Mexican chef Pati Jinich didn't learn to cook the cuisine of her homeland until awaiting citizenship in the U.S.: 'I was homesick''

·7 min read
Pati Jinich says she planned to become a political analyst, until she fell in love with cooking. (Photo: Pati Jinich; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Pati Jinich says she planned to become a political analyst, until she fell in love with cooking. (Photo: Pati Jinich; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

Pati Jinich is on a mission to share authentic Mexican cuisine with the world. As host of two PBS food series, Pati's Mexican Table and La Frontera with Pati Jinich, the 50-year-old chef has been sharing not only food but also her culture and traditions with viewers for over a decade.

"Every season of Pati's Mexican Table, I go to a different region of Mexico, which is incredibly eye-opening," Jinich tells Yahoo Life. "And then with La Frontera, we're exploring the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico."

"It's incredibly humbling because we have this idea of what the border is, what Mexico is — and then we get there and there's just so much depth, so much richness and so much diversity," she continues. "I love going to restaurants, but the thing I enjoy most is going into people's homes."

Of all the incredible meals Jinich has cooked and eaten, a home-cooked meal in El Paso, Tex. is the one that stands out the most. "One of the most delicious breakfasts I had when we were filming La Frontera," she says, "I visited with a friend named Alfredo Corchado, he's a journalist, and he was telling me all the beautiful things about the borderland communities and how they're so tight knit. The thing he kept referring to was how he started his day every morning with his mom — how she was a migrant farmer from Mexico who lived in California and moved to El Paso and made her life there — really put down roots there. So I was like, 'I think I want to start my morning with your mom, can I invite myself over?'"

Corchado's mother happily agreed to allow Jinich to join in on their morning tradition.

"It was one of the most exquisite breakfasts," she says. "She had fresh-made coffee and then she made breakfast tacos with corn tortillas that she warmed up. She spread on refried beans, added some Mexican-style eggs with tomato, jalapeño and onion, put some chile Verde on top and added cheese ... those tacos made it into the episode, they were so good."

"Through those tacos, I could eat the care and nurturing," she adds, "how she's holding onto the traditions of where she comes from." Jinich says it's a feeling she's experienced herself: Through food, she's found ways to keep her own culture and traditions alive, even when living far from her hometown of Mexico City.

"When I first got married, we moved to Dallas and I wasn't a good cook at all," she admits. "I've always been a good eater, but I wanted to be a political analyst ... when I came to the U.S., I couldn't go back to Mexico for a while as I was settling my papers — when you're applying for paperwork, you can't go back and forth — so, for about a year and a half, I couldn't go back. I was homesick for our food and our family meals and our culture."

This yearning for the flavors of home pushed Jinich to get into the kitchen to bring a little bit of Mexico to her new home in the U.S.

"I started with caldo de pollo (a chicken-vegetable soup served with tortillas,) then I started making frijoles de olla (beans in a pot) with Mexican red rice — that food really helped me feel at home and it helped me feel nurtured. I started with the basics, really comforting food."

As a person who has immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, the experiences Jinich helps share on screen are especially close to her heart. "Being a Mexican in the U.S., living here for over 20 years and having my kids be born here and grow up here, I feel like Mexicans in the U.S. are seen [by their fellow Mexicans] as the ones who left," she says. "But the Mexicans who live in the U.S. are [seen by people in the U.S.] as the ones who came — they're not from here —and I feel like that limbo is lived every second in La Frontera."

La Frontera, which she calls her "greatest passion," is a docu-series showcasing cuisine and culture from the U.S.-Mexico border cities: Cities Jinich says have unique stories, struggles and food. The show, which has a second season premiering in spring of 2023 on PBS, takes place in border towns in California, Arizona and New Mexico.

"You have borderland communities, continuously not from here, not from there, but 200% from everywhere," Jinich explains. "I think those communities are so hard to understand: I found it fascinating that at the border it's not only Americans and Mexicans, but people and cuisines from all over the world. It's like a third dimension that opens in La Frontera: A different way of living and coexisting and seeing how incredibly supportive of each other people are there."

Today, Jinich is an inspired James Beard Foundation award-winning chef, but she didn't start out that way.

"I remember how I learned to make Mexican red rice," she recalls. "I was in Dallas and I would talk to anybody at the grocery store that I saw was buying Mexican ingredients because I was not a good cook. I ran into this woman from Puebla, Mexico who was buying just as many jalapeños as I was and I asked her, 'What are you cooking? What are you doing to do with those?'"

"She said she liked to put them on top of her red rice to suck all the flavor from the broth," she continues. "I told her I had been trying to make Mexican red rice forever, and I couldn't get it right: She invited me into her home to make the rice with her. We went step-by-step."

As Jinich gears up for the release of Season 11 of Pati's Mexican Table, she reflects on how much she has learned about her home country. In this season of the series, Jinich travels to areas of Mexico that are little-explored by the media to share incredible stories and families that have been making the same food forever.

While she loves it all, Jinich says Central Mexican food feels the most like home.

"There are so many regional cuisines in Mexico," she says. "You have Oaxacan cuisine which is very rich and intricate, you have the Yucatecan, which is with charred ingredients, habaneros and citrus, Central Mexico, which is very rich but subtle at the same time — very family-friendly and homey and not that incredibly complicated."

"I think central Mexican food is the type that anyone would be most familiar with," she adds, "tacos al pastor (pork tacos,) enchiladas, different salads — very homey, makes everyone happy."

Jinich says her mission is to help people to understand there's much more to Mexican food than they think.

"I think people are stuck with the idea that Mexican food is tacos and guacamole, but there are 100 different kinds of tacos and so many different kinds of salsas and guacamoles," she says. "And there is so much more than that — there's the vegetarian dishes, the grains, the beans, the vegetables, the fruit, different regions and ingredients —I truly believe Mexican food is the most stereotyped, but it has so much more to offer if people just dig in a little bit more."

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