Sunday, June 23, 2024

Inspiring a love for Mexico Down Under: meet Rosa Cienfuegos

Mexican food knows no bounds: authentic tacos in Tokyo, cochinita pibil in Sweden, quesadillas and huevos rancheros in Nairobi. The list goes on.

In Sydney, Australia, one of the leading purveyors of bona fide comida mexicana is Rosa Cienfuegos, a Mexico City native who has called “Down Under” home for more than a decade.

Sydney, Australia, restaurateur Rosa Cienfuegos
It’s still a struggle to find authentic Mexican ingredients in Sydney, so Rosa opened a store where she sells imported foods.

Rosa owns and operates two Mexican eateries in Sydney — Tamalería and Itacate, where she serves up her famous tamales as well as other antojitos (tacos, gorditas and the like) and dishes such as chilaquiles and pozole.

The chef and business owner — who has been described as being “instrumental in broadening and shaping Sydney diners’ understanding of Mexican cuisine” — is also a Mexican cookbook author, with her first book published in 2020 and a second one to be released later this year.

I recently caught up with Rosa via email to find out more about her life and work in Australia. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Peter Davies:

Hi Rosa, thanks for speaking to Mexico News Daily. Can you tell us a little bit about your background in the food industry?

Rosa Cienfuegos:

Hola Peter, thanks for reaching out, it’s a pleasure.

My background in the food industry started back in 2010 when my dad — who lives in Sydney as well — decided to open a Mexican restaurant and I started to help him with small tasks like making pico de gallo, guacamole and salsas.

hands making tortilla dough
Cienfuegos learned to make classic Mexican dishes as a girl in her mother’s kitchen.

I became very enthusiastic as I realized that there was a lack of authentic Mexican food in Sydney and it was pretty hard to find the right ingredients to make it. It was a successful restaurant, and our main customers were happy Mexicans, finally enjoying traditional flavors and uncommon dishes — for Australia.

We closed it down in 2013, but I decided to keep the cooking going, … first with a monthly pop-up at a community center … until we couldn’t use the space anymore. By then, I had a large number of Aussie followers, and that’s when Tamalería, my first shop, opened in 2018 right in the heart of (the neighborhood of) Dulwich Hill, where I became the “Tamale Queen.”

PD:

Sydney is a long way from Mexico City! How did you end up living in Australia?

RC:

My dad has been here for the last 22 years as he is a mariachi player who came to Sydney as part of the Bellas Artes Mariachi Band de Amalia Hernández. He came and decided to stay, so here I am!

Mexican cuisine is becoming more and more popular in Australia, but eager cooks still face a learning curve. 

PD:

One article in the Australian media says that Tamalería “serves the most authentic Mexican food in Sydney,” while another says that the tamales are “even better” than those in Mexico City! What makes your tamales so good, and what else is available at Tamalería?

RC:

I have heard that many times, and it bring tears to my eyes! Many Mexican Australian friends say that they don’t even bother to eat tamales when they are back in Mexico as they have that craving covered in a better way at Tamalería.

And I have to agree: every time I go back to Mexico, I try tamales from different stalls and places, and I still prefer mine!

I guess the only secret ingredient is love and dedication. We make them by hand every day in small batches to keep track of the quality, weight and presentation. They have lots of meat, and with the fluffy steamed masa (corn dough), it’s the perfect combination to make this delight.

cover of CDMX cookbook by Rosa Cienfuegos
Cienfuegos’ second Mexican recipe book, CDMX, focusing on the food of her hometown, comes out in October. (Smith Street Books)

At Tamalería, we have a small menu as some items are handmade and it takes time to produce them, things like gorditas, tlacoyos and quesadillas fritas.

But we also have tacos, Chihuahua-style burritos, Tijuana-style quesabirrias, chilaquiles and some specials over the weekend like menudo, pozole, sopa de tortilla, barbacoa and pambazos. 

Tamalería also offers a range of Mexican ingredients for those who are into cooking, like dried chiles, tomatillo, nopales, maíz pozolero, tortillas and frozen meats like pastor and cochinita pibil.

There is an open invitation to our monthly cooking lessons, at which we either use my first cookbook “Comida Mexicana” or seasonal recipes.

PD:

You opened Itacate in an inner-city neighborhood of Sydney a couple of years ago. What’s on the menu there?

Tlacoyo
Itacate’s menu was inspired by Cienfuegos’ first cookbooks and introduce readers to lesser-known Mexican favorites — like tlacoyos. (Itacate/Instagram)

RC:

Itacate’s menu was inspired by my first cookbook and included breakfast dishes like huevos divorciados, molletes, guajolotas (a tamal in a bread roll), tamales, of course, chilaquiles con huevo, atole [and] cafe de olla. 

For lunch, we had tortas de suadero and pastor, enchiladas, mole negro Oaxaqueno, pambazos, tlacoyos, gorditas and more!

It was a huge menu that we had to reduce because of COVID. But I still have an awesome changing authentic Mexican menu to cover cravings.

PD:

Has the Mexican food scene in Sydney and Australia more broadly changed much during your time living there? And, in your experience, are Australians becoming more knowledgable about Mexican food and Mexico in general?

RC:

Yes, at the moment, the Mexican food wave is trendy, and I’m glad to have seen more restaurants opening here in the last 10 years with different dishes and styles to fit into the Australian diet, including plant-based options.

Australians are 100% into the Mexican wave, although I really think there is still a lot of misunderstanding of traditional dishes. But I’m happy to see them eating corn nixtamal tortillas instead of hard-shell tacos!!

Bit by bit, Australians are getting into real Mexican food more, and there are different options for all tastes and I really hope we can keep it like that and grow the scene even more. My dream is to see Mexican restaurants everywhere here [the way] you see Asian ones. There are customers for everyone, and the more options the merrier, as long as we share our culture and traditions,

In the end, the range of Mexican gastronomy is huge so we could all have different menus!

PD:

Can you tell us a little bit about your cookbook “Comida Mexicana”? And, finally, what do you miss most about Mexico, and do you have any plans to return here to live?

Comida Mexicana cookbook cover
Cienfuegos said yes to writing her first cookbook, “Comida Mexicana,” on impulse. (Smith Street Books)

RC:

“Comida Mexicana” was a big surprise as I didn’t ever have the intention to write a book!

(The publishing company) Smith Street Books contacted me, and I said yes without even thinking what was coming next. The experience has been one of the greatest in my life as it has taken me to cooking shows and festivals to empower young women, even in Tasmania!

My second cookbook, called “CDMX” is powerful and full of love as it is about my beloved Mexico City, the city where I grew up and which made me the strong, independent woman I am now.

I miss the warmth of the people in Mexico, the music, the loud mornings and crazy nights, the midnight taco stall and even the smell!

I don’t have plans to live there at the moment as I know I still have so much more to share about Mexico here, but I have a new project doing food tours from Australia to Mexico with me as a foodie guide, and I really think that will keep me close enough to Mexico.

I might end up living in Mexico for a few months and coming back to Australia to keep doing what I love — sharing my culture, traditions and love through my food.

  • Visit mexicanfoodaustralia.com to find out more about Rosa and her businesses, and check out her Instagram accounts for Tamalería and Itacate

This interview is the fourth in a series called “The Saturday Six”: six-question interviews published in Saturday editions of Mexico News Daily. Read the first three interviews in the series here, here and here.  

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