Tortilla chips and salsa, chili con carne, and fajitas are now typical European bar food. Rare is the English pub that doesn’t serve “nachos.” The influence of Tex-Mex on world cuisine fascinates us here at Texas Eats. So when our correspondent, Julia Walsh, moved to Manchester, England in January 2017, we asked her to chronicle Tex-Mex influences on the local English fare. Here is her latest report:
In Chapter Thirteen of the Manx-Mex Chronicles, I mentioned that the understanding of Tex-Mex among the locals here in the UK seems to be mainly informed by the Old El Paso display in the grocery store.
After writing that, I realized that taking a closer look at what’s on offer at the grocery store might provide some more insights into the taste for Tex-Mex among the locals (the grocery store is only going to offer what sells!) and tell us more about the Tex-Mex influence on the UK’s food culture. So I took my camera and strolled around the local grocery store, documenting what I found.
Let’s begin with the obvious. This is the “Mexican” section of the store:
The yellow branding of Old El Paso dominates the shelves, taking up more than 50% of the space. Most of the boxes are quick meal kits and taco shells, both hard and signature standing style. There are only three kinds of salsa available, though my favorite friend, Cholula, is present. Demand for normal tortillas also seems low – the tortillas take up only a tiny half shelf of the section (By comparison, on the other side of the aisle, the naan and papadums take up four times that amount). This is also the only area of the store where you can find sour cream or guacamole, (actually, it’s a guacamole “style” sauce). I’m not sure how I feel about these being made shelf stable, as I’m used to both items having to be refrigerated.
I also use the quotations around “Mexican” for a reason. Approximately a quarter of the section is dedicated to sauces and seasonings that are from South America or Central America. They even say so on the package!
If you came this area of the store looking for authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex items, I’d say you’d be sorely disappointed. However, as I continued searching, my spirits were lifted. While the “Mexican” section may be a bit pan-Latino, Tex-Mex flavors are infiltrating the entire store.
The deli section offers both a “Mexican style” chipotle shredded pork and beef, as well as Mexican flavored chicken fillets. I was naturally suspicious of what these Mexican-flavored items might actually be made with, but I found cumin, chilli, oregano, garlic powder and onion powder in the ingredients, so they didn’t seem far off the mark.
There was a Chilli con Carne flavored pizza available (usually pizza places here have some kind of Mexican flavor featuring jalepeños for the bold), as well as a Mexican chicken bake meal (chicken covered in mild bell pepper and chilli salsa, cheese, and tortilla chips), and a frozen barbacoa taco meal from TGIFriday’s. Some snacks I saw offered seemed alright but had odd twists thrown in (like a Mexican rice and bean snack with harissa sauce, which is associated with Tunisia and Libya).
Mexicana cheese is another interesting find. Mexicana is a brand, but it seems like it’s also become a variety of cheese. The one I got from the store says it was prepared by the cheesemonger, so I don’t think it’s the actual brand. It doesn’t have a specific ingredient list either, but it says it contains “spicy chilli and mixed peppers”. The cheese tastes strongly of cumin, is pretty spicy, and makes a hell of a quesadilla too.
But what surprised me most was finding some honest-to-god Tex-Mex in the prepared foods section. I thought that it would be easier to find true Tex-Mex in a restaurant than in the grocery store, but I may have been proven wrong.
Both this Chilli con Carne and Fajita Chicken actually SAY Tex-Mex on the label, and are recognizable Tex-Mex dishes–even if they did pair the Chilli con Carne with plain rice!
What I took away from this experience:
- UK Tex-Mex is here to stay.
- Mexican flavors are wildly popular in the snack food category (though finding something spicy is still hit or miss).
- The geography of Latin America is a bit blurry in this part of the world.
- The only tequila in the store is a small bottle of plata (silver).
But most of all, I found that Tex-Mex is now embraced by the mainstream, even if shoppers are only beginning to be offered what Texans would consider real Tex-Mex.