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TYLER COWEN: Welcome to this installment of Conversations with Tyler. Today, the guest is Mark Miller, who is one of the most extraordinary food minds of our generation. It’s hard to even summarize what Mark has done. I think of Mark as the modern founder of southwestern cuisine.
He’s well known for having been the driving force behind opening Coyote Café, which transformed the Santa Fe dining scene. In Washington, DC, where we are now in the Panda Gourmet restaurant, Mark is best known for Red Sage, a southwestern restaurant, that was one of DC’s best for a long time.
Mark has written numerous books on food, on salsas, on chiles. He has the very best book on tacos. If you’ve ever seen a famous poster of all those chiles, the Chile Poster — well, Mark did that.
Mark’s been connected with a lot of restaurants. He originally studied anthropology at Berkeley. I think of Mark’s contribution as synthesizing anthropology, cooking, studying food through books, studying food through practice.
He’s lived in 20 countries, traveled in over a hundred, and he understands taste, sensation, and context of food — its anthropological setting combined with all this fantastic real-world experience. On top of all that, Mark has been a food consultant for more companies than I can name. That’s just my very brief introduction to Mark, and it doesn’t begin to do him justice. We’ll start the conversation in a moment.
We also have with us Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View. Megan is a long-standing friend of mine. In addition to her writing on politics and economics, Megan was, arguably, the very first economics blogger.
She is deeply involved in the food world. Megan each year writes the single best guide to kitchen equipment — what is new out each year.
We’ll start by chatting with Mark. Then Megan will come in with some questions.
On the best Asian cities for food
So, food worlds. I’m very interested in how you think about food worlds and this contrast between the food worlds of China, Japan, Tokyo, and South Korea. You told me you thought Seoul had the most interesting and creative food world of those three. Tell us why you think that.
MARK MILLER: I’ve been traveling to all three countries for approximately 40 years or more, so I’ve really seen them transform themselves. I’ve also seen how they adapt and how they acculturate other international influences.
I’ve been going to Japan since I was a student at Berkeley — 1969 was my first trip. I’ve been going to China since the ’70s. Seoul is the one that I know the least, but I’ve been following it for about 15 years.
Recently, in May, I went to the big Seoul Food show where I actually ate a hundred food products that I had never had before, which was interesting. The other thing that happened was I realized that Seoul had moved in terms of its transformation of plasticity and creativity. There’s a restaurant called Mingles that every single dish was incorporating Korean ingredients, but in a very creative, modern way.
They were not afraid to move their food outside of the traditional vortex of what was seen as Korean food, and they were using Korean ingredients in a new way that was authenticating a cuisine. They were doing pizza, they were doing coffee. They were doing very good pizza, that’s almost as good as you’d find, for instance, in Italy.
In Japan, when you go to eat pizza, whether it’s Neapolitan, either in Tokyo or Kyoto, you find that they get to a certain level of the form of it, but the flavor and the gestalt and the aesthetic — they can’t quite get at it. They remain Japanese. The homogeneity of Japanese culture is its strength; it’s also its weakness.
In China — I’ve been going there for work and I’ve seen some data from one of the big companies that has 7,000 restaurants — we’re seeing that they’re using the Western restaurants in order to create a sense modernity and identity. Whether they’ll really use it for their own personal things — right now there is no other alternative. That social space that’s open from children, through going out, through celebrations and weddings, the Western brands are the markers for special [outings].
Korea, though: I was surprised that first of all they’ve moved so quickly. The last time I was there was four and a half years ago. I would have thought to get to this level would’ve taken them 20 years. Plus the level of Italian, coffee, pizza, modern Korean, French was all exactly where we would be in the United States.
COWEN: We’ll get to Japan and China, but more on Korea. The alley food in Seoul and the rest of Korea seems so good to me. If I walk down a back alley, there will be 20 different places I want to eat. Most of them will be outstanding. It might, for instance, be some of the best fried chicken in the world.
MILLER: I would agree.
COWEN: What’s the structure of the food world in Seoul, and other parts of South Korea, that have given rise to that?
MILLER: I think that what has happened . . . it’s like Samsung versus Sony. If you actually look at those technological giants, which one has been able to maintain and innovate? For some reason, Sony lost its way. We remember when Sony was the innovative capital, the innovative center of electronics. Yet today it’s Samsung — I mean not given the last one that came out! But, basically, I think the Koreans are forced out of their comfort zone, because they have North Korea at their border. They have China to compete with, being aggressive, and they have the finesse of Japan.
Their context of competition, just in their own backyard, is such that it makes them that they can’t be in the — Japan is staying alone. It’s in its own comfort zone; it’s going to stay there. China wants to move and be global, but it’s a big stretch.
COWEN: You think Japan, in a way, has painted itself into a corner of perfection? You can have very, very good French food in Tokyo — arguably better than Paris — but it won’t ever be getting any better.
MILLER: It would be the same French food that I would have eaten in Paris in 1980.
COWEN: You can have a quite good Mexican mole in Tokyo, I found, or Singapore laksa, you can have in Tokyo. The person who makes it might have studied in Singapore for five or six years. He’ll come back with a perfected recipe, but there’s no other connection to that food world.
MILLER: In Mexico, if we look at, for instance, part of Mexican food, like Enrique [Olvera] at Cosme in New York, is embracing modern Mexican, and yet doesn’t want to learn ancient, traditional Mexican. Yet it’s moving beyond its roots, and it’s becoming Mexican, whereas Mexico, before, was trapped in looking at Spain, looking at the US, looking at other identity systems, to validate its own food supply.
I can give you a good example — mezcal. My good friend Ron Cooper started Del Maguey. That’s a company — 20 years ago, Mexicans would not drink mezcal because it was associated with peasant Mexicans.
MILLER: Today, when you go to Mexico City, the only thing they drink is mezcal, because people want to be Mexican. [laughs]
COWEN: It’s trendy even in Washington, DC . . .
MILLER: And soju in Korea. The problem was Korea was always in Japan’s shadow, and they were basically beaten down and defensive. I think right now, they’re not. [laughs]
COWEN: We just had a dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, who’s written on Chinese cooking. The food world in China, now, how do you see it? Is it getting better, getting worse? Is it headed to become large corporations, as in America, making a lot of soulless food, or is it still on the way up?
MILLER: That’s a difficult question, because restaurants that I know, and Fuchsia knows — like Jesse, which is an old restaurant in Shanghai — I was there recently, and I’ve been going to that same restaurant for 20 years, from when it had four tables, by one family. Now they have a multiple, but still — what Fuchsia talked about [the low status of Chinese chefs], though, is going to stop them. It’s the level of status of someone joining a cooking profession.
Din Tai Fung: the dumplings have gone down. What’s happening now is, even though they have this great tradition of cooking, the workforce is either coming straight from the countryside without being trained — the restaurants are making a lot of money because the people who are going there don’t have trained palates, and so they just open up and be better.
Traditional restaurant: that takes a lot of training, and to go into that, they’re not going to find the workforce. I think that they’re going through a period right now of, probably, I would call, mediocrity.
COWEN: Doesn’t the low status of cooking in China, in some ways, protect them? It keeps pretensions out of the food world. It means people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can become cooks. You can have a grandmother or a grandfather being a cook.
You can walk along in Shanghai and find a place where they make dumplings, and they simply roll them. No one there thinks of what they’re doing as an art, but that ultimately enables free entry, and gives people a bit of the freedom that they don’t have in Tokyo. Thus, I would say, you should be more optimistic about food in China.
MILLER: Except that the dumplings that I used to see on the streets — I’ve been going to Shanghai since the late ’70s. They were all over the place. Now they’re very hard to find. The Chinese government is afraid of . . . basically, health reasons; is now controlling where food is basically exhibited, where food can be bought and sold.
A lot of the shops have moved into some of the department stores, for instance, and are there. There used to be one amazing bao made out of smoked tofu and bitter greens and mustard. I would just wait for my next trip to Shanghai. For 15 years I would go to the same place; it was in the French quarter, same corner, and they had the best bao. It’s gone, and I looked all over, and I can’t even find that bao.
I can’t find a noodle, where I used to put out my hand with coins and people would say . . .
They didn’t have money then. I used to go to the wet markets and just look at what other people were eating. The last time I could do that was maybe 15 years ago. I haven’t seen a noodle, a hundred noodle stands. In Mexico you can still see . . .
COWEN: But even there, street food is being pushed out of Mexico City somewhat.
MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.
COWEN: And we will get to that, but let’s —
MILLER: Anyway —
COWEN: Asia for now still. Let’s say someone comes to you. “Mark Miller, you’ve been to over a hundred countries, eaten in them for decades.” They say, “I have two weeks to do a food tour in Asia; you should pick for me three cities.” What are your selections?
MILLER: I would pick Seoul for sure.
COWEN: OK, Seoul. That we’ve covered.
MILLER: Seoul for sure. I would pick Bangkok, and a toss-up between . . . I would pick Tokyo.
COWEN: You would pick Tokyo.
COWEN: So Bangkok. Say someone’s in Bangkok. They don’t speak Thai; they’re puzzled; they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have a Thai friend. Conceptually, how should they think about finding the best food in Bangkok?
MILLER: Go to the night markets. The food on the street is just amazing; it’s probably the best in the world on the street, and it has the most variety. It’s the freshest. The Thai people also are very clean. I’ve never been sick once; I’ve been eating food on the street forever.
Chatuchak, the largest market in the world, has 15,000 booths. Probably you can just spend four hours and eat a hundred dishes. My record in Bangkok one day is 14 restaurants and 75 dishes. And I actually ate them all, not tasted them. [laughs] And probably spent less than we’d spend in Washington in one night.
COWEN: Get a hotel in that part of Bangkok, and just go eat there.
MILLER: Yeah. There are some good books. There’s a street-hawker guide; there’s some good bloggers who are out there, but I would not be afraid. The thing is, always with street food, is always go . . .
The night food is the night food; the day food is the day food. Even some of that has moved into malls where the Thai people go. They’ll do a som tum, for 50 cents or a dollar and a half, and you might see a thousand people. If a thousand Thai people are eating there, it’s safe to eat there. [laughs]
COWEN: I have a bias against malls, when it comes to Southeast Asian food. I tend to think malls are worse than street food.
MILLER: No, but in Kuala Lumpur, they went through the entire country and they picked the best street food and put it into the mall, so that people could experience the best of the entire country in one place.
That’s the reason that people go to the hotel. [laughs] Also, when you go in Singapore, the Hyatt — they have 27 chefs, each from different parts of Singapore, running each station within that one dining room.
COWEN: Malaysia or Singapore: which has better food?
MILLER: Well, they’re very close. I would say . . . Penang is really interesting. I would say right now, though, Singapore, like Korea, is finally getting out of its straightjacket. I think that there’s some really modern, young Korean chefs that are incorporating Southeast Asian —
COWEN: Singaporean chefs, you mean.
MILLER: Singaporean chefs, that are . . . they know Chinese food; they have access to the best ingredients. They know Western food, and they have their own tradition, from Malaysian to the original, help me there, the Straits cuisine, the . . .
COWEN: The Peranakan.
MILLER: Peranakan cuisine, which is, I think . . . I always think that those cuisines that are older, if they have great weavings, they have great cuisine. Because I always say you’re looking at one mentality. If they had a rich aesthetic tradition, I know that they had really interesting food. [laughs]
COWEN: Take Indonesia; they have great weavings in Indonesia.
MILLER: Yes, I lived in Ubud in 1970.
COWEN: But I’m often disappointed by street food in Indonesia; it seems just the quality standard — it’s a bit like the Philippines, though not as bad.
MILLER: Yeah, but the great dishes, like Balinese duck, that has 28 ingredients in it — it’s amazing. It’s amazing dishes. Those temple foods, those festival foods. I remember three days at the feast of the temple — the feast of the Coconut Goddess — there were 127 dishes made in those three days. But the variety and richness, and we come back here in the United States, and you have a hamburger and a hot dog.
COWEN: Let me ask you some questions about chiles: the area where you’ve probably had the greatest impact of all food areas.
Here I have some mulato chiles. If you look at a lot of food recipes, if you make a Mexican mole, you will use more mulatos than any other kind of chile. Not always, but quite typically. Say in the Rick Bayless recipe. Now why is that? What is it about this chile?
MILLER: Well, first of all —
COWEN: Do what you want with it; we can buy another.
MILLER: First of all you have to open them up, because 90 percent of all chiles are mislabeled.
MILLER: That’s one of the problems. Whatever it says on the package may not be true. The point is that mulatos, when you hold them up to the light, like this, see it’s more purple and more reddish . . .
COWEN: Yes, I do.
MILLER: More cordovan. That is not a mulato.
COWEN: They defrauded me.
MILLER: Yeah, that’s an ancho. Because a mulato will be more coffee-ish and more dark-tone. What a mulato will do is actually have those flavonoids that are coffee and chocolate. Those in a mole are the undertones of the wide sort of structure or the wide foundation of those flavors that we really like.
Now the fruit tones, or the capsaicin, or the spicy tones, you basically accessorize. The ancho is always the workhorse, because it carries the most fruit. The mulato carries the coffee and chocolate, which is those more-or-less fermented umami — more complex sort of flavonoids. Then we throw in some guajillos, arbols to brighten it all up and get it going.
COWEN: If I make a Mexican mole with these fraudulent mulato chiles —
COWEN: What exactly will go wrong? You’re a supertaster; you can tell the difference. What will be missing?
MILLER: Well the thing is, is that . . . I’m going to taste this for a second.
COWEN: Do as you wish.
MILLER: We can all taste it together. First of all, whenever you taste the chile, this is a vein here.
You want to stay away from the veins always. They contain 60 percent of the capsaicin. You always stay away from the veins, even if you can’t see them. The other thing is, this is old. This is what’s called a grade C chile. It’s small, and it’s dried, and it’s last year’s crop.
They lose their perfume. They’re like flowers. What you end up is, you end up with the capsaicin. This is a little bit bitter; did you notice?
MILLER: Like bitter tea. A little bit like lapsang souchong; there’s a little bit of that smoky, woody, mushroomy flavor. Where’s my coffee and chocolate? Where is it? It’s not here.
COWEN: It’s been taken from you.
MILLER: If you use this in your recipe you’ll say it didn’t come out well. You know what you didn’t do? You didn’t taste your ingredients. You’re not going to get that wonderful, warm flavor that mulato is supposed to have.
COWEN: If I want a real mulato chile, how do I actually get one? Given that 90 percent of it according to you is fraud, or at least misleading or someone made a mistake?
MILLER: You need to recognize when . . .
OK, the other thing: when you buy chiles, the thickness of the flesh is the most important thing. All fruits: where do the tannins come from? Skins, seeds, and stems. The thicker the flesh, the least percentage of tannin. That’s what Mexicans do.
They look for the most pliable, they look how thick it is, and when you hold it up to the light, they can tell how ripe it was before it was dried, how much fruit flavor is going to be there. Those are the big primeros. So when you’re using a mole, you’re really reincorporating fresh-fruit complex tones into it. The last thing they’re looking for is heat. That’s the last thing they’re looking for.
COWEN: Two other chiles. Here —
MILLER: Also, notice it’s still bitter on the palate.
MILLER: It tastes a little bit like the fruit leather; it’s kind of stale.
COWEN: This one claims to be an ancho, but we’re happy to hear your revisionist take on it.
MILLER: This is bigger, for one, and it’s a little bit darker. It’s got that really dark, dark, dark, almost black, blackish-brown look. You need to hold them up to the light, because that tells you. That’s red, like an ancho. It’s pretty even inside; there’s no mold.
If you get one moldy chile out of 40, that’ll ruin the mole. A lot of people don’t look for them. When you rehydrate them you taste the mold. This one, the leather again, it should taste like a fruit leather. Don’t think chiles. What we were talking about with Fuchsia, the paradigm — what you have in your head when you go after the taste is what you will taste.
If you think chiles and go for heat — you need to think fruit leather. Which fruit do you get? Tell me the fruits you get. Not whether it’s spicy or not; which fruits?
MEGAN McARDLE: [tasting] It’s interesting.
MILLER: Is it cherry, apple, blackberry, blueberry?
McARDLE: Maybe apple, maybe cherry. Not blueberry, not blackberry.
MILLER: No . . . it’s definitely like cherry. It’s actually black cherry, or sour cherry, and it has little bits of woodsiness. There is this blackberry-currant cassis, almost, like the French cassis flavor, at the bottom.
The point is, when you work with ingredients, I don’t care if it’s chile, coriander — I have four different corianders, from Indian to this, with cumins. When you cook an ethnic food, a poor chef, what they’re doing is they’re controlling their palate. It may look like those ingredients are not important; they’re not expensive, but they’re very, very important.
This is not a bad ancho; I would say B-plus.
COWEN: Here’s supposedly a pasilla. Tell us the difference, and if that’s even what it is.
MILLER: It should be longer, for one thing. And it should really get those black currant, black fruits, blackberry, when you . . . again, think black fruits.
COWEN: Is this just an ancho? Have I brought you three packages of anchos, actually?
MILLER: Maybe. Yeah, that’s what it is.
COWEN: It seems that’s what . . . it’s ancho everywhere.
MILLER: A little thicker.
COWEN: They are really wide, then.
MILLER: A little bit. The second one was the best one.
COWEN: The second one was the best one?
MILLER: Most fruit tones, freshest, and less tannic. What you don’t want, like a bitter wine — you don’t want tannins.
COWEN: What’s your economic theory of why these different chiles get mixed up, and they’re all anchos but they come out under different names?
MILLER: [still tasting] Notice the amount of licorice, though — the amount of black licorice.
The reason is that the wholesalers basically . . . part of it is they’re run, a lot of times, by non-Mexicans. Even if they’re run by Mexicans, they only know the chiles that they grow up in their region. I’m teaching in a seminar in Mexico City at the end of the month, and I can literally take out chiles and hand them to Mexicans that don’t know what they are — they’re from another area of Mexico.
If I ask them to hold up the chile and taste it, and tell me the flavors, Mexicans can’t do that, because it’s not the way they approach them. I mean, the older women do, but the young chefs don’t. It’s interesting.
COWEN: How many different kinds of chiles do you know?
MILLER: I once had a collection of about 250 in my garage, but some of them are the same, like arbols.
Interesting story: I was traveling around Bhutan, and I was going from town to town, and I had the Chile Book, this book, with me. There’s this myth in Bhutan that chiles come from Bhutan.
COWEN: [holding up book] The Chile Book: there it is.
MILLER: I would show them that they’re not from Bhutan, and what they are, and they started tasting them. Then the next village I would go in, everybody was waiting for me, all the kids and the chefs. They would say, “Can I see the Chile Book? Are there really chiles outside of Bhutan; are there chiles in the rest of the world? Can you tell us about chiles?”
Every town I went to, it was the same thing. Here a whole culture grows up with this history that they actually have had chiles. Of course, the Portuguese brought them into Thailand, and then they migrated through the trade routes into Bhutan, and that’s how they got there.
They’re only the cayenne varieties. They’re only the arbols and so forth. They don’t have any of these chiles. Even if you grow these chiles, for instance let’s say you grow these chiles in Washington, DC: It won’t have the right flavor, because it won’t have the right ultraviolet; which has to be grown in the mountains above 4,000, 5,000 feet, and it doesn’t have an alkaline, volcanic soil.
The central Valley of Mexico makes the best anchos and pasillas in the world. When you go to the market, San Luis — that one village in that one place makes the best particular.
COWEN: In what state is that?
MILLER: In the state of México.
COWEN: The state of México?
MILLER: It’s amazing that they know their chiles.
COWEN: There’s a debate in Mexico right now — you probably know about this — that China is exporting cheaper chiles to Mexico.
MILLER: They are.
COWEN: But some of the Mexicans don’t like this. How will that play itself out? What’s going to happen?
MILLER: They don’t know the flavor profile. Part of it is, they basically are undercutting the market. You see them in Oaxaca; they’re anchos there, I can tell. They’re very bitter, very alkaline-ish; they don’t have a good flavor, but people are buying them because of economic necessity or that they don’t really know the difference.
When I worked in Sweden with spice companies, I’m not allowed to buy Mexican chiles, which really offends me, because of the microlevels of bacteria that are on them. They’re not irradiated, so we can only use, in Europe for instance, irradiated things.
They have to come from Peru. We don’t buy them from Chile, but we buy them from Peru. All my sauces I then have to adapt, because I don’t get great anchos or great mulatos, but you can adapt.
COWEN: Here’s a jalapeño pepper. Very popular in the United States. I can even go into a Giant or Safeway supermarket and they will have these. They seem, to my untutored palate, to at least be serviceable. Why is the jalapeño so popular in the United States?
MILLER: It’s probably because basically it’s the chile of northern Mexico, where most of the migrant workers come from, and it was part of the Tex-Mex tradition. It’s very simple. You can use it fresh, mostly, just right away. You can cut it up, use it in salsa fresca; you can put it in a blender; you can cook it in eggs; it’s a very easy chile to use.
It has, for me, a lot of flavor that is more akin to the green bell pepper with heat. I prefer poblanos, which I think are richer, and the poblano, as you know, is the predecessor.
COWEN: We have one right here.
MILLER: Yes. The poblano: this is actually where the bell peppers come from. This has much more depth. It doesn’t taste like green pepper, it’s not gaseous, and it has what I call real green-chile flavor. There’s only two in the world: New Mexico, the true green chile, grown at high altitudes. If you grow it at low altitudes, it’s the Anaheim. This, once again, grows in Mexico. Roasted, I think it’s supreme.
COWEN: This is one of my favorites.
MILLER: Interesting: in China, they don’t use it. They don’t grow it. Even when I see it in the markets in China — I went through China with a chef once, and we bought the chiles. We would roast them, and actually put them into Chinese . . .
We took over the restaurant, because I got tired of eating the food there. We were actually near Kashgar, or something. They couldn’t believe the flavor of a roasted chile that was cleaned without washing, and then strips of it put in a stir-fried lamb dish, and how actually good it was. [laughs]
COWEN: Here’s a habanero; splendid orange color. What’s this good for, nothing? Isn’t it too hot?
MILLER: It’s big, which bemoans me that it might not be the right one. Well, it’s got a good smell. The habaneros are the chinense family, the tropical family. You want to use it for its tropical tone.
What you do is you open it carefully — and capsaicin hits your nose here. You don’t actually have to touch it; you can feel it right there. You should know the heat of every one; go easily across the nose . . .
Here, though, you get a wonderful orange, mango, papaya scent. This roasted, and with the seeds and the veins taken out, reducing the heat by 60 percent: it’s still going to be hot because I have 20 percent left in the flesh. It’s going to actually round out and pull up all that beautiful tropical aromatic.
That will make that pineapple, or salsa, or jerky, that will make it wonderful. You smell the tropicalness? Don’t touch where it is, but just smell, and think orange, mango, fruit, pineapple. It’s amazing.
COWEN: What’s the most underrated chile in the world?
MILLER: The most underrated chile in the world? I would probably say the poblano.
COWEN: The poblano?
MILLER: I can do 100 dishes, I can do 100 salsas with this one chile.
COWEN: How about from Peru, the ají amarillo? That might be one of my picks.
MILLER: Rocotos and ají amarillo, there you go.
COWEN: Yes, absolutely. What makes them special?
MILLER: Well, they don’t have the depth and complexity. They’re more jungly. Chiles don’t like high nighttime temperatures; they like cool nighttime temperatures. The rocoto: when you have a tiradito, you’ve got to be in ceviche heaven.
You were just down in Lima; I go down there all the time —
MILLER: Those chiles, though, when you make dried sauces out of them, they don’t have a marriage of complexity like the Mexicans. The Mexicans: when you’re in Bali and you’re looking at a weaving from 1900 that’s a triple ikat, the complexity per knot for this is just what Mexicans attain with their sauces.
The pre-Columbian Peruvians had every single method of weaving, and yet the Mexicans — the reason I’m attracted so much to Mexican food is that they literally have probably the most complex uses of spices and chiles in the world, no question.
On best regions for eating in Mexico
COWEN: In Mexico, where is the best region to eat?
MILLER: I would still say the three regions; I like Puebla.
COWEN: Yes. I’ll be there in two weeks, by the way.
MILLER: I think Puebla is underrated. I like the mole verdes in the morning, and the mole amarillos. Of the seven moles, the mole amarillo there is better than Oaxaca. People talk about Oaxaca. Oaxaca is good, but not in the city of Oaxaca.
COWEN: It’s a little overrated, I would say.
MILLER: You have to get outside. The place that has the pasilla de Oaxaca, the great smoked chile, the best smoked chile in the world — smoked for three days with seven different hardwoods — requires nine hours in a Land Rover to get to that village.
That chile is being still made by one village in the entire world. Nobody makes it. They won’t show it to anybody. Even Diana Kennedy has not seen it. We’ve all been to the village. You still have products today, in Mexico, that are actually — not only are they world-class, they don’t exist anywhere else in the world. The Chinese could never duplicate it, never. [laughs]
COWEN: Let’s say you could pick, not a city, but one village in Mexico, and I’m going to send you there for a week, and all you can do is eat. Which village do you pick?
MILLER: In the old days, I would have said Mérida, but not anymore. I would still say — I like Puebla today.
COWEN: Near Puebla.
MILLER: Puebla, and that area.
COWEN: Your take on pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine. It has a lot of insects, it has fried worms, it has mosquito larvae — .
MILLER: Those are, as you know, they clean the canals. They actually got rid of the diseases that way. The most interesting thing about it, though, is we actually went to the museum and looked at the pre-Columbian metates that were done for the nixtamal, and guess what?
MILLER: They were never washed.
COWEN: They were never washed? Why is that?
MILLER: When you nixtamal corn, it becomes more nutritional, because you free up all the amino acids. The Italians have polenta; they’ve got pellagra. What happens is, people talk about how fat Mexicans are, and how prediabetic. The reason is that they are using a postindustrial diet; the probiotics weren’t put back in.
Traditionally, the metates were never washed. They had levels of probiotics in there that were put back in, and the women, for the texture inside the tortillas, would use wild grasses that actually contained the largest amounts of wild yeast. The reason you see that previous to 1925 in Mexico there’s no diabetes, is the probiotics and digestibility — one of the reasons — of the masa itself.
COWEN: Let’s say we send you back —
MILLER: The flavor changes. I was up in the mountains with a woman, and I had the best tortilla I’ve ever had in my life, and I couldn’t figure out why she was getting this flavor. It’s a 500-year-old farm. The reason was what happens when you use probiotics? In yogurt, in ice cream? You change the flavonoids.
Essentially, not only was it about health, she was making a more complex flavor and interesting dish. What I go to villages for is to study those perceptional patterns of how and why are they getting more complex flavors. They don’t buy things on Amazon or go to the store or go to Whole Foods. They are actually using their body as this window of opportunity to create complexity.
COWEN: I send you back to central Mexico in the middle of the 18th century: (a) how good is the food and (b) how recognizably is it like — 1750, let’s say — how recognizably is it, in your opinion, what we would get in the outskirts of Oaxaca today, or near Pueblo, or in Guerrero?
MILLER: Well, it depends what class you are. We’ll say that you’re on a ranch in northern Mexico.
COWEN: You have enough money to buy what you want.
MILLER: I would say it’s probably very similar to it, except for the step for Maseca intervention in 1925 after the Revolution, because the government wanted to control the food supply and that’s why tortillas are so cheap. That was the same thing in France. When you go France today, why baguettes are the price they are.
But the food: what the Spanish brought was pigs. They brought, obviously, pigs, sheep, beef. Unfortunately, it ruined the ecosystem of the pre-Colombians, which was not dependent on rooting animals. The same thing they did in the Caribbean, as you know, for trade.
Europe could not grow its own food. Europe, and if you take Columbus leaving, 30 percent of the people were starving to death without warfare. If you throw in warfare, in the end of the 15th century, 50 percent of the people would have been dead.
COWEN: In New York today, why can I not get good New Mexican green chile at a restaurant? Can’t they just put it on a plane and fly it over?
MILLER: They do put it on a plane!
COWEN: I would pay twice the price . . .
MILLER: They do put it on a plane!
COWEN: But it’s not good.
COWEN: Why is this the case?
MILLER: Maybe it’s not roasted, then, correctly. You need a fire roaster. It needs to be done within the same time that it’s picked and it comes at the end of the season. The best time is at the end of August. Now, there is a chile that’s even better, which is called the chile pasado, which is the red chile.
COWEN: This is from New Mexico?
MILLER: When the green turns red, the ristras, right? That chile, before it gets dried, it’s actually fire-roasted and then peeled and then dried. That chile is sublime. It’s called chile pasado. We’re losing, even in New Mexico or Mexico . . . that tradition came up from Mexico. It was north of Monterrey.
What I’m afraid of is we’re beginning to lose the palate and those ingredients. When you talk about a historical dish what I always think is — when they look at masa, which chef ever told you that you must put the probiotics back into . . .
COWEN: No one ever told me that, believe it or not.
MILLER: A lot of the chefs in New York are talking about organic corn, but they’re not talking about really resurrecting the complexity of the flavor of the native people. You know why? Because they don’t go to the villages, they don’t eat there, and they don’t use their brain to think about how are these people achieving that level of complexity. They’re not shopping for it. Chefs are shoppers today. [laughs]
COWEN: Here’s a piece of purple corn. I bought it in the United States, but as you know in Mexico there are many colors of corn. It’s vastly superior to even good corn we get in this country. What’s the future of corn?
Is the future of corn that the varieties from Mexico somehow will be replicated, spread, evolved, and innovated upon? Or is the future of corn a kind of monoculture where most of it is boring, a few strains of it taste good but are not really that interesting, and the different colors of corn in Mexico eventually disappear?
MILLER: I did the corn posters after the chile posters —
COWEN: I know you did the corn posters!
MILLER: There are 8,862 varieties of corn.
COWEN: You know all of them? [laughs]
MILLER: No, I don’t know them, but they’re in the University of Seattle, in the gene . . . whatever, the cryo- . . . you know. The point is, I think that corn has a lot . . .
The North American Indians grew 400. Corn, even in the United States, before the winter, we always ate cornbread. Corn was a big part of our culture, not just for ethanol. [laughs]
MILLER: I think because of what’s happening in the United States about “natural,” I think that once people put their palates and really queue them up, and they can tell the difference in varieties, is when we’re going to get much more varietal sort of differentiation in the market.
If I give you six varieties of corn and I tell you “eat them” and you can’t tell the difference, then you probably are unwilling to pay for them. If I gave you six varieties of red wine, one is a Bordeaux from the first growth and one is basically from Trader Joe’s, and you can’t tell the difference, well, you probably don’t . . .
COWEN: This happens, that a lot of people can’t tell the difference with wine, but we still market the different strands. Maybe people are fooled or it’s a placebo effect.
MILLER: No, but people are interested in change today and what’s happening in that place and time. Let’s say that the 400 varieties of Native American corn come back to North America, and let’s say that you’re in Portland. There might be varieties that can only grow in Portland, who only grow in Maine, only grow in New Mexico.
For instance, the microbrew industry. We talked about that in Portland. If a community wants to engage its food culture, on the community, local level, it can be amazing.
Portland has 400 beers. Why can’t they have 30, 40 varieties of corn just in Portland? It’ll come. There’ll be a corn restaurant in Portland that’ll say, “You know what, we are not growing the corn that everybody else has. We do this and we have recipes from all these cultures that use corn, from the Andes to Mexico, and we’re going to open a corn restaurant based on corn that did grow [here] . . .”
One of my growers in New Mexico — when I first opened the restaurant in Santa Fe, “Can’t grow this, can’t do this, can’t do that.” Regular, you know, can’t do anything. Well, Elizabeth Berry, my grower, grew 482 varieties of beans without electricity on land that essentially the Anasazi used in the fourth century.
These bean pods, do we actually know how many beans, or the variety of what a diet was? Native cultures — Franz Boas, we get into that, but he collected 254 salmon recipes. A Kwakiutl book would have been 3,000 recipes. The average American housewife does 79 in her lifetime, so who’s richer?
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: We now move to the underrated versus overrated segment of the talk. You’re free to pass on any of these, but I’ll just shoot out a few things. You tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated.
The Michelin dining guide.
MILLER: Overrated now.
MILLER: It’s too status-oriented. It’s dated. I bet you the average age of the inspector is over 30. I don’t trust anybody at a company if the mean age is over 35 anymore. I think that they’re out of touch. I think they’re replaying old themes.
I think the Michelin guide is about status, reification of a belief system in a particular food and culture system that was based on the aristocracy.
COWEN: The fast food restaurant Chipotle.
MILLER: Well, they just got knocked today; their stock just went down another 7 percent. They’re closing their ShopHouses, which I knew they would. They can’t do that. Chipotle had a good space. It did a lot of education. They developed Niman Ranch, for instance.
The problem with every big food company, not just Chipotle, is you have 2,000 restaurants. You say you’re cooking the food, but the food comes from two plants, from a factory like Miniat that takes 200,000 pounds a day. The public transparency . . . are you actually cooking the food, or are you manufacturing it? I think every big food chain is probably going to face this gestalt of where, if you’re cooking, you can’t be a chain.
I think the era of big food companies is actually over. A company like Starbucks: you would go into a town and you’d see Starbucks and it was familiar and known. Now all you have to do is, “Oh, I’m in Columbus, Ohio: coffee. Oh, this guy is doing fair trade, an interesting Guatemalan blend, oh, I’m going to go there.” That information doesn’t —