Chef Betty Vázquez knows the value of a good meal. As gastronomic ambassador for the Mexican state of Riviera Nayarit, her job is to spread the word about the western coastal region’s cuisine so that visitors will fall in love with the land through food and drink. Here, the MasterChef Mexico judge tells us about her world.
How would you define the cuisine of Nayarit?
Before the Spanish, people ate very simply. They would eat what we call quelites—wild edible herbs—they would hunt a little bit, but they were not accustomed to eating much fat, because that came with the Spaniards. With the Spaniards came more variety, because this area was so important for trade with China. The last port of the Spanish crown was San Blas, which is about [100 miles] north of Puerto Vallarta, so all the spices that the Spanish wanted from the “Orient” came through this area. Besides that, there were later Muslim and French influences as well. Now we have what we call the new Mexican cuisine, a mixture of all of those influences.
“We have to be very proud of what we produce, of the soil that is giving us these products.”
What are the typical beverages you’d drink with meals in Nayarit?
We have a lot of sugarcane plantations, so sugarcane juice is popular. We also have tejuino and tepache, which are made with fermented corn and pineapple, respectively. It’s typical to have tejuino in summertime with lemon ice sherbet. And we have all kinds of tropical fruit drinks made with water and sugar, called aguas frescas.
As for wine, I like Casa Madero, which is the oldest winery in [North] America, at 492 years old. They are one of my favorites because they have a good selection of wines. They have won many medals in competitions around the world, and it’s very easy to pair with them. I also just believe in supporting Mexican wines. I believe we have to be very proud of what we produce, and of the soil that is giving us these products.
Which dish best illustrates the diversity of Nayarit cuisine?
My scallop ceviche with curry, which I like to pair with Casa Madero’s V Rosado. When you think of ceviche in a Mexican context, you think peppery, full of chiles, but not curry. I used the spice to pay respect to the Chinese traders who came here. They left their hometowns, bringing not only the spices, but their dreams. Think about it: If you left home 300 years ago, you didn’t know if you were ever going to be able to return. So they brought their flavors along with their mementos. When I put the curry in my ceviche and mix in Mediterranean herbs, I want to mix those two worlds on my plate in the same way. The people who came from Asia and Europe—some to live, some to conquer and some to work for a new life—have all illustrated our food through the centuries.