When Mexican woman Lily Ramirez first followed her heart to Ireland 17 years ago, the homesickness that ensued caught her by surprise. We talked to her about the origins of her blog “A Mexican Cook” and its offshoot Picado, the Mexican boutique grocery she runs with husband Alan Foran in Portobello.
Lily, tell us what initially piqued your interest in food?
I come from a traditional Mexican family and I first learned to cook standing next to the hob with my mother. It’s kind of a right of passage that every Mexican girl learns to cook that way, but an early culinary disaster cooking for my family at the age of 13 put me off cooking for a long time!
When I met my now husband almost 20 years ago we were both studying in Japan. It was love at first sight and eventually I ended up moving to Ireland. The first 3 months were wonderful but after that I was really homesick. I noticed that the homesickness went away whenever I had a chance to eat anything remotely Mexican, so I decided I had to conquer my kitchen phobia and start cooking. Suddenly all of those years that I spent next to my mother watching her cook came rushing back. Who we are is so connected to food.
What inspired you to begin your blog sharing Mexican recipes with an Irish audience?
Once I started cooking I also began to get an understanding of Irish ingredients and the substitutions I could make, because you couldn’t really get a lot of Mexican ingredients here at the time. I started getting quite exercised at the representation that we had in Ireland of Mexican food. I remember going to a place and ordering Fajitas, even though they’re more Tex-Mex, and when the dish arrived I was like; “This is horrific! This isn’t Mexican food!” I was going on about it constantly and at some point my other half was like; “Well you can’t just complain, you need to start showing people what real Mexican food is about”. At that point I was cooking Mexican food at home and I knew if I could do it anybody could, so that’s how the blog started, genuinely out of annoyance at what was passing as Mexican food here and as a way of sharing recipes and trying to set the record straight.
How did Picado come about?
I knew there was a market because it wasn’t that easy to find Mexican ingredients, so I was thinking if I’m sourcing ingredients for me I could easily source them for all these people who are writing and asking where I got them. In 2011 we started running an online shop from home while we were both working full time, and we did a market as well for about a year and a half. Because that was working quite well we decided to open a physical space where we could stock ingredients that also had a kitchen where we could show people what to do with them.
When you first walk into Picado you might recognise some of the things on the shelves, but a lot of what’s there is quite alien, so from the start we knew we needed the demo kitchen. The whole space was designed around the pantry so it’s like walking into someone’s home. I often say to people this is the way I learned to cook, standing next to my mother asking loads of questions, then going off and doing it myself, so we base the workshops around that. We keep very small numbers. There’s a lot of one-to-ones and it’s an interesting way of getting to know more about your customers.
Do you have a favourite recipe?
For me, there’s an emotional connection with Mexican food, so it’s all attached to the time of year or what day it is. On a warm summer’s day all I want is Tacos al Pastor; pork marinated in this beautiful adobo made with pineapples, oranges and chilies.
Even a tough cut of meat will go really tender marinated in the pineapple. It caramelises when you’re cooking and the sugars of the pineapple make the meat brown. It is very fresh and really delicious and of course you can find the recipe on my blog.
What else do you have planned this year?
Picado is launching its own branded pantry range so we’re really excited about that. We have our own corn tortillas already so we’re now going to introduce a dried chilli range. We’re just finalising the printing of the packaging so this should all be out hopefully by August. Also this year we’re doing Theatre of Food at the Electric Picnic again, as well as a pop up dinner and a demo at the Rockin’ Food festival in Enniscorthy at the August Bank Holiday weekend. It’s another great way to reach out to people and spread the word about Mexican food.
It all sounds hectic. What do you do for relaxation?
I think everybody who runs a business will tell you the first three years are mad. We started an online business in 2011 and then opened a physical business and now we’re looking at a second location so we seem to be having a constant three-year thing! We’re trying to be a bit more mindful about burning the candle so we’ve friends who have a gorgeous little farm in Tipperary where they run an Airbnb so that’s where we go for relaxation. And of course I love cooking and experimenting with recipes!
Words: Martina Murray
Images: A Mexican Cook