Nine stalks of corn grow from a patch of earth on the roadside in Roma Norte, central Mexico City. Each a different variety of the grain, they represent a small fraction of the 59 indigenous corns in Mexico and the countless mixes and hybrids beyond that. And for Jesús Salas Tornés, the founder of the restaurant they sprout outside of, they represent a great deal more besides.
In 2014, Tornés opened Expendio de Maíz Sin Nombre in La Roma as a corn school, a grant-funded space where people could freely come to deepen their knowledge of maize. As the model developed, Tornés transformed the place into the restaurant it is today. Since 2018 he has acted as head chef, armed with an open fire, a couple of hobs and a deep knowledge of the providence of good food across Mexico. Dishes served change all the time, ranging from quesadillas in hand-pressed blue-corn tortillas to rich nutty moles for dipping.
Beside Tornés being able to rattle off the history of corn – from the first crop, domesticated some 8,000 years ago in Mexico, to one of the stalks outside, taken from his family home in Ayutla de los Libres, rural Guerrero – he can pinpoint the exact source of any one of the nuts, legumes, alliums, leafy greens or whatever else it is that makes its way into his kitchen. “I could tell you about the 13 people who research some of the wild mushrooms that we use,” he says. “Or the woman I see every week, Gresilda, who looks after the hens that lay our eggs for us; about the mangroves in Chetumal, where we source one variety of salt we use.”
The kitchen in question is as much a work of art as the food that Tornés plates up. Designed by the brutalist architect Ludwig Godefroy, the open-plan space makes use of the region’s black volcanic rock. It references the rural kitchens that you will see across Mexico, though scaled down, to accommodate the needs of a small building in central Mexico City.
What you’ll be eating is anybody’s guess, as there is no formal menu. While you can be relatively sure that some form of corn (having been soaked, ground and turned to dough on-site) will find its way onto your plate, it will be accompanied by the produce that comes in from one day to the next. “We simply work with the finest we can find,” Tornés explains. Much the same as in a family kitchen, “you can’t predict which harvest is going to be the best; the food we make adjusts to that.”
Things have moved on a little since Expendio de Maíz first opened. A new flame or two have been added, and a refrigerator and vacuum sealer allow ingredients to keep for longer. The team of four has expanded to 12, while the amount of corn used has almost doubled – over three tonnes of the crop is now processed each month. Perhaps most importantly, Tornés has altered his vision for the restaurant. What he first intended to be a country kitchen in the heart of the Mexican metropolis is today a space for experimentation, combining the ever-changing tastes of Mexico City’s chilangos and tourists who come to visit with historical dishes drawn from all reaches of the country.
Tornés’s dedication to his project means that expansion is all but impossible. Though a bigger kitchen would be welcome, opening further venues would mean diluting the obsessive attention to detail that makes Expendio de Maíz what it is. “I need to be involved with everything,” Tornés says as he handles a red onion, fresh from a producer in the countryside nearby. Taking a knife, he strips the skin and cuts a slim shard from the pink globe, slipping it into his mouth. He pauses for a moment, taking in the flavour. Then he nods and smiles. “Go to any market in Mexico City,” he says. “You won’t find an onion as sweet as this.”
Below Tornés shares the recipe for a peanut and chilli mole, a recipe derived from the indigenous Otomí peoples of central Mexico. Traditionally, this dish can be served with Criollo (rural produce) or chilacayota pumpkins; just take the pumpkins, cut them into slices and roast them until soft. Alternatively, it can be plated with mushrooms and a little fresh coriander. Serves four.
1kg fresh peanuts (or whole-roasted peanuts in shells)
4 garlic cloves
100g dried chillies (Tornés prefers to use Costeño Criollo)
Mangrove or sea salt
2 spring onions
A bunch of coriander sprigs
A smattering of coriander seeds
1. Slowly cook the fresh peanuts in embers (firewood or charcoal) until toasted, then leave to cool before peeling shells and skins. If fresh peanuts are unavailable, use whole-roasted peanuts and peel the skins.
2. Take the chilli peppers and remove the veins and seeds before soaking them in water. Once soaked, rinse and dry before setting to the side. Hold onto the veins and seeds and add them to the mix later for extra spice.
3. Peel and chop the garlic into slices. Fry for one minute in a saucepan with a dash of oil, before adding the hydrated chillies and peanuts. Then add 1 litre of water and bring everything to boil until the chillies are soft.
4. Once the ingredients have been boiled, blend them together, along with the water that you used to boil. Add the fresh coriander and continue to blend until the mixture is a very fine consistency.
5. Put a little of the salt in a separate saucepan on a low heat until it turns grey, then add the coriander seeds. Once toasted, grind together with a pestle and mortar and put to one side.
6. Take the spring onion (whole or, if the onion is large, chopped in half) and fry it in a separate pan on a medium heat, moving it constantly. Once the onion is golden, add the chilli and peanut sauce and leave to simmer until it thickens.
7. Add the salt with the ground coriander seed to taste, then serve.
Interview by Louis Harnett O’Meara.
Photographs by Jordi Ruiz Cirera.