Mexico’s cuisine has a very long tradition and an immense variety of dishes influenced by history and its geographical situation.
The very basic ingredients all over the country are corn, beans and chili peppers in all their varieties. There are many vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals that can only be found in traditional dishes in the country. Because of that mosaic of flavors and colors Mexican cuisine has been declared by UNESCO as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.
Although all Mexicans are more or less familiar with their specialties, there are dishes that are almost exclusive to one of the 31 federal states and can only be found there.
I can also say that there are the brave Mexicans, who eat almost everything and are used to eating very spicy or very hot food. There is also the not so brave kind… I have to confess that I belong to the second one because I don’t like chilies and I’m not used to eating very typical food.
In my last trip to Mexico I started the gourmet tour in a very well known restaurant called “El Cardenal” in the south of Mexico City. The cardenal, in English cardinal, is a red bird found in North and South America, and just to remind some of my European readers, Mexico is in North America, neither in Central nor “Middle” nor South America, and this last one is not to be confused with Latin America.
We were celebrating three birthdays on the same day and had a very large table. The friendly waiters shared their seasonal specialties and we ordered some starters and a small tequila shot with lemon slices and salt.
I was very excited to have my first Mexican dinner and looked expectantly to the plates that they were serving. They brought some guacamole, the very typical one only with creamy avocados, coriander, lemon juice and green chili peppers. This type of guacamole is usually used as a sauce for either quesadillas or chicharrón, which is pork rinds fried till it gets golden and crusty. Not the best dish for a cholesterol reduced diet 😉 And just to clarify the term quesadillas, those are corn tortillas filled with cheese. If they are hand made and the dough is a little bit thicker they can be filled with potatoes, or squash blossoms (flor de calabaza).
I knew these two starters and enjoyed them with white cheese and warm corn tortillas. Following these two, they brought two nicely decorated stoneware plates with some white stuff with herbs. I didn’t know what it was, but got a little bit suspicious asking my sister what it was. “Mmmm… escamoles”, was her answer rolling her tortilla ready to serve herself a big portion. I started unwinding my Mexican memory and remembered what it really was, saying aloud: “ Oh, my goodness. Those are ants’ eggs! I think I’ll pass!” Some of the guests were delighted and attacked the plate with lots of tortillas while I watched thinking, well, it’s like insect caviar. However, I was a coward and didn’t try them.
The next dare was served in another stoneware dish called cazuela. In this case I had no doubt, they were what they looked like: worms! They served the specialty of the months of May and June in Central Mexico, the worm that only grows in the agave plant or maguey. They are called Maguey worms. One of the agave plants, the agave tequilana form the Tequila region in Mexico is used to produce tequila.
I could sit next to the escamoles and continue eating my tortilla with guacamole. However, the sight of this dish, was too much to bear for me, so I asked the Maguey worm fans to take them to their side of the table. I was saying that I’m a “bad” Mexican because I don’t like exotic things and I really admired our Russian guests that night who really tried and even liked the worms… not with vodka, but with tequila.
There were a lot of spicy dishes to my right and left, but as I had just arrived to Mexico, I ordered a medium beef steak with some beans and it was delicious. For dessert we had some tequila strawberries and guanabana sherbet. Guanabana is a fruit that tastes as a combination of strawberry and pineapple, with some coconut and banana. Simply refreshing and delicious!
My next culinary highlight was in Acapulco in the Mexican Pacific Coast. The day we got there we were served a delicious white fish steak in an Aztec marinade… This marinade is prepared with achiote (Bixa orellana) which is a small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. The name derives from the Nahuatl word ( language spoken by the aztects) for the shrub, āchiotl.
Achiote can be found in the market or supermarket as a paste that is usually diluted in vinegar and some orange juice. It is a delicious marinade for fish, pork or white meat.
Another traditional recipe we had in Acapulco was “Pescado a la veracruzana” very similar to the “Pescado a la vizcaína”. It’s not scientifically proven ;-), but I dare to say that the style “ a la veracruzana” is quite hot and includes a lot of chiles of the chilaca sort. If you want to know more about chile you can read here http://www.eatmorechiles.com/chilaca.html
This dish was also delicious though it left my lips and tongue burning!
On our small boat trip surrounding the Acapulco bay we were served ceviche, or in other countries cebiche, made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chili peppers. Additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and coriander, may also be added.
I was mentioning that the Mexican cuisine was influenced by its history. Before the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, there were no big animals such as cows, pigs, horses, etc. and therefore the native cultures covered their protein intake with insects, smaller animals and lots of fish and seafood. Nowadays we can also eat a lot of seafood in modern combinations such as the carpaccio of almeja (clam or mussel) that we had on our second day. The clam meat was very thinly sliced seasoned with a sweet, sour and spicy balsamico vinaigrette. Simply marvelous!
Back in the city… Two other excellent restaurants in Mexico City are “El Bajío” which can be found in different locations and where they don’t use chemical additives, such as artificial chicken broth, to their dishes. I had a mole enchilada, being mole one of the most traditional Mexican dishes with fried beans puree and rice cooked with tomatoes. The word “mole” is also from the Nahuatl and it simply means sauce. We can find many different types of mole and in many colors according to the main ingredients. One of the best known, even out of Mexico, is a brown or reddish brown thick sauce that contains chocolate as a main ingredient. If we go back in history, one of the versions says that the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word xocolatl, meaning “bitter water”. Xocolatl was a bitter beverage made from the cacao beans, not the creamy and sweet paste we know as chocolate. Other ingredients for mole are nuts, such as peanuts, almonds, and many spices such as cinnamon without forgetting the different types of dried chilies. For more on mole, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mole_(sauce)
If you cannot visit one of the very extense Mexican coasts you can go and eat or dine in the fish restaurant “ Los Arcos” in the Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City. I had the best fish taco ever! It was fish “al pastor” or shepherd’s style. Its like the Greek gyros or turkish döner. You’d be disappointed if it weren’t spicy. So, yes, it was spicy, but not very hot. Tacos al pastor are usually of pork meat marinated with “adobo” which includes a red dry type of chili peppers called chile ancho. They serve it in corn tortillas with pineapple dices, raw onions and coriander. In this case instead of pork they used fish and it was a complete success.
I also had the best shrimps ever! They were coated in flour, eggs and coconut, fried and served with a freshly made mango sauce. My father had a fish stuffed with shrimps in a hummer sauce.
I could tell you for hours about Mexican food, its origins, exotic ingredients and family recipes such as the chicken in cilantro sauce or the white fish in green sauce…and… and… and… as you may have noticed, Mexican food is not chili con carne, nor nachos nor tortilla chips with sweet tomato sauce, nor any kind of salad with kidney beans, red paprika, sweet corn or yellow cheese…
Frankly speaking, after describing all these dishes I got hungry and will go to the kitchen to serve dinner.
Buen provecho! Guten Appetit! Bon appétit! Buon appetito!