Plating venison, one of the few meats Mexico had before 1492.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Plating venison, one of the few meats Mexico had before 1492

How do you make a seven-course Mexican meal without pork or beef, without limes, without garlic or onions? That’s the challenge that Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo just set itself—because Mexican cuisine had none of those things before the Spanish arrived and brought them.

“Mexico City 1491,” a pre-Columbian tasting menu that will run through February as a prix fixe (with the items available individually through March as well), is the first of a series of historical Mexican menus marking Topolobampo’s 25th anniversary this year. I’ll talk with Rick Bayless tomorrow about the restaurant’s history and the entire series of menus, but today I have a slide-show look at the seven-course menu as it was assembled in the Topolobampo kitchen by chef de cuisine Andres Padilla, sous chef Joel Ramirez, and pastry chef Jennifer Jones, who explained how they made Mexican food with half of its most-common ingredients off-limits.

Padilla tells me that they’ve had pre-Columbian menus before, but this is the one they’ve been most serious about researching. “Basically, the Europeans brought so much to the new world that we take for granted. [Mexico] had no domesticated animals—so no beef and dairy, pork or lard, chicken and eggs. There were ducks and duck eggs, though.” They did have wild game, and Padilla says “there are some really interesting books upstairs in Spanish where they talk about using iguana, salamander, tadpoles.” But in any case meat was only for royalty, priests, and warriors; for ordinary folks protein came from things like pumpkin or chia seeds.

So what did pre-Columbian Mexicans have? Some fruits like papaya and mamey; starchy vegetables like potatoes and squashes; and above all, though they lacked wheat they did have corn, so they could make tamales and a form of tortilla. For seasoning they had chiles, even if their use of them was fairly rudimentary compared to what it would later be, and of course they had the royal treat that wowed Europeans when they brought it back—chocolate.

The result is that rarely do you feel deprived of anything in the meal—maybe only when the absence of dairy is most obvious, as with a boniato (sweet potato) puree. You might expect the desserts to be the harder part of the menu—besides dairy and wheat, pre-Columbian Mexicans also lacked sugar, though they did have honey and agave—but it’s surprisingly lush. Although the ingredients list is true to the era, Bayless’s team allowed themselves to use modern techniques to find ways to achieve things closer to recognizable dishes and desserts—so, for instance, there’s a coconut “ice cream” that has no cream, but it has surprising body from the use of atole, a thick corn drink.

Padilla, who comes from northern Mexico, says, “We came up with this beautifully presented modern menu, sticking to this strict list of ingredients that were native to the Americas. It gives us a great sense of pride just to do that and present this wonderful menu, having done that using all these ingredients.”

The seven-course dinner is $120, with a wine pairing for $80, and is available now; explore the full menu in the slide show.