Archive for Mexican food
As I attempt to describe the things I have seen in the pre-Hispanic market in Tlaxcala to people who come to cook in my kitchen, my mind spirals back a thousand years when women sat in the same spot selling the same tamales made from huge fresh lake fish stuffed with tiny lake fish, wrapped in mixiote–the inner membrane of the maguey cactus leaf–the whole package tossed into hot coals until the fish is tender and the mixiote blackened and crisp…
A thousand years ago the maguey cactus was one of the most sacred and important plants in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and pulque–or octli–was a precious, milky, viscous alcoholic ritual drink reserved for special people on special occasions.
After Mexico’s independence from Spain, pulque’s production–and consumption–exploded, particularly in the states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, which produced a pulque aristocracy, and even in the 50s up to half the revenue of both of these states was produced by pulque.
In the early 1900s there were at least a thousand pulquerias in Mexico City alone, and many were elegant places characterized by quirky names like “Memories of the Future”, and “I’m Waiting for you Here at the Corner.” Diego Rivera declared the finest of Mexican art to be displayed on the facades and interior walls of Mexico’s pulquerias.
There are still some of the old pulquerias in Mexico City with sawdust on the floors, where patrons will spill a bit of pulque on the floor as an offering to Mother Earth in the time honored way. Pulque is traditionally served from large barrels kept on ice, dispensed into glass mugs using a calabash gourd cut in half called a “jicara”, and of course the bartender is called a “jicarero”.
Tlaxcala has organized a two day tour through the old pulque haciendas known as the Pulque Route. I dream of taking it, and once again traveling back through time the next time I’m visiting Manuel in his Tlaxcala home!
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,
Visit Oaxaca City anytime and you will find Oaxacans busily roasting, grinding and forming the fruit of this special tree into cakes to be turned into xocolatl — “bitter water” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
The roots of the cacao tree run deep. It was cultivated and consumed extensively throughout ancient Mesoamerica, and ceramic vessels have been discovered with cacao residues dating back to 1750 B.C. on the Veracruz coast (where vanilla was happily growing away at the same time, you will recall)… and even farther back on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, as long ago as 1900 B.C.!
The clever Mayans took the tree from the rainforest and grew it in their back yards. They loved to harvest, roast and grind the beans, blending them with vanilla, maize, chiles, herbs and achiote to make a rich, foamy, spicy drink.
By 1400 A.D. the Aztecs had taken over a good chunk of Mesoamerica, and they traded the Mayans for cacao, and demanded the beans as a tax. Drinking xocolatl was an important part of Aztec life, reserved for the wealthy and for religious occasions, and it is said that Moctezuma himself consumed around 50 golden goblets of the elixir each day. Aztec temples and palaces were adorned with sculptures of the cacao pod, which was a symbol of fertility. A hundred beans might have bought an animal or even a slave.
The more democratic Pueblo people of the Southwest U.S.traded for Mesoamerican cacao from 900-1400 A.D., and all members of their society enjoyed drinking chocolate. However, until the 16th century chocolate was unknown in Europe. Of course, after the Aztec conquest it quickly became a favorite at the Spanish court, and the rest is history…
Today about two thirds of cacao consumed worldwide is grown in West Africa. The U.S. alone consumes approximately 3 BILLION pounds per year, and worldwide consumption is more than a million TONS.
If you’re lucky enough to go to Oaxaca, be sure to pick up some freshly roasted and ground cakes of rustic chocolate! If all you can get is a commercial variety like Abuelita, it’ll do until you can get to Oaxaca! Just shop or break a 4 oz. tablet into your blender and add 16 oz. boiling milk or water (if you don’t want it as rich–I like it this way in the afternoon). Whiz away until a good head of foam develops, sit back and enjoy the food of the gods…
It’s a big job to sum up spices used in traditional Mexican cooking, but let’s begin with cilantro, mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to 1500 BC. The Romans carried it throughout Europe, and of course the Spanish brought it along to Mexico where it was eagerly adopted and has become an integral part of the Mexican diet. Note that unless you reserve cilantro and add it only at the time you serve your dish, its flavor goes off very very quickly, leading many people to conclude that it’s icky. Serve is super fresh to truly appreciate the beauty of cilantro!
Comino (cumin) is native to the Mediterranean, another Spanish addition the use of which has become almost overwhelming in Tex Mex and some other northern styles of Mexican cooking. Fine Mexican dishes reserve cumin’s pungent, slightly smoky, bitter taste as a grace note.
Canela (cinnamon bark), a native of Ceylon, is used extensively in many sauces, stews, meat dishes, desserts, fruit dishes and certainly in a good Mexican cafe de olla. It combines well and frequently with other sweet herbs and spices like cloves, allspice, nutmeg, star anise and fresh mint.
There are a wide variety of beautiful traditional herbs used mostly in the south of Mexico such as Epazote with its bright green serrated leaves and incomparable fresh scent, essential for good black beans in the south; Hoja Santa with its lovely heart shape and fresh, light anise flavor used to flavor dishes or as a wrap for steaming fish; and Avocado Leaves, used both fresh and dried, with their addictively resinous, licorice-bay aroma and flavor used to season mixiotes, soups, chicken and fish, barbacoa, beans etc.
Fresh banana leaves add so much flavor to tamales or dishes wrapped in them for steaming or baking that they deserve to join the list. And here I’ll mention achiote paste, made from crushed deep red annato seeds and other spices, the indispensable flavor in the marinade for pollo or cochinita pibil, the famous pit barbecue of Yucatan baked in fresh banana leaves, of course!
Another widely used leaf fiber is mixiote from the maguey leaf, used like parchment paper to wrap and cook meats, fish and poultry. It turns crisp and adds its special flavor to dishes like the pre-Hispanic tamales sold in the Tlaxcala market, made from large fresh water fish stuffed with tiny fresh water fish, wrapped in mixiote and baked in coals… I would bet the women who sell them are descendants of other women who sold the same tamales in the same market as long as a thousand years ago! I have included a picture, below.
I must mention the famous Hierbas de Olor, a special herbal bouquet of bay, thyme and Mexican oregano used to scent and flavor many dishes, as well as plain old black pepper, salt and sugar, all of which play an essential role in traditional Mexican cooking, and cooking all over the world.
Mexico still produces all of its own sugar, and piloncillo is an excellent nutritional choice for sweetening dishes and drinks alike. It is made from the juice of the sugar cane which is cooked and poured into molds weighing from 100 grams to 1 kilo. In Oaxaca you will find excellent sugar called panela because it is made in round molds like panela cheese.
Without getting into the chiles, which really require an article unto themselves, this is a quick overview of the flavors used in traditional Mexican cooking. I have failed to mention many beautiful herbs and spices such as grassy green flat leaf parsley, chamomile and lemon grass… A complex cuisine like Mexico’s depends on a long list of items to create its signature moles, asados and guisados. It is well worth a cook’s while to create authentic Mexican flavors at home, which can help us to develop our own personal cuisine to its highest level!
My guy Manuel Luna will be here in a short week or two! Naturally I’m excited to see him, but I’m almost as excited to help him unpack… he goes to the fabulous pre-hispanic market in Tlaxcala and buys out the man who stocks real vanilla from Papantla, and being an engineer, he REALLY packs the 3/4 liter glass bottles so there’s no chance one will burst open in his carry-on.
Why is this so exciting? You really have to smell the stuff to understand. All over Mexico “real” vanilla is sold, particularly in tourist areas, but frankly, the stuff we get here is like an industrial cleaning product compared to the elixir Manuel hikes over on his visits from the mainland, and loads me down with when I visit him on his side of the water.
I treasure this stuff, the real deal from Papantla, where vanilla was born and from which it was sent forth, another precious gift from Mexico, into the world, eventually settling in Madagascar, Indonesia, China, Tonga… wherever it could be cultivated and successfully pollinated.
Cortez fell in love with it, but the Spaniards couldn’t figure out the trick. In the 1800s it was finally determined that a vanilla orchid flower, which blooms only once a year for one day, could be artifically pollinated rather than relying on the very rare bee found only in Papantla, whose time honored job has always been to pollinate the orchids as well as their hosts, the groves citrus trees which also grow in the area.
Manuel and I talk about an early summer excursion to take part in Papantla’s pre-hispanic vanilla celebration, where we plan to OD on vanilla, locally grown coffee and traditional dances, notably the fabled Voladores–men who tie themselves to the top of a tall pole and jump off upside down… some playing flutes as they descend!
And of course we have to taste xanath, the Totonaco Indian word for vanilla and also for a beautiful vanilla liqueur rarely found outside northern Veracruz. We’ll shop for vanilla–the real deal–and vanilla crafts such as small baskets and other forms made from vanilla beans which they say hold their intense perfume for up to seven years.
Gee, I wonder if we can afford it… I failed to mention–those 3/4 liter bottles of vanilla so fragrant it brings tears to my eyes set Manuel back $20 PESOS a bottle at the Tlaxcala market!
Heavy sigh… if only we could get the stuff here…
P.S. Did you know that Mexico is the largest producer of honey in the world? Papantla’s, of course, is perfumed with orange blossoms…
There is nowhere like the city or its people, and certainly nowhere on our planet has such street food! In a country renowned for street eats, Mexico City is bursting with variety– the sights, sounds and enticing smells everywhere you go…
So when I get homesick for Mexico City, it usually involves food. In this case, Tacos Sudados de Canasta — Steamed Basket Tacos — something only Mexico could dream up. These soft, oily, flavorful, comforting morsels are filled with good things which have been stewed for hours for maximum flavor, then wrapped up lovingly in a carefully prescribed way and held, usually in a wicker or carrizo basket, for at least two hours before serving. Fillings may include mashed potato with cheese and sausage, chicken tinga, chicken and mole, cochinita pibil, refried beans and chicharron prensado. Here’s how it works:
You need a basket or other container, cloths to line and cover it, plastic to retain steam and brown paper to absorb grease.
Line the basket first with cloth, then plastic, then brown paper and more plastic, then more paper. Strew a good layer of sliced onions which have been sauteed in a bit of oil with a pinch of oregano until soft and fragrant.
Fill small, fresh, hot tortillas (preferably the little 4″ ones made for tacos, so you can eat more of each filling) with a variety of fillings. If you can get different colored tortillas — they are made red with chile, green with chile or nopales, and the natural blue of corn or with added cuitlacoche — put a different filling in each color. Otherwise, devise a stacking system so you can tell which row has a different filling.
Cover the top layer well with paper, then more plastic and finally a thick layer of cloth to retain heat to steam the tacos well for at least two hours before uncovering and serving.
When you’re walking the streets of Mexico City and run into Tacos de Canasta, don’t hesitate! Dive in and enjoy with a freshly made salsa, pickled chiles and an ice cold drink…
You may recall I went to visit my boyfriend at his Tlaxcala home in February, and was amazed by the pre-hispanic market that has stood on the same site for a thousand years, and still sells the same products they sold way back then.
Today Manuel sent me a story about pinole, a traditional toasted corn drink he remembers fondly from his childhood. Like many Mexican children, he loved to eat it dry, enjoying its sandy texture and rich toasted corn taste.
Here is my translation of his pinole story:
“Pinole. Since I was a child I hadn’t eaten pinole, and last week I had the chance to taste it once again thanks to my sister, who had a bit in her kitchen. She told me that they’ve always sold it in the market here in Tlaxcala, so I went to look for it and on the second try located it.
I asked an old woman who sold seeds where to find it, and she told me who carried it. ‘ There’s an old woman who sells her goods right on the floor, she’s got it,’ she told me. So I found her, and noticed that she is old, but quite strong like people of her generation often are, and yes, she sells pinole and ground corn of different colors to make atole. I asked how pinole is made and she told me it’s a simple recipe, you just toast corn on a hot comal, then grind it with sugar and cinnamon. I tried some before buying, and the flavor was different than I remembered from my childhood. I bought some anyway and took it back to the woman who sells seeds to try, to tell me if it seemed like good stuff to her.
She said, ‘I believe you love pinole because your mother ate a lot of it before she had you, and hey, my son loves quesadillas made with squash blossoms because I ate a lot of them when I was pregnant with him. I love seafood because they say my mother ate it before I was born.’ I asked her again if she liked the pinole and she said she really didn’t care for it. I asked if it was bad, and she explained why she never eats the stuff. ‘I’ve never liked pinole because an uncle died eating pinole, he asphyxiated, so I recommend that you make it into atole and drink it .’
Muchos saludos a todos,