Hongos Forever: Modern Vegan-Mexican Cuisine Chefs ‘Reawaken the Ancestral Memory’ with Mushrooms

Funghi were an indigenous staple of the pre-colonial Mexican diet. Today's innovative Vegan-Mexican cuisine chefs are re-centering mushrooms and creating culinary magic.

Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet / Bloomberg / Getty Images

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Because Mexico’s land is incredibly diverse in climate, it’s a fertile womb for not only a variety of vegetation, but mushrooms as well. Mexico, a fungivorous country, is home to over 200 varieties of hongos, like the fascinating Lactarius Indigo, who like the name suggests, dazzles in its shades of indigo and oozes a milky blue liquid when cut. Hence its English name: indigo milk cap, or blue milk mushroom.

And in today’s Vegan-Mexican cuisine, a mushroom is not only an after-thought, it’s its own universe, and an embrace of the land and cuisine that spawned from an indigenous culture that has widely embraced them for a millenia. Long gone are the days of the sad mushroom taco. You know the one, chewy, thinly sliced, slimy. It was typically the only veggie offering next to nopales at taquerias if your pitter-pattering vegetarian heart craved a taquito – but no longer.

In Ciudad Mexico’s neighborhood of Roma, Por Siempre Vegana Taqueria serves up setas encebolladas (setas are usually mushrooms that aren’t button or cimini; encebolladas means cooked in onion). In Tijuana, chef Antonio Quintero’s Inspiración 9 serves an entree of a whole grilled oyster mushroom with guacamole, beans, and tortillas. In Los Angeles, Stephanie Villegas, chef-owner of Xochitl Vegan –who is famous for her hibiscus flower asada – uses enoki mushrooms as carnitas. In San Francisco, Andres Alulema of Micuna Kitchen lets their cooking be guided by what’s in season, creating delicacies like porcini mushroom chorizo.

Mushrooms, being neither plant nor animal, exist in their own kingdom. They are fleshy, earthy, can be pulled into stringy bits, flattened into a squish (a technique recently popularized by food writer Bettina Makalintal), braised, fried, or roasted, and are incredibly absorbent – which makes them nature’s perfect meat substitutes. Chef and food blogger, Sofia Teraño Sada, whose blog is dubbed Alcachofa y Fon, recognizes this and has developed a host of fungi-centered recipes that replicate nostalgic meat dishes. Like her mouth-watering tacos al pastor, as a topping on her vegan chilaquiles, or in lieu of chicken for her vegan red pozole. Her trick, which she says has changed the lives of many who recreate her recipes at home, is a high-heat sear.

“I hate to use this as an example because I don’t like to eat meat anymore,” Sada smirks over Zoom as she explains her mushroom technique. “But it’s like when you sear a piece of meat, what you’re doing is you’re retaining its flavorful juices, this is the same thing you achieve with mushrooms.”

And though it is techniques like hers that have opened up a cosmos of cuisine to people who were otherwise not fans of fungi, she says we need to let the pursuit of approximation to meat go, and just enjoy the mushrooms as they are.

“More than incorporating new ways [of cooking fungi], it would be worthwhile to go back to those Indigenous pre-Hispanic dishes that were so integral to [this land’s] gastronomy, and return to its roots,” Sada says. The agricultural staples were: maíz, squash, chiles, tomato, and fungi, and mushrooms were inherent and present in foods like broths, soups, moles, and pipianes, she notes.

Stephanie Villegas of Xochitl Vegan, who didn’t love mushrooms until her carnitas recipe, six years after going vegan, echoes Sada’s sentiments on the cuisine’s origins, pre pork, beef and chicken – all products of the Spanish conquest.

“Wild mushrooms have been used in Mesoamerican gastronomy since pre-Hispanic times. With the introduction of pork, beef, and chicken after the European invasion, we began to slowly replace many of those indigenous ingredients,” explains Villegas over email. “The loss of our connection with these ancient ancestral ingredients has created extreme change in our diets, resulting in many of the modern day health issues in our communities. It’s become a mission for some of us to reawaken the ancestral memory and connection through the use of ancestral ingredients.”

For Inspiracion 9 chef Antonio Quintero, fungi was the key to a Mexican gastronomy that was always there. “Before I went vegan, I didn’t know much about varietals,” he admits over email. “I began trying more of them when I took a trip to Ciudad Mexico, and that’s when I was surprised at how much they are part of Mexican dishes. As a vegan they’ve become one of my favorite ingredients.”

At Inspiracion 9, which is nestled in a quiet plaza only about four miles from the border crossing, Quintero says he introduced mushrooms on his menu slowly, but now they’ve become star dishes. “My clients are surprised at their flavor, at how close the texture and flavors are to typical Mexican dishes.”

Quintero uses oyster mushrooms, cooks setas asadas or in adobada, and makes Ensenada-inspired fried portobello tacos. The challenge for him is that because mushrooms retain so much water (which is why it’s recommended you dab off the dirt and not rinse), they shrink on the pan during cooking. But for Quintero it’s all about keeping in mind what you hope to achieve with them, while being thoughtful of their unique characteristics by varietal. It’s not like cooking vegetables, he says.

Andres Aleluma of Micuna Kitchen in San Francisco, recalls that their journey in fungi started by eating slimy jarred button mushrooms in their home country of Ecuador. Their mother swore off them after that, and Aleluma almost did too – but time and culinary school would change that.

“To this day I can’t remember what mushroom it was,” they admit with a giggle as they recall the fated mushroom foraging experience that changed it all. “It may have been a wild chanterelle, but I took a bite out of it and it was floral it had a lavender quality to it and tasted like the backwoods of Santa Barbara. I found that to be so special and so incredible.”

Their menu and cooking style is a scrapbooked palate of all the foods they love, while using what’s in season, setting their creative culinary spirit free to play with flavors and produce while grounding themselves in tender nostalgia. But it was going vegetarian and missing the experience of taqueros and taquizas they grew up with in the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley that was driving their vision for Micuna Kitchen. For this chef with Ecuadorian roots, Mexican food is home.

“For the most part, when you see a vegetarian taco, it’s like zucchini, peppers, and onions sautéed together on a tortilla. And it just felt so unimaginative,” Aleluma says. “I thought, if I have to eat this one taco for the rest of my life I’m gonna be depressed!”

Finding varied and interesting vegetarian options in San Francisco became a challenge. They credit this to people getting stuck thinking tacos need meat and cheese to be good tacos. That mindset limits the possibilities of what a taco can be.

“A taco itself doesn’t have to have any of those bits to be a successful dish,” Aleluma says. “I think it was Enrique Olvera of Pujol who said, ‘a taco is more than the sum of its parts.’ It’s about the mouthfeel, the texture, the acidity, the fat. And so all those things go into play when I think of like, okay, this taco is going to have this vegetable, but how are we going to make it all those things?”

Aleluma applies what their favorite chef said to them in culinary school, “when you look at your product, it’s going to tell you how it wants to be cooked, whether it’s a piece of meat, vegetable, or a mushroom,” and work with wild seasonal varieties. From there they decode how they’ll layer the salt, the fat, the acidity, and put the puzzle pieces together that will create an experience that tastes and feels like home – without worrying too much about recreating them to a tee. It’s more about bringing out the unique flavors and characteristics already within the vegetable or fungi.

“Just like you’re not going to steam a piece of chicken and not put any seasoning on it – that’s gonna taste horrible – I don’t think it’s fair that we do this to our vegetables or our fungi. Treat them the exact same way, with the same respect and the same kind of reverence that you would treat like a nice cut of meat,” Aleluma waxed. “Especially when mushrooms sold pound by pound tend to be comparable to the nicer cuts.”

And though veganism has played a central role in people opening up to mushrooms, Sofia from Alachofffa says it’s important for people in general – vegan or not – to embrace them as another ingredient in their culinary landscape. “I think the labor that must be procured within gastronomy is for people to think of mushrooms as a very versatile ingredient. One that’s delicious, meaty, that can be crunchy, full of flavor, full of umami. It can be neutral, combined with lots of other ingredients, can be served inside of a taco, can be a filling, can be spicy. It’s much more than just a meat substitute,” Sada elaborates.

“They carry our cuisine,” Quintero adds. “[Mushrooms] enrich everything from salsas, to creams, moles, broths, and our Vegan-Mexican cuisine wouldn’t be anywhere without them.”

RELATED: Vegan Risotto with Guajillo Chile Broth Is a Sophisticated Twist on a Classic

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