Journey to Mexico: Paul Wilson's five keys to unlocking Latin cuisine

Jane Willson
17 September, 2014

If there is a message that Paul Wilson wants you to take away from his new book, Cantina, it’s that there is a whole lot more to Mexican food than the cheesy burrito.

And he’s on a mission to help you create it at home.

Cantina is the product of another, more personal, mission: to rediscover his food and cooking mojo after a massive few years overseeing the Melbourne Pub Group’s ambitious growth (opening no fewer than seven venues in two years).

"It was full on and all consuming; I was a little jaded and I decided to clear my head and travel and immerse myself in food again.” He and wife Bec headed to Mexico, taking three months to eat their way around the country and build the foundations for his comprehensive take on the most authentic of Mexican kitchens.

Realising another food culture was invigorating. This book has been a terrific remedy; it really excited me.”

He’s now juggling consultancies in Sydney, including a Surry Hills pub being loosely remade in the fashion of an American smokehouse “baarbecoa” with a posher Latin Cuban-esque inspired dining room upstairs, and an Icebergs at Echo Beach, Canggu (the new Seminyak), in Bali.

But back to Cantina: what about cooks for whom it’s all a bit confounding, particularly in terms of ingredients, which can tend to the lengthy side? For a start, says Paul, it’s a mistake to take it all too seriously.

Second, get familiar with some of the building blocks. We asked him to nominate five that are a good launch point for Cantina and Mexican cooking in general, and this is what he came up with:

Achiote The saffron of Mexico, this is a wonderful ready-made paste of annatto seed that has a mysterious citrus and earthy flavor. Add your favourite spices and herbs, some minced garlic and onions, virgin olive oil, and a squeeze of lime and you have an authentic marinade for seafood and white meats.

Masa flour This fine white cornflour is perfect for making real tortillas, tamales, sopes, bocoles, arepas, quesadillas and many more gluten-free street foods. But a note to tortilla lovers: give up on the tortilla press. Or buy two. “They always get broken.” Then what? Perfect your rolling pin technique.

Agave nectar or syrup is a healthy sweetener typically used for cocktails; it’s more potent than sugar, so you use much less. It’s a bit of a buzz ingredient in the health food world because it is low GI.  Paul uses it to sweeten all his Latin cookery, which has high acid; lime, hibiscus and bitter chocolate are regulars.

He says it’s great to make aqua frescas – refreshing fruit juice cordials made with tamarind, hibiscus, guava lime and wild berries. “You dilute with soda or dial up with your favourite spirit.”

Dried chillies  are a personal taste thing. “My favourite is pasilla chilli, the chilli of Oaxaca, which is bit like the Tasmania of Mexico – very rural and fertile country. It’s mildly hot and very subtle with interesting red fruit notes, so very versatile. Pair it with red meats, vegetables, and poultry to enrich stews or make a lively table salsa.”

How? Simply remove the stalk, cut in four, grill or pan fry for a few minutes, then soak in water or stock overnight.  Blend in a food processor with charred garlic cloves (peeled); then add cumin, cloves, salt, olive oil, some of the water or stock and a splash of both good sherry vinegar and agave.

Paul says this produces an incredible sauce base to brush over meats. Or add it to a robust stew; or a gravy poured over shoulder of lamb. “You will be eating like an Oaxacan before you know it.”

Chipotle peppers in adobe sauce Smoked and dried jalapenos in a spicy tomato sauce are ideal for creating Mexican flavours fast.  

Simply blend then add this sauce to a mayonnaise for fish tacos or aioli and serve with roast chicken tostadas, or slathered over grilled corn.

Or chop and add to bean stews, vegetable casseroles such as ratatouille, and meat-based dishes like chilli con carne.” Also use it to enrich pulled braised meat, such as pork or beef short ribs.

Farro Have a go at replacing rice with a grain such as farro. “Simply soak then rinse and boil until tender. Drain, then cook like risotto (with or without cheese).” Or add cooked onions, garlic & chopped kale for a lovely green pilaf. Paul notes in the book that a pinch of bicarbonate of soda helps soften the grains.

On the question of sourcing, he says that it’s certainly no issue in Melbourne (Start with Casa Iberica, Fitzroy; El Cielo, Port Melbourne; The Essential Ingredient, Prahran, for example), but wherever you are, there is always online (check out for a start).  

A last word: all that talk of authentic aside, Paul isn’t interested in criticising the Mexican in a box stuff from the supermarket. “I don’t like being negative about food in general,” he says. “It’s subjective: families are time poor and work to a budget. For me, these so-called kits unlock the door to youthful palates and appetites – which I hope will lead to an authentic and more nutritious route one day.”

We’ve selected three recipes to share ahead of Cantina’s launch in November. Pasilla chilli relish, which Paul likes to think of as the Mexican mint sauce (“it goes so well with lamb and makes a great condiment for other meats too”).

His fish tacos with slaw and two sauces (the secret is a good firm white fish) because, well, why not?

And the cucumber salad, one of Bec’s favourites, and a dish Paul says was inspired by her. “All the salads are inspired by her; she has a wonderful knack of cutting things the same size. I think that’s the key [with salads]. So you can put things into your mouth at the same time.”

Pasilla chilli relish

Pasilla means raisin-like. Pasilla is a sweet and savoury chilli that is very popular in the food of Oaxaca, one of my favorite parts of Mexico. I like to think of this sauce as the Mexican mint sauce, as it goes so well with lamb and makes a great condiment for other meats too. Its fantastic bronze colour reflects a marinade full of complex flavour.


  • 50 g (about 8) pasilla chillies
  • 60 ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves


Remove the stalks and roughly chop the pasilla chillies, retaining the seeds.

Heat 11⁄2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium frying pan set over medium–low heat.

Fry the chillies for 2–3 minutes, until they begin to colour.

Pour in enough boiling water to cover and set aside for 10 minutes to rehydrate.


Makes 250 ml (1 cup)

  • 1 large handful of oregano leaves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin. Meanwhile, heat an overhead grill (broiler) to high heat
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 11/2 tablespoons honey
  • 11/2 tablespoons merlot or sherry vinegar
  • Sea salt to taste


Place the garlic on a small tray and grill (broil), turning occasionally, for 5–7 minutes, until caramelised and dark golden brown.

Drain the rehydrated chillies, reserving the liquid.

Combine the chillies, remaining oil, garlic, oregano, cumin and pepper in a food processor or blender and process to make a coarse purée. Continue blending, gradually adding enough of the reserved liquid to make a smooth, thick purée.

Combine the honey and vinegar in a small saucepan and simmer over low heat, until reduced by half, to make a light caramel.

Add to the chilli mixture and blend to combine.

Gradually add a little more of the reserved liquid, blending to make a smooth relish.

Season with salt.

Set aside to cool.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 months.

Cool cucumber salad

Mexican cucumbers look really cool – they look like tiny striped watermelons and taste like a more juicy cucumber. They are not easily available but you can substitute baby Lebanese (short) cucumbers, often sold as qukes. This salad typically includes beans and corn but here I have created a refreshing light alternative.

I feel the role of the cucumber is to cool and make spicy foods more enjoyable. This salad is the perfect coolant for some Mexican heat


  • 50 g (1/3 cup) sesame seeds
  • 30 g (1/4 cup) chia seeds
  • 600 g baby short (Lebanese) cucumbers (qukes), peeled and sliced into 1.5 cm (1/2 in) rounds
  • 2 bulbs fennel, finely shaved and tops roughly chopped
  • 250 g seedless white grapes, cut in half 
  • 30 g Lilliput capers
  • 1 large handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 large handful of bronzed fennel tops or dill, roughly chopped (optional)
  • 150 ml Zesty lime dressing
  • 150 g salted ricotta, finely chopped


Combine the sesame and chia seeds in a dry frying pan and cook over medium–low heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted. Set aside to cool.

Combine the cucumber, fennel, grapes, capers, mint and bronzed fennel tops in a medium bowl. Add the toasted seeds and pour in the dressing. Toss to combine.

Arrange flat on a serving plate and sprinkle with salted ricotta.

Paul’s tip: You can substitute baby capers if Lilliput are unavailable.

Mr Wilson’s fish tacos with slaw and two sauces

Visiting Ensenada and the Baja coast was amazing – great fishing, new seafood cultures and fish markets to explore. More importantly, it’s where I tried many versions of the area’s famous fish tacos. I learnt the fundamentals of this memorable dish and, trust me, there is nothing like it! The secret is choosing the right fish, great crunchy batter, zingy slaw and flavour-packed sauce. But, for the health-conscious, remember they don’t have to be fried; grilled fish tacos are great too.


  • 12 small masa tortillas or store-bought tortillas
  • Adobo sauce 
  • Chipotle mayo aioli
  • 175 g chipotle in adobo sauce, finely chopped (see below*)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • sea salt to taste

The slaw


  • 150 g (2 cups) very finely shredded savoy or napa cabbage
  • 75 g (1 cup) finely shredded red cabbage 
  • 1 small bulb fennel, thinly shaved
  • 4 breakfast radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1 red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 large handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly shredded
  • 150 ml zesty lime dressing (see below**)
  • sea salt to taste



  • sunflower oil or rice bran oil for deep-frying
  • 400 g (14 oz) firm white fish, such as snapper, blue eye trevalla, monkfish, grouper, wahoo, black bass or lemon sole, cut into approximately 40 g strips
  • plain (all-purpose) flour for coating
  • Mexican beer batter  (see below***)


To make the chipotle mayo, whisk the aïoli, chipotle in adobo sauce and lime juice together in a medium bowl.

Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Season with salt. Refrigerate until required.

To prepare the slaw, combine the cabbage, fennel and radish in a medium bowl, cover with damp paper towel and refrigerate until required. Keep the onion and parsley in separate bowls until ready to serve.

To par-cook the fish, half-fill a large heavy-based saucepan with oil, set over medium heat and heat the oil to 180°C.

Dredge the fish in flour, coat in the batter and fry in batches, for 2–3 minutes, until golden. Remove using a slotted spoon or tongs and place on paper towel to drain.

Heat a medium non-stick frying pan over high heat. Lightly spray with oil and briefly fry the tortillas to warm them. Stack the tortillas, wrap them in a warm damp tea towel (dish towel) and set aside to keep warm.

Combine the slaw ingredients, add the lime dressing and toss to coat. Season with salt.

Re-fry the fish for 1–2 minutes, until crisp, golden and cooked through.

To serve, place the tortillas onto serving plates, drizzle with the chipotle mayo and adobo sauce and top with a little of the slaw and a piece of crispy fish.

Drizzle with a little more of the sauces. Serve with napkins, ice cold beer or chilled riesling.

* Chipotle in adobo: dried smoked jalapenos in adobo sauce. These are available tinned from Mexican grocery stores.

** Zesty lime dressing

We use this dressing for most of our dishes in the restaurant, as it is so fresh and uplifting. Boiling the zest really concentrates the flavour of the lime, which is so important in Latin cooking. This recipe makes more than you need for one recipe but it stores well and can be used in a wide range of salads and salsas.


  • finely grated zest of 3 limes
  • 300 ml freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 115 g (1/2 cup) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 325 ml  extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt


Combine the lime zest, 100 ml of the lime juice and the sugar in a small saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the zest is soft.
Transfer to a food processor or blender and process, gradually adding the olive oil and remaining juice, until emulsified. Season with salt.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to  1 month.

*** Mexican beer batter

This batter is perfect for coating fish for tacos, where the crunch of the batter is essential. This recipe is terrific because it can be prepared in advance and doesn’t lose its stability or frying ability.

Makes 500 ml (2 cups)


  • 10 g of fresh yeast
  • 250 ml (1 cup) pale ale
  • 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 150 g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • pinch of sea salt
  • pinch of sugar
  • pinch of saffron powder


Crumble the fresh yeast into a small bowl. Pour in the ale and vinegar and stir to dissolve the yeast.

Sift the flour, salt, sugar and saffron powder together into a medium bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast mixture. Whisk well to combine. 

Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Cover with a clean tea towel (dish towel) and set aside in a warm place for 10 minutes, or until the batter is aerated and increased in size. 

Whisk the batter once more before using. 

Mexican beer batter can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 2–3 days.

Paul's tip: For simpler fish tacos, replace the slaw with chopped iceberg lettuce, sliced radishes and thinly sliced red onion; lightly dress with chipotle mayo and a squeeze of lime.

Cantina will be released on November 1 and published on Cooked.

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