A life in (Mexican) food: Daniella Germain's tribute to her beloved abuelo

Jane Willson
25 February, 2015

Artist Daniella Germain reflects on her heritage – and steers well clear of Tex-Mex – in her second illustrated cookbook, My Abeulo's Mexican Feast.

Daniella Germain

She was born in Brisbane and grew up in Townsville but artist Daniella Germain has felt the cultural pull of Mexico since as early as she can remember.

Her first cookbook, My Abuela’s Table, was a document of that connection. Now Melbourne-based, Daniella started designing books during her studies in communication design at RMIT. My Abuela’s Table was a third-year uni project that she created as a tribute to her Mexican grandmother and mother during a publication design class – but that caught the eye of the Hardie Grant books team.

Her latest book, My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast, traces the life of her grandfather, the son of a fisherman and baker who became a respected surgeon. Food, family, and racehorses were his passions.

Daniella says one of her motivations was to be true to her experiences of Mexican food; to offer something distinctly not Tex-Mex. “Secondly, and most importantly,” she says, “creating these books helped to bridge the gap between myself and my Mexican family. “It was kind of a way to express how proud I am of my Mexican heritage and to show my Mexican family how important they are to me, especially my grandparents (although my abuelo passed away over 10 years ago now).”

Daniella says the books have also helped her develop her illustration style. Food is now her focus. And Mexican design a significant influence. I caught up with her recently to talk about formative memories, favourite recipes, and the artistic process of illustrating and writing her second book.

Daniella book spread

Q. You grew up in Australia but returned to Mexico regularly to visit your mother's parents, is that right?

My mum immigrated from Mexico to Australia after marrying my dad in the early 1970s. I was born in Brisbane and grew up in Townsville, North Queensland. My abuela and abuelo visited Australia a few times when we were younger, and they absolutely loved it. To our delight they would bring boxes of food from Mexico, possibly bribing customs officers with a bottle of tequila or two to get some special items through (hey, it was the late '70s, early '80s!).

I've visited Mexico many times, with each visit different to the last depending on what life stage I was at. My experiences of it have been so varied between each visit – from huge parties in our honour dominating our very early visits, to hanging out with cousins in our teen years, to exploring more of the art and culture in the past few visits. Of course, overindulging in Mexican food was a constant over each and every visit.

Q. What place did Mexico hold for you as a girl growing up – both as a destination and, specifically, its food?

I've always been really proud of my Mexican heritage and Mexico has always been my favourite country as a destination – even over the European countries I've been to! The only thing I am not proud of is the fact I don't speak Spanish, something I have tried to rectify over countless lessons. One of my most fond memories of my abuelo is him and I sitting on the steps of his house in Alvarado [on the Gulf of Mexico] teaching each other random words in English and Spanish.

Given the number of times I've been to Mexico, it's probably not surprising that Mexican cuisine, above all others, is very special to me. It's not just the amazing tastes, but the flavours, smells and textures elicit such strong memories. These could be moments with my family, or memories of walking the cobbled streets of Alvarado, to memories of overindulging on delicious spreads of food in an inner Mexico City restaurant. Although I have a much stronger appreciation of Mexican food these days, little did I know I was forming such strong memories based on the food when I was just a tiny kid!

Q. How has your parents’ cultural mix influenced the way you cook – and think about food?

My dad is Australian and his parents' backgrounds were British. The funny thing is, he absolutely LOVES Mexican food. Possibly more so than I do! I think he would cook more Mexican food than Anglo food if he had the ingredients readily available (he lives in a small town in Queensland). So I guess he influenced me in loving Mexican food and Mexican cooking almost as much as mum did. I think my abuelo always held a special affection for my dad, even after my parents split, because of the way he embraced the Mexican culture and food.

Q. Did you grow up cooking with your grandparents? And were the recipes passed on verbally – or something was written down?

I remember watching abuela cook. The kitchen was always full of incredible smells. And if we were at the family farm, I'd be mesmerised by her creating amazing meals in a tiny, very basic kitchen.

During my last visit I spent some time with abuela in the kitchen. We made mole together and she taught me how to make dulce de leche, which is probably the easiest thing to make, but watching her cook it was great fun. I also showed her how to make pavlova, just to balance it out!

The recipes in My Abuelo's Mexican Feast are a combination of very old family recipes my mum had tucked away in a little red notebook that she had copied down from abuela before she came to Australia in the ’70s, and also recipes that my mum has been making for years that remind her of home, which she passed on to me.

Daniella studio

Q. Tell us about the process of creating the beautiful illustrations that appear on your pages? 

I start with the recipe. If it's something I have had many times before and holds memories for me, I will try to incorporate that somehow into the illustration.

If it's a dish that I'm not so familiar with, I try to focus on the ingredients or the end product for the illustration. In terms of the process, I first visualise each page (with the recipe) in a little sketch. Then paint the illustrations by watercolour with very fine ink detail to really make them stand out on the page.

Each illustration is then scanned and small edits are made in Photoshop. I then pop it into Indesign with the typed recipe. Each page is carefully considered in terms of placement to give the book a nice flow.

Daniella bread

Q. And do you have a favourite – or favourite – recipes?

Oh, that's a tricky question! Conchas ('Sea shells' in the Panaderia chapter of the new book) hold special memories for me. Specifically, sharing plates of conchas and other sweet breads with my abuelo over a mug of Mexican hot chocolate before bed. This would be a typical supper, as lunch is normally the main meal of the day for Mexicans.

The lime sorbet recipe also elicits strong memories of Mexico for me. The smell of freshly cut and squeezed limes takes me right back to Mexico, wherever I may be, and this sorbet does that perfectly.

One last favourite recipe is salpicon (in the Ranch Food chapter). This is a dish that my mum would cook a lot when we were young and now I have added it to my regular cooking rotation. There is something unique about the vinegary dressing coupled with the shredded slow-cooked beef that takes me back to good times on the family farm (La Granja) just outside of Alvarado. It's a super healthy dish too!

Q. What advice do you have for people getting to know true Mexican cuisine for the first time?

Open your tastebuds to new flavour combinations and forget the typical Tex-Mex food that you might have experienced before. Mixing chocolate with chicken (mole) may seem revolting, but it just works! Also, take time to seek out the right ingredients. Corn tortillas that you buy from the supermarket don't compare to the corn tortillas you would find in a Mexican delicatessen. Some traditional Mexican dishes also take time to prepare – so a little patience and planning is sometimes needed, but that is the fun of cooking Mexican – you can make a day of it and build your own special moments.

Q. Do you have a favourite ingredient?

Hmm... I'm not sure I could pick just one. Can I pick a few? I would say: limes, fresh corn tortillas, queso fresco (fresh cheese), chipotle and chorizo. If I had to pick just one, I would say chipotle. It's an amazing chilli that can transform the most boring of dishes. 

Q. Where do you shop for supplies?

Casa Iberica, on Johnson Street in Fitzroy and Alphington [Melbourne], is my favourite. It's very close to my studio and not far from home, so it's convenient. I haven't had to resort to this yet, but you can find some great Mexican ingredients online now. That said, some supermarkets are actually stocking a nice range of Mexican ingredients. It really depends where you live.

Q. Do you have a favourite food book – Mexican or otherwise?

Would it be wrong to say: My Abuelo's Mexican Feast? I'm so excited about this collection of recipes as they all mean something to me. And I am super proud of the work I put into it, if I may say so myself. Even though I was staring at the recipes and illustrations for months on end as I was putting it together, I don't ever get sick of flipping through the book now. And I feel closer to my family whenever I look at it.

Q. Where are you eating out right now?

I live in a pretty awesome spot in Northcote and tend to eat out mostly around High Street – there are so many good places to choose from. There are also heaps of new places also opening up in Thornbury (neighbouring suburb, for those who don't know). My favourite place to eat is Umberto's in Thornbury. They do pasta to die for. You can also find me tucking into the $1 pinxos at Naked for Satan (Fitzroy) during the week!

Q. And lastly, what’s next for you?

I’m about to have a baby in April, so that’s my next project. Maybe after that I’ll be inspired to work on a children’s book or two. 

Explore all of Daniella's beautiful recipes from My Abuelo’s Mexican Feast. For the full illustrated experience, buy the book here. (Cooked members get a 30% discount!)


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