Margarita Carrillo Arronte is a woman long admired in Mexico. A formally trained teacher turned chef, restaurateur, ice cream company entrepreneur and activist, she worked with a small group of historians and chefs on a decade-long effort to have traditional Mexican cuisine be recognized with a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

The author of Mexico: The Cookbook explains why in Mexico, "men were not welcome in the kitchen many years ago." She also shared her recipe for Pescado Tikin-Xik (pictured above).

Pati Jinich: Can you tell us what the UNESCO award is?

Margarita Carrillo Arronte
Margarita Carrillo Arronte (Photo: From Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte, photo courtesy of Fiamma Piacentini-Huff)

Margarita Carrillo Arronte: This is a recognition for cultural heritage. They recognize Day of the Dead, they recognize Mexican food, they recognize some music -- they recognize things that are not physical but are expressions of different cultures. Being on that list is a great, great honor. It's a great commitment to keep working to maintain this wealth that we have in order to share it with humanity.

PJ: Now that Mexico has been recognized, how has this affected Mexico's perception of its own cuisine?

MCA: In a very good way. As we grow up with this food, we are always surrounded by it; we grow up eating this food. When you have something there all the time, you don't think it's extraordinary. But when we worked and got included on this list, it was like, "Wow. We have something to pass on."

This is one of the things that is most important because it made us Mexicans react in a good way -- especially young chefs. Now they all want to cook Mexican food, and they want to take it to modern, higher levels.

PJ: The award turned it trendy in a way. Now that you're talking about the different generations and different groups, Mexican cuisine and Mexican food as I remember it growing up in Mexico was the realm of women. Some of these newer chefs are male. How has that happened? Has there been a clash?

MCA: We've given them a chance. I always tell them that they have to recognize that Mexican food is a women's thing. It's always mothers, grandmothers and aunts who cook it and teach it to women because it's traditional.

PJ: You told me once that your grandmother had a very funny saying.

MCA: She said, "Los hombres en la cocina huelen a cuacha de gallina." Men in the kitchen smell like -- I don't know how to say this -- a popo de gallina.

PJ: Hen's poop.

MCA: Yes, hen's poop. Because men were not welcome in the kitchen many years ago.

PJ: Men were fed, but men weren't needed to cook.

MCA: Yes. I have a friend who is the top, top chef in Mexico, Alicia Gironella D'Angeli. She used to say that men in Mexican cuisine aren't very useful except to carry the heavy cazuelas [cooking pots].

PJ: The group of women who have led the way, who have paved the way and who have worked so hard for this recognition are now welcoming this new breed of young male chefs.

MCA: Of course. Some of them are doing it the correct way: studying, going to the little towns and getting this knowledge. As long as you respect this tradition, it's all right. You can make it modern as long as you don't add things that don't belong to Mexican kitchens.

PJ: What do you consider to be authentic, traditional Mexican food?

MCA: The food that has been cooked for hundreds of years. It's food that is made with fresh, local ingredients. That is what we always do.

Our food is completely mixed with culture and religion. It doesn't matter if you are not Catholic, all Mexicans eat tamales on the second of February.

PJ: That's so true that Mexican food has so many layers of meaning for family celebrations, for locality, the little town you live in, for the time of the year.

Patricia Jinich

Pati Jinich is a cooking teacher, food writer and chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. She hosts the public television series Pati’s Mexican Table broadcasted nationwide and released her first cookbook, also titled Pati’s Mexican Table, in March 2013.