Staying true to his roots

Chef Ivan Chavarria Hernandez is on a mission to educate Malaysians on real Mexican food, through his Flavors of Mexico Asia restaurant.

Determined to correct misconceptions about his native Mexican food, Hernandez says: “People often think Mexican food is spicy. Although Mexicans use a lot of chillies in our cooking, the purpose is not to agitate the palate or numb the tongue. Chillies give a hint of flavour but are not meant to overwhelm the tastebuds. When you have a good, delicate tasting fish, you’d want to be able to appreciate its natural taste.”

Hernandez and wife Nadzirah run Flavors of Mexico Asia. — Photos: CHING YEE SINGHernandez and wife Nadzirah run Flavors of Mexico Asia. — Photos: CHING YEE SING

Hernandez, 35, came to Malaysia last December with his Malaysian wife Nadzirah Hashim (whom he had met while she was working in Bali) to do a pop-up gig on Mexican food. Following the successful stint, the couple returned for another run earlier this year. It was also the impetus for them to open an outpost here.

Invited by a close friend to operate from Beszz Café in (Plaza Damas) Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, Hernandez’s Muslim-friendly restaurant is vibrantly decorated with wallpaper bearing Mexican motifs. Overhead, strings of colourful paper cutouts add to the fiesta vibes. A small Mexican grocery section takes pride of place whilst multi-coloured, mosaic-patterned placemats adorn the dining tables.

“Mexican cuisine comprises a balance profile of sour, spicy and salty flavours. Unlike Tex-Mex food, we don’t douse every dish with cheese. Everything should be balanced on a plate of Mexican food, incorporating vegetables, proteins and nuts. We do use cheese but not too much of it,” he says.

“Corn, beans and pumpkin are used prominently in Mexican cooking. Northern Mexican cuisine tends to be meatier and the use of flour, cheese and beans more common due to their proximity to the United States border hence the Texan influence is more obvious.”

Hernandez himself hails from Puebla City in central Mexico, but going by his looks, he could easily pass for a Malaysian, Filipino or Thai!

He adds that Spaniards who conquered Mexico in the 1500s left behind a multi-cultural society in their wake.

“Today, there are Mexican Chinese, Mexican Japanese and Mexican Indians who form part and parcel of our country’s diverse population.”

Mexican groceries are sold at a small corner of the restaurant.Mexican groceries are sold at a small corner of the restaurant.

True calling

Although his parents were Maths teachers, Hernandez wasn’t so inclined towards numbers. After his father passed away when he was 12, Hernandez’s mother single-handedly supported the family.

“Initially, I studied mechanical engineering, but I had no passion for it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. After wasting so much time, my mother gave me an ultimatum,” he says.

When he embarked on a two-month sabbatical to figure things out, a friend’s visit proved serendipitous.

“My friend, who was pursuing culinary arts, came to my house with some ingredients and invited me to cook with him. Surprisingly, I found the experience enjoyable.”

Hernandez had first learnt how to cook from his abuelita (grandmother) when he was nine.

“The first dish she taught me was carnitas, a simple homey rice dish with garlic, tomato and chicken liver. I still have fond memories of the good times spent with her whenever I eat this dish.”

His family remained skeptical at his new interest, but he was resolute in trying culinary arts.

“It was the best six months of my life. Although I had to work some 16 hours on the job, I enjoyed cooking at different events and the chance to taste new things, experimenting with costly ingredients and sampling different food.”

Not only did Hernandez ace his four-year culinary art course, he made his mother proud by winning a year’s scholarship to Valencia, Spain. Upon graduation, he tried to stay on in Spain but found it hard to survive doing odd jobs with meagre pay.

He then headed to Playa del Carmen, Mexico’s most popular state and a major tourist destination, to find work.

“I met my current boss there and after I earned his trust, he later asked me to help him open a Mexican restaurant, Motel Mexicola in Bali, Indonesia.”

The fiesta-like decor at Flavors of Mexico Asia.The fiesta-like decor at Flavors of Mexico Asia.

Bali and beyond

So, at 24, he set foot in Bali for the first time; he found it a real challenge to serve Mexican food there.

“It was almost impossible to get the ingredients I needed. We had to rely on friends to hand-carry them whenever they flew in from Mexico to Bali, or import from Australia. It was tough due to logistical issues and the long waiting period.

“Things have improved now, but a lot of ingredients remain challenging to source. Today, I’d say the best place for good Mexican food in this part of the world would be in Australia and Bali.”

In 2015, Hernandez ventured out on his own to become consultant chef, working on several restaurant and bar projects in Nusa Lembongan, near Bali.

Now, into his 11th year in Bali, the chef-turned-restaurateur and food consultant says: “I train my team to operate the restaurant in my absence. I teach them until they’re capable of coming close to meeting my expectations of Mexican food. I always remind them that they should cook the way they would cook for their own families. Mexican food is a lot like Peranakan food − agak-agak (guesstimates) − as there are no specifics to Mexican recipes.”

“My restaurant is named Flavors of Mexico Asia as I try to source for local equivalents where possible and infuse subtle Asian influences into my Mexican food. The food cannot be fully authentic as ingredients change according to the continents where they come from. Aromas and flavours also change when native produce is transported across the seas. If I can achieve close to 90% of what we eat in Mexico, it’s good enough.“In Mexico, we have about 300 types of chilli, here in Malaysia, you have five! Imagine my joy when I found locally grown cili gemuk sharing similar attributes with Mexican guajillo. Mexican food is a fusion of many influences: Spanish, French and native Mexican, so incorporating Asian touches to my food is acceptable as long as I am true to my roots.”

While Hernandez is keen to introduce his homegrown cuisine, he is also fascinated by Malaysia’s vibrant foodscape.

“This country has cultures and flavours completely new to me. My first nasi campur revealed myriad flavours unknown to me. Even Chinese food here is so different from Mexico. Indian food is another cuisine I want to explore due to the variety of spices used.”

The chef has also found some familiar flavours here.

“For instance, chicken cooked in kicap manis tastes similar to a Mexican dish I know. I don’t enjoy the taste of belacan, but it’s acceptable when it’s used for nasi lemak sambal. Mexican lemales is like a hybrid version of tamales and nasi lemak.”

His favourite Mexican dish is chiles en nogada − stuffed chile poblano (green chillies) with apples, raisins and meat, a quintessentially Mexican dish.

“I also like ayam betutu, Balinese-style roast chicken with bumbu − spicy Balinese chilli sauce.”

On his days off, Hernandez visits his in-laws and spends time with family, or check out local markets to try new food.

For now, Hernandez alternates between Bali and Kuala Lumpur to grow his restaurants, and hopes to introduce more Mexican specialities to Malaysians.

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