Meeting Helena Garcia Garza of Mexican catering and cooking sensation Fuego de la Tierra is an education in authentic Mexican food and the history of corn.
“The Mayans believed that God created people out of corn, so that’s why it’s so important, and it’s part of the reason they developed,” explains Garcia Garza over coffee. “Then in the 19th century there was a disease called pellagra, which was a vitamin deficiency disease that happened in the States and Africa from people just eating raw corn. But in Mexico, they alkalised it, which released the nutrients and so that’s why it was such a beneficial part of the Mesoamerican diet,” she says, happily flipping through diagrams of the nixtamalisation process and images of vibrant glass-gem corn on her iPad as she talks.[fold]
Since founding Fuego de la Tierra (Fire of the Earth) in 2010, Garcia Garza has become a fixture at the weekly Bondi Farmers’ Market, hosted and catered private parties and weddings centred on authentic Mexican cuisine, and developed cooking classes to teach enthusiasts the details of Mexican cooking for home. If you’ve seen her peddling her Huevos Rancheros eggs and Quesadillas over brightly coloured Mexican rugs at the markets, then chances are you’ve been swept up in her infectious enthusiasm for the food of her culture.
Garcia Garza was raised in LA, but was born in Mexico City and still gets back there as often as she can to visit her grandmothers and immerse herself in the cuisine of her family.
But it wasn’t until she came to Australia in 2003 to study hospitality at Le Cordon Bleu in Adelaide (which eventually saw her work her way up the ranks at Flying Fish to become assistant manager) that she began to really appreciate, and miss, the flavours of her heritage.
“There was just no Mexican food here. I didn’t mind so much at first because we weren’t really used to eating a lot of great Thai food and a lot of beautiful Asian food, so there was a lot of other stuff for us to get excited about,” she laughs. But eventually she began to yearn for the flavours of home and began looking for ways to recreate what she had grown up with, beginning by honing the skills she had learnt in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“We went back to Adelaide for my graduation and I found this place that sold masa corn flour, so I just thought ‘I’ll take some home and see what happens’.” With a bit of practice she managed to perfect the corn-based tortillas that she says are more difficult to find in Australia than the wheat based variety. “They have a little bit more technique to them. If there are too many preservatives they just won’t taste good. And now that I make my own, well you just can’t go back. It’s ridiculous,” she smiles and chuckles, “because now if I want one I have to make it from scratch.”
You can see the passion sparkling in her eyes when she talks about sharing her food with others, and a big part of Fuego de la Tierra’s charm is the energy of Garcia Garza herself.
“I love going to the markets because you get such an immediate response. You put a salsa out there and you can tell if people like it right now. It’s so great to talk to people about it.”
With the success of the markets, catering and cooking classes, Garcia Garza is set to launch Cenes Secretas (Secret Dinners) this month, beginning with a warehouse party, La Bodega.
“So far, the only people who can try our food are the people who can afford catering, or come to the markets… So we thought we’d start secret dinners and give people a chance for a good party while they try the food. It’s not a sit down deal – it’s a party. With Mexican food that’s how it is.”
Given the trend for Mexican food currently sweeping the city, Garcia Garza acknowledges that people are becoming more aware of authentic Mexican flavours, but says there’s still a bit of work to be done to shake the Tex-Mex generalities.
“Tex-Mex is its own thing and I don’t find anything wrong with eating a burrito, but to call it Mexican? It really isn’t. That’s why I do my cooking classes, to teach people that it’s okay to like burritos or fajitas or nachos, but you have to understand that they’re not Mexican…there are authentic versions of those, but they have completely different flavours because of the processes.”
For Garcia Garza, these processes include slow food principles, sourcing fresh produce locally and using only ethical and sustainable fish and meat. “Mexican food is very time-consuming on all levels. You make everything by hand, from scratch – which is why there aren’t that many restaurants around. But you can taste the difference.”
And does she have a favourite dish to try? “When they’re fresh, even just a good corn tortilla with lime can be delicious.”