¡Muchos saludos desde Cabo San Lucas!
I just got home from a serious chile buying expedition to South Central Mexico… sadly my little corner of the Mexican Republic is not blessed with traditional markets, but a short plane ride takes me straight into the heart of it all. These days we have domestic air carriers like Interjet and Volaris that make it easy and affordable to hop on over to Mexico City, Guadalajara and lots of other great destinations that DO shop the way they’ve done for over a thousand years!
La Merced is the largest retail market in Mexico City, which I would imagine puts it at the top of the heap nationally. It’s only about 13 blocks east of the Zocalo, the amazing public square in the Historical Center that is the cultural heart of the country. It’s named after its neighborhood, as well as the ancient monastery which previously occupied the sprawling space it inhabits. It is filled with life and color and smells and sights and sounds like no place else on the planet, well worth a visit if you are an adventurous traveler!
There are two metro stops for La Merced, including one that puts you right inside, immediately surrounding you with STUFF in surreal quantities, and the people hawking it are no less colorful. Anything you can imagine, and lots of things you never even thought of are sold at this great- great- great-grandaddy of Mexican markets, including a mind-boggling array of ladies young and old selling their own personal wares in this place where prostitution is the norm, serving local working class men including the many many truck drivers who have spare time between loads.
I was on the hunt for dried chiles, and was not disappointed. After passing through nopal cactus heaven where the air is overwhelmingly fresh, corn heaven where corn on and off the cob surrounds you on all sides, leaf heaven with dried and fresh corn husks for tamales and mixiotes, GIGANTIC sweet-smelling banana leaves in huge neat bundles for tamales, pibil and other good things… finally we came upon the chiles.
And what chiles! After passing a few initial stalls with puny, dried up specimens we came upon rows and rows of stalls displaying soft, flexible, shiny, overwhelmingly fragrant chiles in all shapes and sizes. I’m coming to the end of my season, so I only scored a couple of pounds of each (in their dried form, a pound is a bunch of chiles)–beautiful burgundy red anchos redolent of sun dried raisins for stuffing with cheese, meat mixtures, chorizo, potato and onion hash, or for making moles… shiny jewel red guajillos for salsas and soups, and even some long, midnight black Mexican pasillas with their rich, complex flavor, so fresh they brought tears to my eyes thinking of the pleasure of stuffing them with Menonite-made Chihuahua cheddar cheese and frying them golden in a tender egg batter….
So much to buy and so little space in the bags. Still, we had to get out of La Merced which meant passing through more indescribable quantities of STUFF, which of course had to include kitchen equipment… The first stall in the kitchen equipment area obviously had everything you could ever want or need to set up a commercial kitchen. I asked the friendly proprietor if she had molds for conchas, the Mexican sweet rolls with the seashell pattern cut into the streusel they’re topped with. Of course! Would you like that in stainless or tin? There’s a $10 peso difference in price–I went for the gusto, paying about $4.50 US for a beautiful stainless cutter with two patterns–cannot wait to bake! I have looked high and low for a concha cutter for years–naturally it’s the first thing you stumble over in La Merced.
And so much more… stainless steel pots and pans and skillets in every size and shape imaginable, commercial kitchen gear, utensils and lo! a fantastically beautiful array of COPPER comales! I had to have one! I suspect it will be wonderful for making tortillas, and sure looks good in the kitchen!
And of course, portable electric stone mills for grinding nixtamal for homemade, whole grain, stone ground corn tortillas. How ever will I get it back to Cabo? Stay tuned.
Don’t miss La Merced!
Muchos saludos y buen provecho,
I’ve been a baaaad blogger! I have a bunch of cheap excuses–last season was crazily, gloriously busy! I have acquired a new computer and new camera and because I was in the kitchen all the time I never figured out how to work them properly! I just got back from 9 weeks in south central Mexico… The bottom line is, it’s been a while since I have posted a proper article.
I am making use of WordPress’ amazing technology to repost this article on Mexico’s Comida Corrida not just because I haven’t put together a new article (which admittedly I haven’t) but also because I am putting together a new class entitled, rather pithily I think, COMIDA CORRIDA! In my travels through southern Mexico this summer I was again bowled over by the availability, price and quality of this amazing culinary phenomenon. Here’s your homework–read up prior to taking the class this season! As ever, BUEN PROVECHO!
The gastronomic phenomenon of an inexpensive, three course, fixed price meal comes alive during the afternoon lunch hours at every “fonda” and “cocina económica” in Mexico. This wonderful Mexican gastronomic phenomenon, the Comida Corrida, is named for the “Tres Tiempos”, the Three Parts, of a bullfight, the legendary Corrida de Toros.
These small restaurants are attended by women who own them, presiding over kitchens throughout the country with a motherly homestyle feel, feeding a nation well and very affordably every working day. Men generally stick to more manly cheap eats like tacos and carnitas, leaving lunch to the ladies.
The Three Parts have been set in stone over the generations: First: The “entrada caldosa”, a brothy dish like a pasta soup or consomme. Second: The “plato seco”, or dry dish of rice or spaghetti, or a vegetable salad. Third: The “plato fuerte”, or main dish, typically featuring three or four options of Mexican homestyle dishes like beef tips in red chile sauce, pork or chicken in mole, fried or grilled fish, and perhaps a vegetarian offering like tortitas de papa, crispy potato cheese cakes served in a red sauce, particularly during Lent. An “agua fresca”, fresh water drink made with fruit, flowers or rice will be served, but dessert is not typically included and would be considered a courtesy of the house rather than a part of the comida corrida.
My guy Manuel is back in Mexico City, where he frequently takes his main meal in fondas near his home. He sent me this story, which he wrote for me as a birthday present the other day. This is my translation:
LA COMIDA CORRIDA.
On Saturday I went back to “Fonda Mary” for a comida corrida. The day was chilly, and when I stepped inside the fonda was empty, which I presumed was due to the cold, but as I ate people began to arrive and the place filled up as it always does.
The comida corrida consists of three dishes–I ordered vegetable soup, adding fresh cilantro, chopped white onion, chile and lime for extra flavor. Then I asked for rice and beans, and as a main dish I had the almendrado, a simple mole with almonds and chile cooked with pork, mopping it up with eight hot tortillas and washing it all down with agua fresca. It was so tasty that I raised my glass to my lady in celebration of her birthday back in Cabo!
The almendrado was homemade and very tasty, and I got to wondering what part of the southern Republic Mary might be from. Today when I went back for the comida corrida the first thing I did was ask her where she learned to cook. It turns out she’s from Progreso National, born right here in Mexico City! So again today I had the pasta soup, then spaghetti with cream and cheese, and finally a pipian–the famous green mole based on pumpkin seeds cooked with pork and beans, and it was delicious as always!
A worker or campesino who does hard work can eat a good comida corrida and leave well satisfied and ready to continue his work. The same goes for a housewife with children, and for students who don’t want to live on junk food. Professionals are just as likely to be found at fondas, eating well and saving money on Mexico’s national treasure, the comida corrida.
This Saturday I will celebrate 60 years of eating at great fondas like Mary’s–with yet another comida corrida!
Saludos a todos,
¡Hola a todos!
It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten an article up. At the risk of cheating I want to post this great letter I received some time back from cooks who spend time every year in Cabo, who have access to a kitchen and continue to cook even though they’re technically on vacation. My people!!
Just a note to thank you once again for the wonderful afternoon cooking in your home on November 22. We did a little shopping after class, and collected a few more ingredients. I was up early the following morning, toasting tomatoes, garlic, onions and peppers on our “comal” (a teflon skillet), grinding in our blender, then “frying” the resulting mixture to create our own version of Huevos Rancheros, which we served with the tortillas we bought with you–MMMMM! We also stopped at Artesanos later in the week, and I found a molcajete (I checked as you said, to determine that it was really made of stone). We seasoned it with many batches of guacamole during our remaining days in Cabo. During the course of or stay, we managed to accumulate little bits of leftovers to add to those you sent home. One of our last meals was a rendition of the soup we made, including the leftover broth, some rotisserie chicken (and broth made from that chicken), various odd veggies and some saffron rice. We licked our bowls clean!
Did you know that you cannot bring a molcajete in your carry-on luggage??? That was our original plan–not wanting to pack it in a suitcase with a couple of bottles of tequila–but a sign at the airport listed the implement right along with guns, knives, baseball bats and more than 3 oz. liquid!. We had to do a quick re-arrange of the luggage contents before we could check the bag. I’m happy to report that it molcajete made it home intact, as did the tequila!
I am re-posting this entry because I have a recent run on classes making mole! DO check out this amazing video that accompanies Lila Downs singing La Cumbia del Mole.
This entry is inspired by a recent visit from Manuel, a friend born in the Lower Mixtec region of Oaxaca who brought abundant blessings in the form of music and traditional Mexican foods. In his home town a very few women still make a corn masa journey bread which dates back hundreds of years, called “totopos” although they are nothing like the corn chips we all know and love for snacking. These totopos were carried by mule drivers on long trips along with dried meats and a dried salsa which could all be reconstituted with water, lightweight and hearty fare for the trail. Manuel somehow got hold of some totopos, and brought them along to share. I hope someday to get to the Lower Mixtec to find out just how they are made, before this wonderful ancient culinary tradition dies out.
He also brought along a couple of liters of real vanilla, labeled with the name of the Vargas family who produces it in Papantla, Veracruz where vanilla orchids are grown, based in Carrousel 22 of the Papantla market. I compared it with the junk they sell here, which smells like an industrial cleaning product next to the real thing, which smells just like the flowers from which it is made. In Tlaxcala it went for $20 pesos per 3/4 liter.
I would like to share a very special song by the amazing Lila Downs, born in 1968 in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca not far from Manuel’s home town, the daughter of a Mixtec cabaret singer and an American cinematographer and art professor from Minnesota. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, having grown up between Oaxaca and the USA, and she performs her own compositions which fuse with native Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Nahuatl musical culture. If you are unfamiliar with her music, much of it appears on YouTube. I highly recommend you search for and listen to the version of La Cumbia del Mole called “La Cumbia del Mole Video Mix” on YouTube, which presents Lila’s hypnotic lyrics with a cumbia beat — cumbia being a Columbian Caribbean rhythm originating from African slave courtship dances… along with stunning images of Oaxaca, mole ingredients and preparation. YUMMY!
With love and many thanks to Manuel, here is my translation of her lyrics. I hope you visit Lila Downs at YouTube and sing along. ¡Buen provecho!
La Cumbia del Mole, Lila Downs
It is said that in Oaxaca they drink mezcal with coffee
They say that herbs cure bad faith
I love the mole that Soledad is going to grind up for me
My dear Soledad is going to cook up a wonderful mole
From the heavens of Monte Alban, at night I dream of you
It’s made of ground peanuts, the bread is ground as well,
Dried almonds are ground with chile and also salt
That chocolate is ground with cinnamon
Pepper and cloves, moving the mole grinder
They say that in Oaxaca chocolate is made with water
They say in the festival of the little bulls it must burn
For the one who orders the passion of Soledad…
I know I’ll never see all the things I want to see in this sprawling megalopolis packed with life-loving Chilangos making the most of everything, every day.
Neither Manuel, who has lived in Mexico City for 40 years, nor I had been to the legendary floating gardens of Xochimilco. We were both prepared to hate it, thinking it would be dirty, overrun and touristy…
We were surprised to find a surreal dream of a Sunday filled with impossibly colorful gondolas, trajineras, bumping sides as they were poled through miles of canals that are the remnants of Lake Texcoco where the ancient Aztecs created fertile gardens to grow their foods and flowers.
On weekends the canals become a floating fiesta with bars, restaurants and gangs of fully fledged mariachis all competing for business from their own colorful little boats. It’s a riot of color and sound, an olfactory and auditory banquet you really must experience if you have the good fortune to find yourself in this magical city.
Hop aboard a trajinera, tie a floating bar up to one side and a group of musicians to the other and while away a truly surreal day in Xochimilco. If all this isn’t enough, you can wander for hours through 24 hour fruit and flower markets, as Manuel and I did…
Xochimilco invites you to eat, drink and be merry!
In Tezoatlan, tucked away in the Lower Mixtec Mountains of northern Oaxaca, a totopo is something else altogether.
For generations this gigantic, paper thin bread made from freshly ground nixtamal (field corn prepared with slaked lime the way it’s been done for over a thousand years), fresh lard and a pinch of salt, was carried by mule drivers carrying goods to ranches and settlements that seldom made it to a town of any size to buy the basics.
They carried totopos, which look fragile, but are cooked to a point of flexibility that, when reheated on a comal or over an open fire, attain a perfect crisp, crunchy texture that is uniquely satisfying. Along with dried salsas that could be rehydrated with a little water and dried meats made palatable by simmering in the same salsa, plus whatever greens and fresh meats that could be gathered along the trail, the hardy mule drivers ate pretty well without carrying a lot of extra weight.
Tezoatlan’s totopos are a local addiction, part of everyone’s daily diet in this magically beautiful village of the Lower Mixtec. My guy Manuel was born and raised there, in the building where his father had an electric mill used to grind fresh nixtamal carried in by local women daily in five gallon buckets. The mill had stone discs inside which had to be chiseled on a regular basis to make stone ground, whole grain masa for tortillas, tamales and other antojitos and, of course, for totopos.
DOÑA Filiberta is one of two women in Tezoatlan who are still making tototopos, although age and arthritis have slowed her down considerably. Manuel (along with plenty of Tezoatlan’s townspeople, no doubt) has long been concerned about the future of their favorite oversized cracker… but we can all relax after our visit to her kitchen workshop in September when she assured us that her grandaughter is learning the trade and will be taking over this important work.
The photo at the top shows Doña Fili’s old fashioned, thin pottery comales (griddles) upon which her totopos (also shown) bake over a hardwood fire, just as they have always been. The second shot features Doña Fili herself, with the stone metate still used to grind nixtamal. She also has a small stone mill similar to the one Manuel’s father used in the family business, and she still remembers him fondly. She says he was a kind man who always provided hot water for the women to wash their hands on brisk Mixtec mornings.
Mexico’s food traditions are the glue that hold its people together. I hope you can take a trip someday to small town Oaxaca where you will see and taste exactly what I mean!
For a country with so few dessert options, Mexico has a serious sweet tooth. Desserts are more varied on the tourist strip, but at the end of many a fine meal in Mexican restaurants I have asked for the dessert selection only to have the waiter respond with a great flourish, “Hay flannnn…’ trailing off that final consonant in a hopeful tone…
So flan it is for dessert, and if it’s well made, it rivals cheesecake as a finish and isn’t nearly as rich. It’s actually a stroke of dessert genius as it tops off a spicy Mexican meal like nothing else could.
But about that sweet tooth. If you’re ever in a traditional Mexican market, or even a decent Mexican supermarket, take a look at the candy aisle. The selection above is pretty typical, candy for the eye as well as that aching tooth. So what’s behind all that day-glo display? Here’s a short list.
Obleas con cajeta (Goat’s milk caramel wafers) – a delectable treat made of two paper-thin flour wafers filled with Mexico’s fabled goat’s milk caramel candy, cajeta, creating a sweet sandwich that won’t stick to your fingers. Also available as chewy caramel candies. Top brands: Coronado, Las Sevillanas (mini or medium) and Aldama.
De La Rosa’s Mazapan (marzipan) – is a delicious and traditional peanut confection delicious with a tall glass of milk, or crumbled as a topping to enhance other desserts.
Fruit rolls – These sweet fruity treats are very popular in Mexico, made from tropical fruits like coconut, mango and guava. Cocadas are deadly sweet coconut rolls. Popular brands include: Productos Cihuapilli and Dulces Moreliates.
Spicy spoon suckers – Yep, it’s a spicy, salty, sweet and gooey candy sold right on a spoon in our favorite traditional tropical fruit flavors — tamarind and mango.
Pepitorias (seed brittle) – This is a sweet and delicious confection made of ground sesame seeds sweetened with honey, coconut, pumpkin seeds and peanuts thrown in to guild the lily. Las Trojes is a popular brand that manufactures these succulent treats: Mixed seed brittle, coconut brittle, peanut brittle, sesame seed brittle and pumpkin seed brittle. Yum!
Candy skulls – Celebrate the Day of the Dead and honor your departed loved ones with these crazy creative confections fashioned from sugar, chocolate or amaranth. This much-loved Mexican tradition has been passed down through generations.
…and this is a short list! Take a tour through the candy aisle and start making your own sweet memories of Mexico!