What's a margarita without a taco?

Turn up the heat with Chef Aiden Pienaar's blend of Tex Mex and local flavours in his new cookbook, 'Mexico in Mzansi'

12 May 2024 - 00:00
By Hilary Biller
Crispy Asian-style chicken tacos.
Image: Donna Lewis/Mexico in Mzansi Crispy Asian-style chicken tacos.

Chef Aiden Pienaar's inaugural cookbook, by his own admission, is unashamedly not authentic as he says he's taken some much-loved Mexican style of dishes and combined them with inspiration from all corners of the globe and “especially my home country Mzansi”.

It's a fun and accessible soft covered cookbook that is full of verve and glorious enticing bright colours that make it a page turner that encourage one to get down and dirty in the kitchen, the cookbook is loaded with crowd pleasing ideas that are quick and fun to prepare.


Essential to Mexican cooking is the tortilla, the corn tortilla is the most widely used “vessel” for food in Mexico and some parts of Central America. It's traditionally made from ground hominy (dried corn kernels that have been treated with an alkali), water and salt, flattened into a small disc and cooked on a very hot surface.

Packed with a delicious filling, the humble tortilla is elevated to the venerable taco, which, for Pienaar is the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine.

Chef Aiden Pienaar.
Image: Donna Lewis/Mexico in Mzansi Chef Aiden Pienaar.


Masa harina is a flour made from maize that has been cooked in lime water through a process called nixtamalisation and is widely used in Mexico and South American to make tortillas.


2kg masa harina, available at selected stores

20ml (4 tsp) salt

6-8 cups warm water

1. Combine the masa harina and salt in a large mixing bowl. Stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, gradually add enough warm water until a dough begins to form. Then, using your hands, knead the dough for 2 minutes, shaping it into a smooth ball. The dough should feel springy and firm. If it feels too wet and is sticking to your hands, add a few extra tablespoons of masa harina. If it feels too dry and crackly, add in an extra tablespoon or two of warm water.

2. Weigh out the dough into 30g balls. Place each ball between two pieces of cling wrap in the centre of a tortilla press and, in one swift motion, press the top down to flatten the dough. Alternatively roll out each ball with a rolling pin to 2-3mm thick and 12cm in diameter.

3. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, peel away the cling wrap and place the tortilla gently into the dry pan. Cook for about 40 seconds on each side or until small brown spots or speckles begin to appear. The tortilla should puff up slightly.

4. Once cooked, place it on a plate and cover with a clean tea towel to keep warm while you cook the remainder.


This recipe was inspired by Pienaar's trips to Thailand. The soy sauce will make the chicken very dark in colour — this is to be expected.

Makes 6 Tacos

1 litre canola

60ml (1/4 cup) cornflour

2.5ml (1/2 tsp) salt

Pinch of ground black pepper

4 skinless deboned chicken thighs, quartered

6 warm corn tortillas

Fresh coriander for garnishing

Asian Chicken Marinade:

15ml (1 tbsp) soy sauce

5ml (1 tsp) sriracha sauce

5ml (1 tsp) chilli flakes

5ml (1 tsp) sesame oil

25ml (5 tsp) chopped fresh coriander

1 thumb-size piece ginger, minced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2.5ml (1/2 tsp) honey

7.5ml (1 1/2 tsp) rice wine vinegar

Peanut Sauce:

125ml (1/2 cup) unsweetened peanut butter

25ml (5ml) hoisin sauce

3/4 tsp chilli flakes

Water as needed

To serve: Asian-style slaw

1. Place the canola into a deep fryer or pot and heat to 180°C.

2. Combine all the ingredients for the Asian chicken marinade in a bowl and mix well. Set aside a small amount of marinade for coating at the end.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the cornflour, salt and black pepper.

4. Coat the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour, shake off any excess and put them straight into the deep-fryer or pot for 30 seconds. Remove them from the oil, dip them in the Asian chicken marinade then coat them in the seasoned flour once more before returning them to the fryer or pot for a further 40 seconds, until extremely crispy. Drain the chicken pieces on paper towel and then coat them lightly in the marinade you previously set aside.

5. To make the peanut sauce, place all ingredients into a food processor and blend until well combined and smooth. The mixture will be quite thick, so add a little water at a time to loosen it — you are looking for a honey-like consistency.

6. Fill each taco by spooning some slaw along the centre of the tortilla. Top with the chicken and small dollops of peanut sauce. Garnish with fresh coriander.

Roasted cauliflower tacos.
Image: Donna Lewis/Mexico in Mzansi Roasted cauliflower tacos.


This recipe was inspired by the famous Spanish romesco sauce, which is typically eaten with fish.


Sunflower oil for frying

1/2 small head cauliflower, cut into florets

60g green cabbage, thinly sliced

Pico de Gallo (fresh tomato salsa):

1 small red onion, diced

2 Roma tomatoes, deseeded and diced

1 jalapeño chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

A handful of fresh coriander, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Pinch of salt

5ml (1 tsp) canola

Romesco-style sauce:

1 whole tomato

7.5ml (11/2 tsp) runny honey

5ml (1 tsp) chopped garlic

5ml (1 tsp) ground cumin

2 whole chipotle chillies in adobo sauce

50ml canola

A grinding of black pepper

5ml (1 tsp) smoked paprika and 5ml (1 tsp) salt

25ml (5 tsp) lemon juice

80ml (1/3 cup) cashew nuts, roasted

1. First make the romesco-style sauce. Over an open flame char the tomato until the skin is blistered and blackened. Place the tomato with the rest of the ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Keep refrigerated.

2. Heat a little sunflower oil in a heavy-based pot to 180°C, then fry the cauliflower florets until golden brown. Drain on paper towel and season with salt.

3. Mix the cabbage, pico de gallo and lime juice in a bowl. 

4. Fill each taco by placing some of the cabbage salsa along the centre of the tortilla. Top with cauliflower and dollops of romesco sauce. Garnish with fresh coriander.

Sosatie and boerie tacos.
Image: Donna Lewis/Mexico in Mzansi Sosatie and boerie tacos.


Having a business in a suburban area, the air was constantly filled with the smell of braai, and this inspired Pienaar to create this taco for the iconic and much celebrated Heritage Day in SA.


Pap squares:

625ml (2 1/2 cups) water or chicken stock

5ml (1 tsp) salt

125ml (1/2 cup) maize meal, plus extra for dusting

Sunflower oil for frying

Other ingredients:

100g boerewors (of your choice)

100g BBQ marinated chicken sosaties (of your choice)

6 warm corn tortillas 

Garlic mayo

Fresh coriander for garnishing

1. Make the pap squares by bringing the water or stock to the boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the salt and allow to dissolve. Gradually add the maize meal, stirring continuously. It will thicken dramatically as it cooks.

2. When it begins to boil, lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring continuously until thick. Reduce the heat further. After 5-10 minutes, the pap will start to come away from the sides of the pot. This is a sign it's ready.

3. Pour the pap into a 29cm square dish to about 1cm thick. Cover with a kitchen cloth and leave for 15-20 minutes until cool and set. Once the pap has set into a solid block, turn it out of the dish and cut into 1cm squares.

4. Heat a little sunflower oil in a heavy-based pot to 180°C. While the oil is heating, toss the cooked pap squares in some maize meal to coat. Shake off any excess and fry until crispy and golden.

5. Start by lighting the braai, if you haven't already. When the coals are ready for some meat action, cook the sosaties and boerewors until juicy and succulent. Allow to cool slightly then cut into smaller-than-bite-size pieces and mix together in a bowl.


The Paloma.
Image: DonnaLewis/Mzansi in Mexico The Paloma.


My mother’s favourite tipple

Serves 1

1 slice lime

30ml (2 tbsp) sea salt

50ml blanco tequila

25ml grapefruit juice

25ml simple syrup (Bring 100ml sugar and 100ml water to a simmer in small pot. Once sugar has dissolved, remove from heat and cool. Store leftover syrup in fridge for next paloma.)

8-10 large ice cubes

200ml grapefruit-flavoured tonic

Grapefruit slices for garnishing

1. Rub the outer rim of a cocktail glass with the slice of lime and then dip the glass in the sea salt.

2. In a cocktail shaker, combine the tequila, grapefruit juice and simple syrup. Add the ice cubes and shake for about 15 seconds, until the outside of the shaker gets cold and frosty. 

#. Strain into a glass and top up with grapefruit tonic, more ice and slices of grapefruit.

Enter to win
Image: Supplied Enter to win


Aiden Pienaar

Penguin Books



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