rogelio’s cows, and frying tacos fearlessly with her bare hands.
“I remember just being mesmerized by her hands and how badass she is,” Castillo recounts, “in taking the tacos and dipping her fingers into the hot oil with not a single care in the world.”
Castillo started cooking as an antidote to homesickness. While away at college in Northern California, he tried to piece together what his mother did in the kitchen. Taking inspiration from her interpretations of foods he and his siblings would request growing up — such as spaghetti and burgers — he arrived at his own style.
“We grew up predominantly eating nothing but Mexican food. I remember being in high school and being like, ‘Mom, why can’t you make something else?’ In hindsight I hate that I said that because there’s nothing I appreciate more than a good, home-cooked meal from my mom,” says Castillo, laughing.
In 2016, Castillo started documenting his cooking on the blog Chicano Eats , which spun into his first cookbook of the same name (Harper Design, 2020). Since the beginning, he has viewed Chicano Eats as both a creative outlet and platform for his version of Chicano (Mexican American) cuisine. What he didn’t expect, however, was that his cure for homesickness would resonate so deeply with others.
As his audience grew, Castillo began hearing from Mexican-Americans living throughout the United States who felt a sense of belonging through his blog. “Like a lot of different cultures … these first- and second-generation Chicanos had to assimilate for survival,” he says. “They didn’t grow up with their culture. They didn’t grow up speaking their language. And so for them, having these recipes written down is a huge resource.”
When it came to his book, Castillo wanted to write something people would turn to often. He thought back to his time living away from family and drew on the dishes he missed most — the ones he craved so badly he would call his mom for immediate guidance. More often than not, these were the building blocks he chose to open the book with. “The Essentials” — refried and stovetop beans, various rice dishes and salsas — lay the foundation for the dishes to follow.
“My mom has always told me, if you can make a good pot of beans, you’ll never go hungry,” he laughs. “And so I feel like it was really important for me to spend a good chunk of the book showcasing these staple recipes.”
Whether family recipes such as his abuelita’s tacos de papa (potato tacos), or his own dishes like mac and queso fundido, Castillo’s playful and vibrant approach is reflected in the book’s aesthetic. As with his blog, in addition to developing and testing the recipes, he did the food styling and photography as well.
“My visuals are a way to convey my queerness. And also, here in the U.S. the perception when it comes to Mexican food is it’s nothing but tacos and burritos. And that you shouldn’t really pay more than two or three dollars for a taco because it’s just cheap street food,” says Castillo. “I feel like getting to be bold and loud with my colours, and taking Mexican food out of its element with how it’s traditionally styled, really pushes … (people) to step back and challenge their biases about Mexican food.”
In sharing his culture through food, Castillo adds, he’s also contributing to a family legacy. Because his parents were undocumented until he was 21, he would make his frequent visits to Mexico without them. When he was there, he would spend time with his maternal grandparents who have always worked in food.
Before his abuelito retired due to a back injury, he mined sea salt in Cuyutlán every spring and sold tacos from a cart during the rest of the year. His abuelita has been a cheesemaker for more than two decades and every weekend, she opens up her backyard to serve tacos, sopes and pozole. It’s more than a way to make ends meet, Castillo emphasizes — they’re motivated by a desire to nourish others. “They put so much love and care into what they do,” he says. “So for me to be able to share my dishes and these recipes really means a lot.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020