In the Kitchen: Zarela Martinez & Fish Tacos

By Fabiana Santana

She helped put Mexican food on the map in NYC, and now Zarela Martinez is making sure that her culture’s cuisine is explored as well as enjoyed.

“It is my mission to make my Mexican culture known and understood.”

Zarela Martinez speaks with a passion that is addictive. Her website,, focuses not only on sharing information about her namesake restaurant Zarela and her many books and TV appearances, but also contains a separate section titled “Culture” where Zarela shares family recipes and traditions during Mexican and American holidays. And now she is taking those traditions to the Mexican Cultural Institute in New York City.

To commemorate the bicentennial of Mexican Independence, Zarela has crated a “Food is Art” program that explores the rich history of Mexican cuisine. “This is my dream program,” she says. “Mexican cuisine tells a story. In America, it is the story of how second and third generation Mexicans are living their culture.”

Part of the program includes a recipe contest that encourages contestants to create a recipe based on a traditional Mexican dish. Recipes from Metropolitan area cooks are food lovers will be tested and the top 20 dishes will be featured on menus at restaurants around the area. Zarela chose the first winner through a Facebook. “Jackie Diaz and I are friends through facebook where she once posted a picture of her fish tacos which looked delicious. I was intrigued and asked her for the recipe. When I saw how carefully she had written it, I tested the recipe and was very pleased with the results.”

Zarela was born and raised in Mexico, but began cooking professionally during the late 1970s in El Paso Texas. With the encouragement of Paul Prudhomme and Craig Claiborne, who had been impressed by her vivid Mexican food, she made some nationally noted guest-chef appearances and in 1983 moved her business to New York. In 1987 she opened Zarela and it has been a dining destination for Mexican food lovers ever since.

Zarela passed on her love of culture to her son, celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez. “I never forced my kids into anything. I always wanted them to do what they wanted, to follow their passion. I told them ‘don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what you really think.’ They learned how to express themselves with food.”

On Sundays, Zarela makes it a point for the whole family to get together and enjoy a homemade meal. “Everything we serve has to be home made, except for bread and cheese. The family prepares the meal together and sits together to enjoy it. There is always a story in food.”

Baja Fish Tacos RecipeBaja Fish Tacos Recipe

by Jackie Diaz, Zarela’s chef of the month

Makes 12 tacos


Pink Chile Mayonnaise:

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 chipotle chiles in adobo, plus 2 tablespoons of adobo sauce
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Fish Batter:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 8 oz. light beer (Corona is highly recommended)

Fish Prep:

  • 3 Catfish fillets, cut into 4 by 1 inch strips (1 fillet will give you about 4 pieces of fish for frying)
  • 4 to 5 cups vegetable oil, for frying


  • Lime
  • Cabbage, shredded
  • Red onion, finely chopped


Pink Chile Mayonnaise:

In a blender, put the chipotles, sour cream, mayonnaise, adobo sauce and lemon juice and process until the mixture is consistent and creamy. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate, covered, for at least half an hour to allow flavors to blend.

Fish Batter:

In a medium bowl, combine flour and salt, then add beer. Whisk until well combined.

Fish Prep:

  1. Cut fish into 4 by 1-inch strips. Pat the fish dry with paper towels.
  2. Add three pieces of fish to the batter and stir gently to coat.
  3. Pour the oil into a large saucepan until it measures 2 inches deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 375 degrees.
  4. Use your hands to pick up the pieces of fish from the batter, one at a time, allowing any batter to drip back into the bowl, and add to the hot oil. Fry in batches of three until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper-toweled lined plate. Serve immediately for best texture. Return the oil to 375 degrees and fry the remaining fish.

To Serve:

Place 1 or 2 pieces of the fish inside each tortilla (or use two tortillas) and top with sauce and some of the shredded cabbage and onion. Squeeze with lime juice to taste. Add hot sauce (I like “Tapatio” hot sauce) for added flavor. Serve immediately. Resources

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