Exclusive: Chef Claudia Sandoval Shows Vibrant and Diverse Culture of Border Towns in New Show
Chef Claudia Sandoval grew up having the best of both the Mexican and American worlds.
Born and raised in San Diego to a family from Mazatlán, Sinaloa, the MasterChef winner grew up traveling south of the border every week to eat at her abuela's house and grew up enjoying the richness of Mexican border cuisine in a way she'd later find out many had not.
Now, the culinary consultant and author of Claudia's Cocina, is releasing her new show Taste of the Border on discovery+ where she is bringing the diverse culinary landscape of the U.S.-Mexico border into our homes.
All four episodes highlight the delicious food and vibrant culture celebrated by locals throughout the overlooked border towns and will offer viewers surprising details about the culinary history of each place.
In an exclusive interview with People Chica, the MasterChef Latino judge and best-selling cookbook author shared her unique experience growing up as a border child and the best advice she got from her mami and abuela.
Not many people are familiar with the U.S.-Mexico border, especially the cultural diversity that exists there. What was it like for you to grow up in a border community yourself?
I grew up going to my abuela's house every Saturday and then coming back and going to the swap meets and doing all of that kind of stuff. So, going to the border was a weekly thing and that's very normal. I think it wasn't until I started to travel around the country that I had friends that lived in other places that were like "What do you mean you're going to go have tacos in Tijuana?" And I'm like, "Yeah, like I'm going to go have tacos for dinner and I'm going to come right back. It's going to take like 12 minutes, calm down." It wasn't until then that I realized that people that don't live on the border don't have [this] kind of this access to another country in their backyard.
They don't understand why I would go to the dentist in Mexico, why I would just go have tacos with my friends and go party in Tijuana. It was so foreign [to them] because, of course, they only hear the one to five percent of the news that ever talks about the border, and it's usually politics. It's crime-based and it's usually all the bad things that you hear on television. They have no idea how good the food is.
I thought it's time that we stop being a little selfish and that we share a little bit of this real cultural richness and diversity that we have and that we've been privy to and that we've kind of kept to ourselves as border town kids. We're very lucky, we really are. We have the best of both worlds and we can enjoy them kind of on the daily if we really want to do.
People around the world are starting to become more familiar with Mexican food and its ingredients. Could you clarify the difference between Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican food for those who don't know?
I think that what is considered Tex-Mex is actually a variation of northern Mexican food that was then Americanized a little bit by using American ingredients. The reason why I'm being cautious about saying Tex-Mex is not Mexican is because really it kind of is. It's just a variation [of it]. Taste of the Border is about changing the perspective of what is even authentic, because when you think about it, unless we're talking about pre-Hispanic food, before there were any settlers in Mexico proper, you're talking about food that in some way has changed.
We didn't have flour, we didn't have chicken, we didn't have a lot of things in Mexico that are now very widely used. So, I think that that's where things start to get a little weird and as I've learned more and more about the history of Mexican food, that's where you start to realize that what we call authentic isn't really authentic. But, I also understand that if that's the way your grandma made it, then that's what feels authentic to you.
We do have taco fritos in Mexico, that is a real thing that existed long before. So people saying, "oh, hard shell tacos didn't exist." Yes, they did. What didn't exist was yellow cheese inside of a crispy taco. Those are things that had to happen based on the ingredients that were available in that area because they didn't have Oaxaca cheese or quesillo, they didn't have cotija, they didn't have all of the different types of cheeses and things that are made in Mexico because either the purveyor [wasn't there] or because of migration, or because at the end of the day if the cheese man stayed back in your hometown or wherever you came from and you moved north and you're now in Texas, you're going to make do with whatever you have available.
That's the beauty of food though, they're not wrong for creating that food, it's just different because of what's available. That's exactly what I found on this show. We went to places like Hatch, New Mexico, where I met the incredible owners of the Pepper Pot, which are two incredible women. It's a female-owned restaurant [that] make chili rellenos with hatch chilies, which usually in Mexico, for example, where my family's from, we make it using poblano peppers, which are a fatter, wider, darker, different flavored pepper. But there, what's available is the hatch chile. So, of course, they're going to use hatch chile, and of course, instead of using quesillo or panela or queso fresco, they're going to use Monterey Jack Cheese.
What are some of your favorite dishes from the border region?
All of them. I'm a foodie. I love to eat. I was a big reason why a lot of these places were chosen because I was one of the producers for the show. I chose these places because I knew that they were going to be incredible and I wanted to showcase places that really brought something a little bit different that people aren't used to seeing from these border regions. I would just redo the whole trip again so I could just have it all over again.
You grew up with a family that is originally from Mazatlán, Sinaloa. You were taught to cook by your mother and your grandmother. Now that Mother's Day is coming up, what is some of the best advice you've received from the matriarchs in your life?
Lately, I've been baking a lot, and my bakers, the people that work with me, they always think that I'm crazy because I'll be like, "Hey, the cookies are ready" and they're like, "What?" And I'm like, "The cookies are ready." And they ask, "How do you know?" Because it's released the vanilla. "Solto la vainilla," is what my grandma used to tell me.
People think I'm crazy, but if you pay attention, it doesn't smell like the baked good, suddenly you'll just smell vanilla. The reason why that is, I found out after meeting with a bunch of my bakery friends, is that vanilla has to burn off at a certain level because of the alcohol that it's usually distilled with. So, because of how it's distilled, then it takes a certain temperature for it to get to for it to burn off. Therefore, that smell did come out. That's one of my favorite ones.
My mom always, always, always taught me to use the freshest of ingredients. I know that seems like the most obvious thing to say, but we don't do that. What we do, all of us and me included, is we go to the supermarket and we buy whatever is at the supermarket. We don't seek out farmers' markets, our local farmers, our local CSA boxes [or] things like that.
So what we have are mass-produced ingredients that really are lacking in flavor. If you have a tomato that you've grown at your home, it's going to taste completely different than the tomato you purchased in a supermarket. My mom always taught me that because she and my grandmothers came to the United States as migrant workers to pick walnuts, grapes, all those things. I'm really lucky to have had that kind of insight.