How to eat: guacamole

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This month, How to Eat is going deep on the ultimate dip. But should it be eaten with tortilla chips or celery, crackers or carrots? And is it ever wise to bulk out a burrito with guacamole?

Evidently, Britain has nothing on the US when it comes to the role guacamole plays in the national psyche. So beloved is it stateside – where they celebrate National Guacamole Day on 16 September – that threats to this glorious goo can have serious political ramifications.

Last year, as Donald Trump attempted to bully Mexico with trade tariffs, the New York Daily News dubbed him the “Guac Blocker”, a curiously avo-centric take on Trump’s hysterical posturing over immigration. Meanwhile, in more frivolous times, his predecessor felt compelled to intervene after, radically, the New York Times recommended adding garden peas to guacamole. “Respect the nyt, but not buying peas in guac,” tweeted Barack Obama, a sensible stance that, nonetheless, diminished him in the eyes of those who demand capitalised proper nouns and a ban on the sappy abbreviation “guac” (ugh!).

In contrast, guacamole’s only serious walk-on in British politics was in an apocryphal story (reportedly popularised by Neil Kinnock, it was such an embodiment of the times that it stuck) that New Labour’s Peter Mandelson had mistaken the mushy peas for guacamole in a Hartlepool chippy. In Britain, guacamole was and still is a punchline in jokes riffing on the north-south and class divides.

Yet, slowly and then very quickly indeed, in the intervening 20 years, the avocado insinuated itself into our dining habits: as avocado toast, salad ingredient and the ultimate dip, guacamole. By 2017, AKA peak avocado – year of the avolatte and bizarre avo-inspired personal finance advice – sales of avocado were the third fastest growing of UK grocery items, behind Budweiser and the energy drink Monster.

How to Eat’s job is to define how best to eat Britain’s favourite foods, and in 2020, guacamole definitely fits that bill – with the caveat that it should remain an infrequent treat. Europe imports relatively few avocados from Mexico, where campaigners have flagged the issue of so-called “blood avocados”, but even compared with other imported fruit and vegetables, the avocado has a large carbon footprint and comes with unappetising warnings about future water scarcity and deforestation.

Our avocado intake should be measured, which means, when eating guacamole, that every detail must be perfect. In that regard, How to Eat can help.

A word (OK, several) on the recipe

Guacamole should leave your palate tingling, like mint shower gel for the mouth. It should neatly combine the fruity, modest heat of green jalapeño chillies, a zing of lime juice and (plenty of) salt, the sweetly acrid tang of a little red onion and, upfront, a burst of verdant freshness from the coriander and avocado that feels, and to an extent is, incredibly good for you.

That is all you need. Adding a garlic bass note immediately tethers down the interplay described above, just as (drab British supermarket) tomatoes water it down, and dairy, such as yoghurt or sour cream, flattens it. The guacamole’s clear, pronounced flavours should interact with a balletic grace that will stumble if you throw cumin, black pepper, sweetcorn, vinegar, bell peppers or weaponised hot sauces into the mix.

Similarly, HTE is baffled by Ottolenghi’s use of wasabi in a guacamole to accompany [checks notes to make sure not hallucinating]fried turkey patties. In even tiny quantities, wasabi delivers a fearsome white heat very different from the jalapeño’s carnivalesque character. One is cheeky, flirtatious, fun. The other singes nasal hairs.

The overall effect you are aiming for in guacamole, in both taste and texture, should be one of almost effervescent lightness. The starting point in that aim is, obviously, ripe, creamy Hass avocados, but its pursuit also defines how the above shortlist of acceptable ingredients should be combined.

Note: spring onions may be closest to the wild onions the Aztecs used to make the original guacamole (āhuacamōlli in Nahuatl; contrary to rumours, it does not translate as testicle sauce). However, given the texture of most supermarket spring onions, half ancient papyrus, half carrier bag, it is wise to opt for an alternative allium.

Chunky or smooth?

In 2015, when the student paper the Oklahoma Daily published details of Jack White’s touring rider, his people were quick to distance the man himself from its demands, which included guacamole made to a specific recipe. But the bigger story, ignored by the lamestream media, was not this apparent diva behaviour but the recipe’s stipulation: “We want it chunky.”

Why? Chunky guacamole, which at its most extreme looks like rugged chopped salad, fails in two ways. First, the guacamole’s flavours are not evenly blended. Second, it is incredibly difficult to balance overtly chunky guacamole on a tortilla chip. A smooth but not uniform guacamole – thick and dense in places, frothy surf in others – tastes superior and is far easier to handle. It is also quick to prepare. Despite what the fork fanatics and mortar-and-pestle militants claim, with a little trial and error it is possible to master almost instant, godlike guacamole using a food processor.

Guacamole as dip

As with pick’n’mix and sharing small plates, Covid-19 has cast a dark cloud over the communal dip. Once cavalier about double-dipping (what’s a few germs among friends?), even HTE is now a fully paid-up health-and-safety bore. Global pandemics can do that to you. Is the socially distanced future one of people twitchily guarding their own individually portioned chips’n’dips? Tragically, yes.

It is enough to make you hide away at home with a huge vat of guacamole until this awfulness passes. If you do, choose your delivery vehicle wisely.

Guacamole is the star here. Whatever you use to hoist it to your mouth should add no more than a salty neutrality to its flavours. Tortilla chips are the obvious choice: sturdy, shaped to scoop, delivering a satisfying initial snap yet melting in the mouth. Specifically cheap, bland, lightly salted, own-brand supermarket chips are the best option.

Don’t get HTE wrong. Like any abstract persona, its synapses flood with serotonin at the mere sight of Doritos’ Tangy Cheese. Manomasa’s swanky chips – get behind me, green olive and manchego! – are now banned at HTE Towers. They are too dangerous. But HTE would no more use either of those to scoop up guacamole than it would a credit card or a Twix. Such overtly seasoned chips bring too many conflicting flavours to the table. The whole thing becomes a shouting match, an exhausting children’s party of a mouthful, 101 jostling flavours vying for your attention.

There will be people out there who use everything from Walker’s salt and vinegar to hand-carved parsnip crisps, basil-mined Mediterranean pitta pieces or crackers so worthy they read like a pre-colonic cleansing ritual (poppy seeds, chia, flax, linseed!) to scoop guacamole. But in all cases – and not just because mainline potato crisps are too fragile and greasy – they will fatally skew your guacamole’s flavour. Crudities, likewise. Red pepper? Carrot? Cucumber? Celery? If you wouldn’t put it in your guacamole, why would you eat guacamole off it?

In the absence of the correct chips, a simple cracker (eg Carr’s water biscuits), pieces of lightly toasted, inauthentic plain wheat tortilla or even breadsticks will do.

Guacamole as dish component

No, HTE would not like extra-guacamole-for-£1, thank you. It sounds right, but actually – see also, burgers* – it is wasted amid a burrito’s multiplicity of flavours and tends to turn that baton into a sloppy mess. It is the worst of both worlds, in sharp contrast to the way guacamole plays a refreshing support role on a steak or chicken taco.

Guacamole is, of course, essential on loaded nachos and, like sour cream, a welcome condiment on the side of chilli and rice. Indeed, HTE can forgo the chilli and eat simply plain rice topped with guacamole. The hot grains and the guacamole’s cooling citrus sparkiness create a kind of magic. Scrambled eggs and guacamole have a similar synergy, despite their uniformly mushy texture. Mush-on-mush is usually dining’s equivalent of blue-on-blue, a well-intentioned disaster. But such is the vital, life-affirming vibrancy of A1 guacamole that it carries all before it. It even brings welcome pizazz to a plain old baked potato.

Guacamole is not a salad dressing or ingredient, however, nor something you swirl through soup. That way culinary insanity lies.

*Guacamole regularly crops up as a suggested topping for turkey burgers, which, given how bland turkey is, makes a kind of sense. But it raises the question: who would voluntarily eat a turkey burger?

Serving

Assuming you are dipping communally in a Covid-secure household-bubble, use a deep, generously filled, conveniently wide bowl. It is depressing to hit porcelain with your first scoop. Whether slumped on the sofa or sat at a dining table, this is informal, plate-free food. Using anything but your hand to contain the shrapnel brings a timid, uncomfortable nervousness to proceedings, at odds with guacamole’s chatty, carefree rep. Even decanting the chips from bag to bowl can feel prim. Rather than plates, have the Hoover ready. Embrace debris.

If exposed to oxygen for an extended period, guacamole takes on an unappetising brown tinge (phenolic compounds becoming polyphenols, science fans). Refrigerating the guacamole in an airtight container with a layer of clingfilm or lime juice on the surface will slow that process. But there is a simpler solution: eating it all. Serve irresistible crack-amole not sad wack-amole and this problem will disappear in a giddy thunder of pounding peristalsis.

When

The collective mood needs lifting. This is not a solo gig. As starter, snack, beverage ballast.

Drink

Crisp, herbal German or Czech pilsners, lemony Belgian witbiers and dry, bitter pale ales will complement and punctuate guacamole in different ways, as do zesty white wines (eg sauvignon, chenin blanc, picpoul, albariño).

So guacamole, how do you eat yours?

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