Every day people are taken by surprise in my kitchen when we toss the ingredients for a red or green salsa straight onto a hot, dry comal. Zero fat.
What the heck is a comal, anyway?Well… it’s Aztec cookware.
The name comes from the Nahuatl word comalli–the ancient Aztec language still spoken as a first language by many Mexicans, including a number of our Cabo beach vendors. Anytime you see all those x’s and tl’s in our Mexican Spanish (as in nixtamal and Tlaxcala) you are looking into Mexico’s past which, like so much of our traditional foods, merges with the present.
A comal is a griddle, traditionally made of thin, unglazed pottery. Modern cooks tend to use a more resilient heavy tin or rustic metal disc that can be scraped down with a metal spatula, and even scrubbed with a pumice stone since dry cooking thrashes a pan’s surface. Nowadays we’re seeing fancy comales in fancy supermarkets that are lightweight and have Teflon surfaces. Don’t buy them. You really want something you can abuse, and you really cannot scrub your Teflon with a pumice stone.
Why go to all this trouble? Because, to quote the immortal Homer Simpson, Fire makes it good! It’s like when you do a roast, and the best of it is stuck to the bottom of the pan. Dry grilling or toasting ingredients on a hot comal builds layers of flavor like no other process can. And nothing gets peeled but the garlic because the best of the flavor is in the charred skins of those chiles and tomatoes.
Dried chiles must be toasted before they are used in a dish. They are stemmed, seeded and flattened and pressed onto the hot surface of the comal until their heavenly toasted chile flavor is released. And they taste like they smell–you’ll never get that kind of flavor from chile powder! Other whole spices, seeds and nuts are similarly treated before they are ground and incorporated into traditional dishes including moles. The kitchen smells like heaven! Someone really should come up with a line of comal air fresheners!
The comal is not the only Aztec cookware still in use today. We use a variety of ollas and cazuelas, glazed and unglazed earthenware pots that country cooks swear improves the flavor of a dish. They must be seasoned before use by simmering a chopped white onion and a head of garlic until almost dry. The practical piece in the picture goes, with its cargo of pollo pibil marinated and wrapped in fresh banana leaves, straight into the oven until the meat is falling apart in the sauce. Then, banana leaves removed and meat shredded into the sauce, it goes right onto a gas burner to simmer until the sauce has thickened for tasty pulled chicken pibil sandwiches… and the pot cleans up like nonstick!
We still use the molcajete, that beautiful three legged volcanic stone bowl with its ergonomic handpiece, the tejolote, to grind salsas like the one grilling on the comal above. You have to be careful when you buy one these days since they’re now making chintzy bowls out of aggregate as garden ornaments. Scrape it with a key or coin, and if a lot of dust results, pass it by. Look for a real stone bowl that is not too porous. When you get it home it must be prepared by repeatedly grinding dry rice until the rice remains white with no gray grit to ruin your guests’ dental work… Don’t use soap on your molcajete, or your salsa will taste like soap forever after. Use hot water and lime juice, scrub well with a stiff brush, rinse with hot water, air dry and you’re good to go.
As with earthenware comales and ollas, the stone bowl of your molcajete imparts an earth flavor to salsas that are considered to be an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking. If you’re in a hurry or in a lazy mood, do what modern Mexican cooks do–pulse your comal roasted salsa in the blender leaving plenty of texture, and serve it in the molcajete to take advantage of its unique flavor.
Don’t miss out on the flavors of traditional Mexican cooking. For a small investment you can have a collection of Aztec cookware that will look beautiful and keep on cooking for many years, imparting your dishes with the true flavor of ancient Mexico.