February 5, 2014
North American state of Mexico is known for its rich history, heritage, culture and cuisine. With the social media providing numerous avenues of publicity Mexican cuisine is riding on the wave of popularity the world over. Even before my five week sojourn in Mexico during Christmas and new year season I was aware of the varied flavors of Mexican cuisine, its famed chilly and variety of spices that gives an appealing taste to Mexican food.
Being a foodie I was eagerly looking forward to feel the popular maize-based dishes and other cuisine popular in different regions of Mexico. From reasonable street food eateries to traditional restaurants and cafes Mexico is filled with eateries everywhere. One can find people eating on the streets, parks, on trains, cars, market places and almost everywhere. There are markets lined up with food stalls offering an array of dishes filling and satisfying both the hunger and craving for food. Mexico offers one of the best street food cultures in South America. Mexican food is enormously varied, with myriad regional differences and full of surprises. Not surprisingly UNESCO has named Mexican cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage of mankind.
A scenery in Chiapas
Tomato used for salsa
A tomato variety used for salsa
Art in radish
Avacado and other fruits and vegetables
biggest tree in the world in Tule
In front of the biggest tree in the world in Tule
Birria - the delicacy of oaxaca
Bright coloured flowers
Cactus flowers in bright colours
Whole corn - one variety
Golden corn variety
Market place - fresh meat stall
Mexican chilly variety
Mole served with rice
Mole with other food items
Priests of Salto de Agua - Fr Mario, Fr Bonifas and Fr John with parishioners
Relishing Tlayuda with Faustine and family
Prince roses of Mexico
Separating meat from sea shells
The process of making ham
Tortillas on the machine
Variety of fruits
Whole fish meal
With my invitee Jose Bernal and Calia Bernal
World's largest Tlayuda in a museum
Young Mexican girls working in Market food stall
Going through different states of Mexico and the market places I noticed that Mexico flooded with fresh and leafy green vegetables, succulent fruits and beautiful, brightly coloured aromatic and attractive flowers. I also noticed that most of these eateries especially street and market food stalls are manned by women or at least lot of young girls and women are employed in these eateries thronged by customers all day long and they work interminably to cater to them. Corn is the main food of Mexico and almost every meal includes tortillas (corn chapattis), beans (rajma type bean) and rice. I tasted the hottest chilly of my life when salad made of sliced yellow capsicum-like chilly and white onions was served for lunch at the provincial house of SVD in Mexico city. Sylvester Rodrigues, a Mangalorean priest at the Provincial house in Mexico City, who had earlier shown me around the garden, had indicated that the particular chilly variety is very pungent and he even promised a salad would be made for me to give me a taste of Mexican chilly. When salad was served for lunch I in my usual style, took a spoonful and put it in my mouth.
Fellow priests who saw this, were nonplussed and bit their tongues in consternation but it was already in my mouth. As I grappled with watering eyes and burning lips and tongue for the next half hour, I remembered Sylvester’s advice. A Mexican priest then told me that the salad is eaten mixed with frijol (rajma dish) or other food items in small quantities to savor its spiciness. So I had my first brush on Mexican chilly on the very first day.
The next day as we were having breakfast a loud cry was heard from the streets and again Sylvester told me the guy was selling tamales (a corn-based steamed or boiled dish wrapped in leaves just like our patholis) and the dish is common in Mexico. Its origin is traced back to the Mayan people who ruled central and southern parts of Mexico between 600 and 900 AD. It was a after a week that I tasted tamale when I went to a place inhibited by indigenous people in Santa Lucia in Chiapas state with my brother who works as a SVD priest in Salto De Agua in Chiapas (the same Chiapas that witnessed the famous Zapatista movement led by Marcos in 1992). Chiapas is the southern-most state of Mexico sharing border with Gautemala and another small country, Belize, a former British colony which I visited during this trip. These tamales are steamed wrapped with corn or banana leaves and are filled with meat or cheese, vegetables and salsa. es. Its popularity and historical importance stems from the fact that it was a representative dish taken back to Spain by Spanish conquerors as Mexico was a Spanish colony for nearly 3 centuries starting from 1510 AD.
Cuisine born from Corn
I was aware (my brother John Roche svd is in Mexico for the past 22 years) about maize chapattis known as Tortillas (pronounced as tortiyas in Spanish) made of corn. I did not realize its true importance or that Mexican cuisie is born from corn until I visited Mexico. Though indigenous people still use handmade tortillas which are made of pure corn, bulk produced machine-made tortillas are available readily in the markets in almost all corners and are widely used. These packaged are not made of pure corn can be used for a week or so to dish out any gourmet meal. In Oaxaca the State Government’s palace a 19th century marble monument houses museo del palacio. This museum has an organic tlayuda said to be the world’s largest tortilla weighing 300 kg. It is an organic tlayuda by Enrique Amos and details the history of Mexico.
Just like we use rice for making a variety of dishes, corn is the main ingredient in many dishes in Mexico namely tortillas, tamales, sopes, tacos, quesadillas, tlayudas, tostadas, enchiladas and nachos. They also drink corn in the form of fermented drink named pozol.
The most popular and widely available street food is tacos, though they are not considered as main meal. Mexican cuisine is incomplete without the mention of tacos. Tacos are folded tortillas wrapped with mixed meats, cheese, cream, sauce, fresh salsa or vegetable mixtures like onions, cilantro and chillies. Stuffed and fried tacos are available in many places but are avoided by many because they are oily. Tostada is another tortilla dish comprising hard tortillas either fried or filled with different toppings.
Then there are quesadillas which is hot tortilla folded and toasted filled with cheese and they just melt in the mouth because of the melted cheese. Quesa in Spanish means cheese and hence the name. A variety of cheese is also available in Mexico and the type of cheese used differs depending on the region. Tlayuda is another traditional corn dish la based variety (also known as Mexican pizza consisting of large dried usually hand-made tortilla greased with pork oil and topped with meat, beans or other mixtures like cheese, cilantro and salsa. It is then folded and put on charcoal for getting a tasty and crunchy Tlayuda. Tlayuda is a specialty of Oxaca state and I tasted it in Oxaca at Faustino’s family comprising his graceful wife and three lovely daughters. The eldest daughter Gaby Roq is keen on visiting to India but feels language will be a hindrance. Most Mexicans even the highly educated, speak only Spanish and their knowledge of English language is insignificant. Surviving in Mexico without a bit of Spanish is an impossible task.
‘Mole’ – the taste of Mexico
Oxaca, the neighbouring state of Chiapas is also famous for another widely acclaimed dish called “mole” considered as the most inventive dish of the state. Mole means the varied sauce used in Mexican cuisine and the dishes prepared using this sauce. The dish is not confined to Oxaca but has become pan-Mexican. It is the national dish of Mexico and is associated mostly with celebrations. This mole sauce comes in seven varieties and it is widely available in most markets as preparing it traditionally is extremely laborious and time consuming. This sauce is not eaten alone but is served over either with turkey, chicken, pork or beef. Mole Poblobo and mole negro (black) is said to be the most popular ones. My first brush with mole was at the house of Manuel in Oaxaca where I was served the mole chicken and again at Tila where I tasted mole served with Turkey.
Another unforgettable mouth watering Mexican dish is Birria, a spicy and tasty goat/lamb meat stew served during festivities. This dish owes its origin to Jalisco state but is available in most restaurants. The succulent meat served with piping hot stew is any gourmet’s delight and it leaves a tangible taste in the mouth long after. I tasted this dish in Guadalajara (pronounced as golalahara) the capital city of Jalisco which is also the second largest city of Mexico after Mexico City. My invitee to Mexico Jose Bernal who hails from Gaujalajara, was instrumental in my tasting this dish. Bernal resembles iconic actor Marlon Brando who has given a gripping performance in the classic movie “The Godfather” both in looks and mannerisms. He told me that one has to be careful in choosing the restaurants for tasting authentic Birria as there is the possibility of using other kinds of meat instead of goat or lamb, which will be a disaster.
Fried Chapolines (grasshoppers) of varied sizes are sold in Oaxaca and other cities of Mexico. These are eaten as snacks or as fillings in Tlayudas and other dishes. They also make a powder of Chapulines and dried chillies and Oaxacans mix this powder with mescal (a popular alcoholic drink) squeezed with lemon while enjoying their favourite drink.
Satiating sea food
With its huge coastline, Mexico offers a variety of seafood that can satiate the hunger pangs of foodies. I tasted smoked salmon in a avant-garde restaurant on my way to Chapala, the largest lake of Mexico. I first tasted fish in Chiapas as my brother’s companion priest Fr Mario had brought fish at Salto De Agua. It was larger than our usual pomfret size but stronger and with scales. I cooked it in Indian style (using bafaat powder) both curry and fried variety. There were hilarious moments when I partnered with Hilda, the cook at Salto De Agua as she could not understand a word of English and I Spanish. I also cooked our Mangalorean-type pork and was relished by Fr Mario, who is a Mexican. The only difference is that Mexicans don’t sell pork sold with its fat. The fat is separated and only meat without fat is sold. This separated fat is fried and sold as churra which is used while consuming alcohol or to prepare separate curry. We had specially requested the stall owner to give us 2 kg pork along with the fat, to cook in Mangalorean style.
While the taste of smoked Salmon still lingered I tasted another impressive fish meal just a day before I left Mexico. It was a full plate comprising French fries, salads, squid, shrimp and rice and I was really stunned when I saw the huge plate placed before me contemplating whether I could consume so much food. It was a sumptuous lunch/dinner and I regret not doing justice to the meal.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the famed spicy Mexican cuisine. It is not that the food is spicy in itself. Salsa is provided separately and one has to adjust the spices as per requirement. Salsa is a sauce prepared using tomatos, pepper chillies, onions and other spices. I was fortunate to taste home cooked and street/market stall food as well as dining in some popular restaurants.
I feel each region of Mexico has its own regional specialties and favourites. All it needs is to be armed with the right kind of information and making right choices. Most of all one must be a foodie to enjoy and experiment with food varieties. That I enjoyed by stint with Mexican cuisine is proved from the fact that I have added 2 kgs to my existing weight with a spare tyre around my waist. I am not sure whether I will be able to shed it or not but it surely is a small price to pay as compared to the ecstasy of relishing with gusto one of the favourite cuisines of the world.
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