How Chef Angel Carbaja Fused Two Culinary Traditions In Los Cabos

Food & Drink

“I don’t really believe in cultural appropriation in foods because it’s such a wonderful window into other aspects of the multicultural societies that we live in.” So said Yotam Ottolenghi, which I was reminded of on a recent trip to Los Cabos, Mexico.

At its core though, Mexican cuisine is built on its native people’s domestication of staples like corn, beans, avocados, tomatoes and chilies. It was ancient Mesoamericans who first developed nixtamalization, whereby grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, helping in dissolution of hemicellulose, softening the grain, and making tryptophan in corn proteins more readily available for human absorption.

But much has been built upon. As well as the disasters of disease and encomienda, Spanish colonization also introduced European livestock, rice, wheat, spices, and cooking techniques like frying. This resulted in dishes that combine native and Spanish ingredients like tacos al pastor (shawarma-style tacos) and enchiladas. The short French intervention in Mexico in the 1860s introduced French cooking techniques, resulting in chiles en nogada (stuffed chilies) and empanadas.

Consider Los Cabos, which sits at the southern end of the Baja California peninsula. Even the traditional food like chocolate clams, smoked marlin, comida de pobres and tamales are the result of outside influence and techniques. Just as Mexico has exported its cuisine to much of the world, so has it gained from the rest of the world.

The fusion doesn’t stop. As I found out, when I caught up with chef Angel Carbaja to find out about how he fused Japanese and Mexican food to delicious effect. Nicksan was the first Mexican-Japanese fusion restaurant in Los Cabos, and was started in the 1990s with Masayuki Niikura.

At first, Carbaja was surprised that Niikura approached him. Niikura would come and visit every year and was interested in Los Cabos in the 1980s because he was attracted by all the fish. The first business Niikura suggested would have involved him taking a lot of fish out of the ocean and exporting them, so he turned it down, but over time the idea of starting a restaurant took shape.

It’s more than business though. Carbaja says of Japan that “the culture was the most important part that impressed me, being honorable and respectable. I love the way they treat everything, the way they treat the fish, the vegetables, the way they pack. They care and they hand it to you as a gift.” Speaking with Carbaja, I suspect that these traits appealed to Carbaja because he naturally elicits them, preferring the stoic solitude of fishing above the more social requirements of running a restaurant.

Indeed, Carbaja’s first love was fishing. “Every day is different. No matter if you go to the same spot, you are going to get a completely different experience. But the most important part of that is that while you are in the ocean, you don’t think. You just enjoy it. I did it for several years on a daily basis. Those hours for me were the best time in my life, being in the water.”

In his restaurant, east meets west coast, with specialties including tempura oysters, curry yaki, bluefin tuna sashimi and beef filet serranito. “Our first dish that became really popular was sashimi cilantro,” says Carbaja.

On the business behind running a successful restaurant, Carbaja says: “take care of the people who’re with you, and show them exactly what you need them to deliver. It’s teamwork, yes. But we consider them closer than that. You have to be day-by-day on top of everything: your product, how you deliver, and how you can turn over that product fast enough so you can make your money back.”

Carbaja is excited for the region: “ Los Cabos is going to continue as a great destination, as long as we work together as a community, to develop what they need in every area.” One thing is for sure it will involve a lot of influence from people beyond the peninsula.

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