I never cease to be amazed at the methods used by traditional cooks as I travel through south and south-central Mexico — the densely populated Colonial areas well below the “tortilla line” that runs through Cabo and Mazatlan across Mexico’s midsection, dividing the Republic by bread and beans.
I’m from northern Arizona, so I grew up on flour tortillas and pinto beans. My guy Manuel is from way below the line, so his basics are corn tortillas and black beans. This is pretty much set in stone, though he will eat my pintos if that’s all we have laying around the house. “Where’s the epazote,” he’ll ask.
But the topic of this article is fire. Many times I wind up a class and someone will suddenly realize that we have been eating intensely Mexican foods all day… and that we have used no spices whatsoever!
How is this possible? Isn’t Mexican food based on heaps of esoteric spices we’ve never heard of, much less incorporated into our own dishes?
One of the best kept secrets of traditional Mexican cooking is no secret at all. It is the oldest cooking method known to man — the direct application of heat, and preferably fire!
There is often an intake of breath as tomatoes, onions, chiles and garlic hit a hot, dry comal (griddle) without a speck of oil! The same treatment is given to spices and pretty much everything else to be incorporated into traditional Mexican dishes. Why? To quote the immortal Homer Simpson, “Fire makes it good”.
Traditional Mexican salsas, including simple and elaborate moles, are prepared using various applications of heat and fire, from charring raw vegetables to a technique called “frying” a sauce in a small amount of oil to thicken and concentrate flavors. Fresh poblanos and dried chiles to be stuffed or used in salsas go straight on my gas burners to char the skins, imparting a wonderful roasted, smoky flavor and mind-blowing scent.
When I go to Oaxaca City and see women in frilly aprons throwing tiny, vinegary chorizos or thin pieces of spiced beef or pork straight onto mesquite coals whipped into a white-hot frenzy, sparks blown clean across a cobbled street by woven palm fans made expressly for this purpose… the hairs on my neck stand up and a deep thrill runs through me as I witness this most primitive form of cooking still used daily in Mexico’s traditional areas by cooks following instructions passed directly from mother to daughter into the smoky distant past stretching back a thousand years or more.
I discuss the subject of fire with Manuel, and he is surprised. He grew up eating this way, and knows the smells and flavors well, but he’d never considered fire as an ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking. He agrees that it is critical–and of course the ashes add to the dish!
As ever, I highly recommend we all go to Oaxaca for lunch.