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Squeezing Burrata Balls with New York’s Favorite Mexican Chef

I’m in a London restaurant basement and Enrique Olvera is teaching me to prepare a dish fusing fresh tomato and burrata. “We don’t like to plate with too much fuss or stuff,” he explains.
Photo via Flickr user p l m

"This is exactly what I looked like as a child," I joke, holding up a plump, white, spherical cheese.

Absolutely nobody laughs.

"I was a pre-teen ball of burrata," I try again. Silence. It's Year Six P.E. all over again, only this time I'm standing in the basement of London restaurant Wahaca, beside one of New York's most celebrated Mexican chefs, Enrique Olvera.

He's in London to take part in the restaurant's Day of the Dead Festival—leaving his famous Cosme in the capable hands of his kitchen—and has found an hour to talk me through one of their favourite dishes. So far, it's going great.


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In a city as in love with the mozzarella-and-tomato combination as New York, the burrata is almost the definition of a Mexican no-brainer. The pairing of tangy salsa, bitter herbs, creamy cheese, and smokey eggplant—served alongside a crispy fried tortilla—is a complete dish. And, as they say on children's television, it's something that even you can try at home.

"There are three techniques for salsas in Mexican food," says Olvera, laying out his ingredients on a large steel tray. "One is raw, one is boiled, and one is charred. If you're having it with, say, steak then I prefer it raw. If you're having pork with a salsa, I prefer boiled. If it's just to finish, I prefer charred."


Mexican chef Enrique Olvera burrata and green tomato dish. All photos by the author.

We have assembled charred and peeled tomatillos—the small green Mexican tomato cousins of our plump European reds—chilies, roasted garlic and aubergine, some crispy fried tortillas, green leaves and, of course, my portrait-of-the-writer-as-a-younger-woman: a big white ball of milky cheese.

"We were trying to work out what cheese to use in Cosme—not Oaxaca cheese or Mexican cheese, but we needed it to be very fresh," says Olvera. "We found good burrata in New York."

I squeeze the cheese. I can't help myself. It's like pinching the cheeks of a milk-drunk baby. Something strange happens in my stomach.

"If you're making it at home, take the cheese of the fridge a few minutes early so it's not too cold," Olvera warns. "If it's too cold, you can't taste the milk."


The first step with the burrata is to grind the roasted garlic. We find a large mortar, replete with red painted sheep's head. We can't find a pestle, so instead Olvera chooses to just busk with an ice cream scoop stolen from the kitchen. Is it important for him, I wonder, to do this bit by hand?

The pairing of tangy salsa, bitter herbs, creamy cheese, and smokey eggplant—served alongside a crispy fried tortilla—is a complete dish.

"It's not the fact that you're doing it by hand but it's a completely different process to when you puree," he says, smearing the cloves of garlic around the inside of the bowl. "A blender will cut it up but this will mash it. I'm not romantic about doing things by hand—it's just a different product. The consistency is completely different."

Does he have one arm stronger than the other from all this mashing, I ask?

"Yes, always," he replies, absolutely deadpan.

I start to giggle.

"No, I actually have," he says, holding up his hands. And he's right—one is clearly thick with muscle like a Toulouse sausage. It's like looking at the manual equivalents of Chris and Liam Hemsworth.

It's at this moment that I spot the tattoos creeping up Olvera's arm, one of which appears to be a bird.

"It's supposed to be a hen," he explains. "I went to this really good tattoo artist in Brooklyn but he never sent me the design beforehand—and so it doesn't look like a hen. I call my daughter gallina, which is Spanish for 'hen,'" he says rolling up his sleeve. "These are all my kids. I call the other rabanito or 'little radish.'"


What does Olvera cook when he's homesick, I wonder? When he's missing his children and the taste of his own kitchen?


Burrata paired with a salsa of garlic, tomatillos, and chili.

"Usually quesadillas are my go-to choice for whenever I need comforting," he says. "Although I also like avocado tacos because they say you shouldn't eat much cheese, right?"

Yeah. Right. Whatever.

The salsa, smudged together from garlic, tomatillos, and chili is starting to look ready. But Olvera has one final ingredient.

"At Cosme, we add a little eggplant," he explains. "It's not traditional but we started using it when tomatillos weren't in season. It gives the same bitterness and seeds—it's in the same family."

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The aubergine also adds a certain creamy smokiness that makes my tongue wetter than a pair of pants after a really good joke.

"We don't like to plate with too much fuss or stuff. It should be natural," says Olvera, dolloping the salsa into the bottom of a bowl. "That doesn't mean it's not detail-orientated but we don't like lines and things. Sometimes we do it with dessert just to show that we can."

On top of the green, seed-thick salsa, he then adds the moon-like orb of cheese, a pinch-and-torn selection of fresh green herbs and finishes things off with a crispy disc of fried purple tortilla.

It looks beautiful. It looks like brunch. And I am absolutely fucking starving.

Mexico from the Inside Out by Enrique Olvera is published by Phaidon.