Peanuts originated in South America 10,000 years ago, and their spread to the northern neighbor Mexico positions peanuts in this cuisine as authentic and traditional as it gets. Few cooking experts understand this better than Chef Iliana de la Vega. Originally from Mexico City, Chef Iliana’s calm and friendly demeanor belies a steely determination to share traditional regional Mexican cuisine within the US. Chef Iliana has established herself as the premiere expert on Latin cuisine, including receiving the prestigious Ohtli award from the Mexican government in 2014.
The National Peanut Board recently brought guests from across the country to Chef Iliana’s acclaimed Austin restaurant El Naranjo to sample native dishes and experience peanuts in this cuisine. Chef Iliana shared with us what makes Oaxacan cuisine unique, how peanuts are used--plus a spicy regional take on peanuts and beer.
NPB: What do you consider to be the defining characteristics of Oaxacan cuisine?
IV: The use of local ingredients, specifically local corn, chiles and spices, and the combinations using those ingredients one can make. The tortillas and all corn related products are simply delicious.
NPB: How do peanuts play a role?
IV: Peanuts are always in the Mexican pantry for eating as snack, street food, appetizer, to make moles, to desserts and drinks. In Oaxaca, we use peanuts a lot in the mole making.
NPB: Why is it important to you to bring authentic Oaxacan and Mexican flavors and techniques to the US?
IV: Oaxacan food has gained a lot of attention lately in the US. It seems that finally it got noticed for its bright, bold flavors. Oaxacan cuisine is what I grew up eating and cooking, so for me to be able to introduce my guests to the traditional Oaxacan food makes me very proud and happy.
NPB: You served several dishes with peanuts to our National Peanut Board group recently. Can you share the inspiration or significance behind a few of those items?
IV: Mole negro takes us three days to make and has over 32 ingredients, one being peanuts. It's a labor of love! We are very proud of our mole negro. It is very complex; between the savory tones from the spices and vegetables, to the spiciness of the chiles, to the sweet hints of chocolate and raisins to the richness of the peanuts. It is a mole for the big occasions like weddings or baptisms, so for us is a very important dish to present to our guests.
Mole negro enchiladas with chicken.
Ha' Sikil P'ak is a Yucatecan dish that is a very traditional and delicious spread made with pumpkin seeds, and I thought “What would happen if I make it with peanuts instead?” It came out wonderful, so a variation that worked beautifully and I plan to serve it sometimes at the restaurant.
NPB: What’s your favorite memory of peanuts?
IV: Being in the zocalo of Oaxaca with my family and friends drinking a mezcal and having some peanuts! Traditionally, when you order a drink, they will send you some fried peanuts with chile de árbol, garlic and salt, and those are delicious and addictive to say the least. Salud!