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Food, Identity & Social Change: a conversation with Martha Ortiz & Tasha Marks

"Coinciding with the ‘Mundo Latinx’ exhibition at Fashion Space Gallery, join us for a conversation with renowned Mexican chef, Martha Ortiz exploring how her Mexican identity and heritage, love for art, as well as political viewpoints have shaped her work as a chef and culinary artist.

Chaired by food historian and artist Tasha Marks, the conversation will also look at the importance of food within Mexican and Latin American culture, particularly in identity construction and reinforcing connection to heritage, as well as looking at how food can be used as a practice for social change."

This event was held at the Ella Canta restaurant where Martha Ortiz is the mastermind chef, at Park Lane Hotel in London. The restaurant is inspired by Mexican food culture, presenting a delicious cocktail and food menu.

The conversation started with some childhood memories from Martha Ortiz. She explained how she studied political science and how it has influenced the way she creates and develops her menus thanks to the methods of structure she learnt at university. Her parents have a combination of a scientific background (her father is a doctor) and her mother is an artist. This has greatly affected the way she evolved, much in the same way as myself (my mother is more on the scientific side and my father had artist parents). I found this very interesting as we all have different ways of evolving depending on our parents background, some can follow the same footsteps, others can go the complete opposite way and be more rebellious, and some take influence from both sides.

Her early memories of food were of sweetness and how there is so much love in food. Love can be sweet or sour so it also has a flavour. Some foods we assimilate to sweetness like cacao and chocolate actually don't have anything sweet in them!

According to Martha Ortiz, there are many foods that are the "Jewels of Mexico" yet we constantly forget about this. Cacao of course, which was a "colonised beauty" because the first version it was exported as wasn't the same as what we have now. Cacao travelled and picked up some added sweetness on the way, making it the chocolate we have today.

Tomatoes, corn, avocado, guanabana, what became tabasco, and honey... All these ingredients we use in our daily lives in Europe actually have a strong root in Mexico and are linked to so much history. Martha joked: "Some people say we Mexicans are made of corn!"

On the subject of eating, she briefly told us how Montezuma, ruler of Tenochtitlán in the 1500s, was presented with over 300 dishes to choose from daily yet he would eat away from the public as eating was seen as a necessity rather than beauty.

Today we need to remember the sensory aspect of eating, the rituals around the world and the beauty of it. We often neglect the precious ingredients we use in our cooking, and especially the ingredients that chefs use in restaurants that are frequently overlooked (myself sometimes included!). All the research, the maintaining of these ingredients takes time and care. Mexico's food rituals have a very captivating background, wether its through the Aztec culture or the Mayans. A special drink called the "drink of the gods" was cacao, water and chilli, we were told by Martha. Corn tortillas were shaped to mirror the sun as a meditation and worship and were drawn onto.

"You can't be a chef if you are not aware of tradition!"

And some traditions and ways of cooking can't be changed, like Martha explains, mole can't be mole if the ingredients at the start aren't roasted in a particular way.

She goes onto a fun fact about chillies: they used to be used in the war, as a suffocation tool by using the strongest ones and placing them as a barrier against the enemy!

"Chilli is like a lover you need to feed it's presence!"

Mexican chilli culture is a whole world (which I have yet to discover, not being a huge fan of spiciness much...!), there are 1st crus, 2nd crus and more, much like wine. They all have beautiful Spanish names which announce their flavour and personality.

Red is the common colour for chilli, a colour symbolising love for most of the world, however for Mexicans it can mean power (coming from chillies!). The red colour can also be related to blood and the human sacrifice legends in the Aztec culture.

Tasha brought up the notion of "cross modalism". This means that all senses are connected to each other and influence each other. A certain smell can change the way something will taste, the same as sound can make something taste more sweet or salty. In this case this has to do with frequency, even colours have frequencies she explains, "red is a low frequency colour".

"The universe smells like raspberries according to NASA" I heard one of the ladies say! I need to look into this.

We finally go into the social side of food, looking into how food has such an important place in religion, many big ceremonies or celebrations happen around specific food traditions. Food is strongly linked to identity, it can represent social classes. Food is used to celebrate life but also death.

Martha wants to push this social aspect of food and especially the place of women in food. She has built a network of women across her restaurants, all her head chefs are women and she tries to buy from women producers. She wants them all to break the "caramel ceiling"!

When asked what is her favourite ingredient to work with she exclaimed:

"Passion is my favourite ingredient!"

Thank you to Martha Ortiz and Tasha Marks for this very engaging conversation, as well as the Ella Canta restaurant for hosting this discussion.

Follow Martha Ortiz here and Tasha Marks here.

All images were taken from Martha Ortiz's Instagram so go check it out for more!

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