As a homesick Humboldt State University student away from his Southern California family for the first time, Esteban Castillo called his mother for recipes to replicate the comfort foods he missed. But, he says, "trying to get recipes out of my mom was ... it just didn't work." Like so many home cooks, she didn't work off of recipes with measurements, instead working from memory and habit. "I had to just dive right in and start trying myself."
Cooking became Castillo's outlet, as well as a way to share his culture with his now husband Billy Green. Eventually, it grew into the wildly popular Chicano Eats blog and a cookbook of the same name coming out at the end of this month. Subtitled "Recipes from my Mexican-American kitchen," its joyful palette and index of cross-cultural recipes make it an aesthetic manifesto for a young, queer Chicano food writer and photographer.
"My parents always cooked to make ends meet," says Castillo, who comes from a long line of cooks. In Colima, Mexico, bordering on the states of Jalisco and Michoacán, his grandfather used to sell tacos from a cart in the town square and his grandmother still opens up her backyard as a restaurant selling posole, sopes and fried potato tacos. (See below for Castillo's recipe for tacos de papa, featured in the Chicano Eats cookbook.) "Both my parents were undocumented so I went to Mexico by myself," he says. There, he watched his grandmother cook in her open-air kitchen.
In 2014 during his senior year at HSU, with a few years of self-taught cooking under his belt, Castillo joined El Leñador, the university's bilingual newspaper, to do layout. The paper needed content so he thought, "Hey, I like to cook. What if I did a column?" Soon he was sharing a different recipe each month from a different Hispanic country. He also started to take his photography seriously, developing a bright palette and sundrenched style with bold contrasting shadows. The blog, he says, grew from that experience.
About a month before the 2016 election, Castillo was doing marketing for a nonprofit small business development center in Fullerton and was starved for a creative outlet. Green, who authored and shot his own cookbook Whip it Up, encouraged Castillo to start a blog.
The blog Chicano Eats and its associated social media accounts deliver personal stories, recipes that both cleave to and play with tradition — classic pan dulce one day, horchata tiramisu the next. "I feel like my primary mission was to persuade people that there's more to Mexican food than tacos and burritos," Castillo says. His photography has helped to change the setting and context of the dishes he presents, with a contemporary vibe that subverts some ingrained American ideas about Mexican cooking, mainly that the cuisine is an unchanging monolith.
"I feel like a lot of food writers have an issue with the word 'authentic,'" says Castillo. "Because what is authentic? My definition of authentic is going to be different ... authenticity is developed by personal experiences." He goes on to say how varied the traditional cuisine of Mexico is, with recipes varying state to state, from mountains to seaside, even from one little town to the next. "For me, as a Chicano who's influenced by both Mexico and the U.S., I felt it was more appropriate for me to make recipes that are what I grew up with. ... Not only traditional recipes that I grew up with ... but also recipes drawing from everything that was around you."
The book includes some basics he himself wanted to learn when he was starting out, as well as more creative dishes. "I wanted it to be a book people can use for years to come and not just a novelty. ... It's why I focused on the building blocks ... and the fusions where you get to have a little more freedom and fun with food." Among these are Castillo's Mac and queso fundido, chicken with corn masa dumplings, chorizo spiced meatballs and carnitas poutine with mole.
"I wanted the book to be a mixture of both [cultures] because it's representative of growing up in the States and going back to Mexico," he said, adding it's his hope that it will speak to "a lot of people who feel somewhere in between." He's grateful to have had a Latina editor who got the concept and the nuances of an explicitly Chicano cookbook and approached his writing from a place of understanding. "She was able to think in that Spanglish."
The book is packed with sweets, as well. "I realized my childhood was based around desserts. Especially Jell-os. Jell-os and cakes were such an important thing for us because they were cheap," he says with a light laugh, marveling. "My parents were able to make [food] out of nothing."
Since he was born in the U.S., Castillo was able to sponsor his parents for their green cards once he turned 21. Now he and his husband of 10 years have a house in Fresno, where they cooked Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for Castillo's parents. "It's been nice to sit and enjoy being with everybody and not having my mom being in the kitchen all day," he says.
The swapped roles have brought a little competition into the mix, too. "There are a few things that my mom won't admit that I make better than her but I can see it in her eyes," he says, laughing. A miscommunication once led to both he and his mother bringing pots of posole to a family gathering. Both watched his father intently as he ate the dueling bowls of pork and hominy soup. Castillo feels respectfully confident in his victory. But he hasn't cooked for his grandparents yet.
Even as his cookbook garners advance praise from the likes of the New York Times, Castillo sometimes feels like his parents don't quite get what he does. That still includes the blog and collaborating with brands to develop recipes and shoot the results, like the recent campaign he worked on for a beer company. "They just think I'm having fun and taking photos for Instagram."
Tacos de Papa (Fried Potato Tacos)
For the Taco Filling
1 ½ pounds (680 g) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Sauce
4 large whole Roma (plum) tomatoes
¼ small yellow onion
1 tomatillo, husked and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 ½ cups (355 ml) chicken stock (or sub in your favorite veggie broth to make this vegan)
¾ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil for frying
Shredded cabbage or lettuce
Diced white onion
Cotija cheese (or your favorite vegan substitute)
Make the filling: In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine the potatoes, garlic, and water to cover by about 1 inch (2.5 cm). Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the potatoes and garlic to a bowl, add the salt and pepper, and mash. Adjust the salt to taste.
Make the sauce: Wipe out the large pot or Dutch oven you used for the potatoes and add the tomatoes, onion, tomatillo, and garlic. Add water to cover by 1 inch (2.5 cm) and bring to a simmer over medium- low heat. Simmer until the tomatoes soften, 10 to 15 minutes.
Drain the vegetables, then transfer to a blender and add the chicken stock, salt, and black pepper. Blend (be sure to open the steam vent/ center cap and cover with a towel to avoid explosive hot liquid) until smooth. Adjust the salt to taste.
Return the mixture to the pot, place the lid on, and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes to cook the salsa through. Remove from the heat and set aside while you fry the tacos.
To assemble: Working in batches of 3 to 4, pop the tortillas in the microwave for about 45 seconds, or heat them up on a dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute on each side. (Cold tortillas will rip.)
In a large skillet, heat 1 inch (2.5 cm) of vegetable oil over medium-low heat. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mashed potatoes to a tortilla, fold the tortilla in half, and fry until crispy and golden brown on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
Fill each taco with a little shredded cabbage and a tomato slice, then ladle some of the tomato sauce over it. Finish by garnishing with some onion, radishes, Cotija, and your favorite hot sauce.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.