Things didn't go as planned for the summer of 2022 for Señor Saffron. I had a great time with a Norouz (Iranian New Year) pop-up at Phantom Brewing Co., with lovely customers and tasty beer, but I was itching to go out more regularly.
My main issue was not having a driving license. Without being able to drive myself to and from venues, I had to rely upon friends and family to help transport all the Señor Saffron equipment and food in my ex-Royal Mail van. I'd been taken driving lessons for a while and had a test booked for July. While I initially felt confident, in the week before I was due to make a test, my instructor said that I wasn't ready.
Cancelling my test, I was crestfallen. Summer is when food stalls and trucks conduct the majority of their business, especially in the UK when foot traffic decreases in other seasons when the weather is less favourable (though trips to the pub never cease).
Then in July, Alex Reza Shams reached out to me.
Would I be interested in bringing Señor Saffron to an event in Mexico on the 15th of September?
From before I had even made the first tados in October 2020, way back in the summer of 2019 when I first thought of "tahdig tacos", I had imagined what it would be like to serve them in Mexico itself. Mexico has always welcomed culinary innovations and fusions, and indeed that would be the focus of the event.
Still, it wasn't an instant "yes" from me. Mexico is quite a way aways from the UK, and I'd already been back in April. I wasn't sure if I could take the time off work, and transporting ingredients and equipment would be a challenge. Wasn't there someone else who could do it?
But then I thought back to the words of one Mexican customer from my first day of trading: "My abuela would love your mole." And I remembered that I been wanting to do this for years.
After booking my flights, I had questions. Where would I be prepping and cooking? Where would I be staying? How many people would be at the event?
The answer to the last question was about fifty people. While this corresponded with the average amount of customers I had at stalls in Reading, I was now expected to bring out the tados in quick succession. With the current system I could make three tados every two to three minutes at best, which simply wouldn't cut it.
It was time to experiment with baking the tados ahead of time instead of deep-frying the tado mix straight away. When I first made tados I had indeed gone the baking route, as I detailed in my first post on this site. But for a food stall, I thought the time it took (forty-five minutes) was too long, and when I decided to go the route of deep-frying them in ghee I found they were imbued with a superior, buttery flavour. Now I thought, why not both? Why not bake them beforehand, then deep-fry them for about twenty to thirty second so they get nice and warm and buttery?
Over the course of a weekend I experimented with this approach. One problem was how to keep the baked tados from going soggy in the fridge upon being baked. I talked about this with Kieran from Hook & Cook Street Food, and he suggested silica gel. While nearly everyone has seen those little white packets bunged in the packaging of various products, their true purpose of being a "dessicant", a drying agent, is less well-known. By throwing a few packets of silica gel into the containers along with the tados, they would remain firm, ready to be crisped up at a later time.
On the evening of the 10th of September, I headed to Heathrow airport, ready to fly to Mexico City, planning to take a bus after my estimated arrival in the early hours of the morning to Oaxaca. I normally travel abroad with only a backpack, but now I had a suitcase containing my fryer pan, an array of tado holders, a small jar of ground saffron (Iranian, of course), dried fenugreek, two bottles of pomegranate molasses, and a four kilogram tub of ghee, with some of my clothes stuffed in the small spaces that remained. But as I was queueing to drop off my luggage, there was an announcement: the flight was being delayed until the following afternoon.
After a couple of hours of hullaballoo, I ended up staying in the airport's Holiday Inn Express on Aeromexico's dime. The new itinerary would still give me time to take a midnight bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca. But just as we were about to board, and minutes after I had prepaid for a bus ticket, another delay was announced.
By the time I landed in Mexico City, got through immigration, and picked up my precious cargo, it was almost midnight. I wasn't making the overnight bus, and I would have to wait until half past six in the morning to get the next one. I reasoned that a hotel would not be worth it for a few hours, and so I slumped onto an airport seat for the next few hours before taking a bus from the airport to the bus terminal.
Finally, in the early afternoon of the 12th of September, I had made it to Oaxaca de Juárez.
Going up to my room at the charming Hotel La Noria, I laid my suitcase down, ready to relax after a somewhat extended journey. Before lying on the bed, I opened my suitcase...
Maybe packing a tub of ghee wasn't the smartest idea. After making a trip to a laundromat, it was time to explore Oaxaxa de Juarez.
While my clothes were being Next it was off to Son de Aqui, the art gallery that was home to the group who had invited me, Slavs & Tatars, and where I would be serving my tados.
Admiring the sights of the city from the vantage of the rooftop bar, I then made my way to Boulenc, where I was told I could prep and cook the next three nights. The staff were friendly and helpful, and I was impressed by the range of cooking equipment available.
The following day I journeyed around the local markets with Pablo, the bartender at Son De Aqui. Mountains of cocoa, a seemingly endless variety of chilis, bunches of fresh coriander and parsley, piles of dried beans of a range of colours, I was eager to cook with them all. Pablo found a nice old lady who was selling some cute little bowls we figured could come in handy.
Exploring Oaxaca de Juarez during the day, and prepping and cooking at Boulenc in the evenings, I was nervous as the big day approached. Would I get the Mole Joon right? Would the tados come out OK? How was I gonna serve them warm?
The 15th of September finally came. The big day. My arms strained as I carried heavy tubs of tupperware containing Mole Joon and Ghormeh Sabzi uphill from Boulenc to Son De Aqui.
While half the ghee had poured out of the tub during my long trip, I had just enough left to fill my deep fryer pan. Now there came the problem of trying to figure out how to heat everything up. The setup was a traditional Oaxacan one, and I initially had the fryer pan and the Ghormeh Sabzi on the largest surface, with the Mole Joon in the back, as shown in this photo.
While we got the fire going, it was time for Alex to give his talk on the culinary connections between the Old World and the New World. While my Spanish is limited, the few words I do know are all food-related, and I always find it fascinating learning how food crosses cultures. Just one small issue: it started to rain. In the video below you can see I used a chopping board to cover the fryer as I hadn't packed the lid, but I needed a solution for while I was cooking.
And at that moment, Pablo produced an umbrella and held it over the fryer. While the fryer and the Ghormeh Sabzi were heating up, the Mole Joon in the back was still cold. But I couldn't fit that large pot on the same cooking surface. Again, Pablo came to the rescue, brandishing a small frying pan he had brought. I could squeeze that on the hot surface next to the fryer pan full of ghee and the small pot of Ghormeh Sabzi.
With some help from my girlfriend Mariel, we got to work assembling tados and placing them in corn husks, with a banging soundtrack courtesy of Discostan. The Takis Fuego in the Ghormeh Sabzi tados got some odd looks, but even Mariel, who had previously been adamant I shouldn't include them, conceded that they added a lovely tangy crunch. Once we were were out of husks, we switched to the cute locally made bowls that Pablo had picked up in our trip to the market the other day.
It was only once I had served the last tado and had a celebratory beer that I felt I could relax. It was heartwarming to see everyone having a great time, and lovely hearing the kind words from all, and at the end of it all we got a fireworks display on the eve of Mexican Independence Day.
The next day, though, was no time to rest. After cleaning up, it was time to pack everything up as we were leaving Oaxaca, taking a ten and a half hour overnight bus to Chiapas...