Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Mexico's Food Fiesta
A Food Fiesta: Mexico’s Smokin’ Cuisine
Mention Mexican food and most of us visualize nachos and salsa, maybe tortillas, and burritos, and the ubiquitous guacamole. But the adventurous culinary tourist who visits Mexico with a desire to try the real food of the country will discover a treasure trove of taste.
It’s a shame that the Tex-Mex invasion has limited our vision. Consider this. Mexico produces fresh fruits and vegetables year round, raises some of the best beef and pork in the world, and, from ports like Veracruz, catches a fine variety of shellfish and seafood. In addition, its centuries’ old traditional cuisine has been infused with flavours from the Spanish conquerors who brought their Moorish influences with them, has gained inspiration from the French Bourbons when they gained the Spanish court and the Chinese who traded spices and herbs in the port cities. Marry that with the indigenous foods cultivated for years by the Aztecs, the Olmecs and the Mayans, and you have a food culture that not only has a rich history, but is complex, layered and surprisingly varied.
Add to this the fact that 360,900 Canadians visited Mexico last year, and you have a compelling motive to learn how to “put a little south in your mouth.”
What follows is a survey of the major food areas of the country, with a description of some of the dishes for which they are well known, along with suggested local restaurants that serve the area’s typical dishes.
The most important area, food wise, in Mexico, is the heartland, the state of Puebla, long known as its gastronomic capital. The colonial town of Puebla,, 60 miles southeast of Mexico City, is the fourth largest city in Mexico, but its historic old quarter is timeless and intimate, more like a village.
The Gastronomic Festival of Puebla, in its fifth year, is the most important national celebration of Mexican cuisine. Food experts and food lovers meet each November to discuss the preservation of the country’s culinary traditions, as well as present competitions between regional cuisines and the nation’s top chefs. Best of all was the four afternoons of dining, the ‘commida’ where each day different states across Mexico would present their best specialties, with local chefs eager to discuss the ingredients and methods that make their cuisine unique.
It was a revelation to me how complex and sophisticated the food was.
Chef Alonso Hernandez is the chef and cooking instructor at Puebla’s elegant boutique hotel, Mesones Sacristia, where guests sleep in the restored spacious rooms of this former convent and can take cooking classes in the kitchens with Alonso, visit the local food markets and really get to know the true Puebla.
In the immaculate kitchen, Alonso held up a handful of black shrivelled objects. “These,” he said reverentially, “are the black gold of Mexican cuisine.”
They were dried chiles, - anchos, mulatos, pasillas, and poblanos and all four kinds are used in the classic version of the intricate and multi-layered mole poblano, the chocolate infused sauce for which Puebla is famous, reputed to have been created by a nun who was trying to make a dish to please a demanding visiting bishop. . It’s not so much a difficult dish as a complex one. This version required thirty five ingredients, including the chiles, garlic, sugar and chocolate.
The taste of mole is an education in Mexican cuisine – first the sweet and smoky taste of the chocolate, followed by the flavours of the spices, then the heat, not intense and not long-lived, but definitely there. Other Poblano specialties include Tinga Chicken, chiles en nogada and a velvety Sopa Poblana with vegetables, poblano chiles and flor de calabaza , or squash blossoms.
Later, in the colourful dining room of the hotel, we sampled huitlacoche, the ‘truffle of Mexico’, a mushroom that grows inside the husks of corn and is considered a Poblano specialty. It has a sweet intense flavour, and when grilled and served with marinated beef, it was delicious. On another evening, we tried the same sweet delicacy made into a mushroom pate in the exotic Las Bodegas di Molino, a restaurant that occupies an ancient flour mill built by the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-sixteenth century.
The Yucatan preserves, perhaps, the most traditional cooking traditions of the indigenous people of Mexico. One of the most famous dishes in cochinita pibil, a spicy dish made from shredded baby pork and a sauce of Seville oranges, pepper, garlic and cumin. Many of the dishes in this area have been flavoured with fruits or citrus, oranges, lemons, or sour limes. For an authentic experience, try Eladio’s, in Merida. This is a small open air restaurant where the locals meet to drink cold beer and snack on botana, small tasty dishes similar to Spanish tapas.
Or try Yaxche Maya Cuisine Restaurant in Playa del Carmen, for Mayan cuisine that includes shrimp in relleno negro, a spicy black sauce traditionally served with turkey. Or Yaxche's version of the chile relleno, a banana pepper stuffed with cochinita pibil.
This is the area of Mexico known for its spices. Dishes like chicolino, shredded baby pork baked in banana leaves with a red pipian sauce and sweets made from dulce de leche, sweet potatoe, pumpkin or coconut are found on most menus. In the capital, Villahermosa, Los Tulipnes is a restaurant typico which serves many of the local traditional dishes, including fish empanadas.
Any fish dish a la Veracruzana means it'll be topped with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers and chilies. Here also, ceviche, fish and seafood cured in lime juice, is a common and deliciously refreshing dish.
Coffee is grown in this state and is usually prepared ‘a la olla’, which means it's laced with sugar and cinnamon and left to simmer in a large pot for hours. The resulting brew is an eye-opener. Mole Oaxaqueno is a sweeter version of the Puebla original because of the addition of bananas.
This part of the country is generally dry and arid, so the cuisine features cured and dried beef, grilled beef, and chile-rubbed cheeses. There is a definite Arabic influence detectable in the spicing of the local dishes. Try a chorizo and cheese fondue. El Tio in Monterey is a typical and excellent restaurant that has been serving Frontera Norte cuisine for over 70 years. Or visit El Gran Pastor for kid goat.
Like Veracruz, mariscos , or seafood dishes are central to the cuisine of the Baja. Lobster tamales, seafood ceviche, and seafood-stuffed chile peppers are all excellent. This area also produces some quite drinkable wines. Try Las Casuelas in Ensenada for their eponymous spicy shrimp
Try any of the spicy tomato dishes, the seafood chowders or pork stuffed with fuit. Karnes en Su Jugo, literally, beef in its juice, is a small cafe on the malecon that serves a Mecian stew with shredded beef, onions, beans and bacon.
So there you have it, a brief and general overview of what to experiment with and where to try the dishes that truly represent Mexican cuisine at its finest. The list is obviously incomplete – the field is vast – but hopefully it will encourage visitors to try something other than the burritos.
And consider a good Mexican beer to accompany your meal. A cold cerveza is the best drink for this kind of food, and Mexican beers are some of the best. Try a Bohemia, a Pacífico, a Negra Modelo, or an Indio for the perfect match for you Mexican feast.
If You Go
Mesones Sacristia, 9 Oriente No. 16, Antiqua Calle de Capuchinas, Centro Historico, Puebla; Canada toll-free: 1-866-818-8342; www.mesones-sacristia.com
Las Bodegas di Molino, Calzada del Bosque No. 12 Molino de San Jose del Puente, Puebla ; tel. 01-222-249-0399; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eladio’s, Calle 59 , Merida; tel. 01-999-923-1087
Yaxche Maya Cuisine Restaurant, Calle 8 entre Avenida 5a y 10, Playa del Carmen; tel. 01-152 -984- 873- 2502; e-Mail email@example.com
Los Tulipanes, Periférico Carlos Pellicer Cámara 511; tel. 01-993-312-9209
El Tio, Aveida Hidalgo 1746, Monterey, Nuevo Leon; tel. 01-528-346-0291
El Gran Pastor. Av. Gonzalitos 702, Monterey, Nuevo Leon; tel. 01-528-333-3340
Las Casuelas, 6 Sangines Blvd., Ensenada; tel. 01-152-617-61044
Karnes en Su Jugo, Av. Del Mar 550, Mazatlan; tel. 01-698-982-1322