The Joy and Glory of Mexican Food
I was preparing myself to be surprised by the food of Mexico.
I had a feeling the Americanized– crunchy tacos with ground hamburger, shredded yellow cheese, iceburg lettuce, tomato, cheese sauce, sour cream, tortilla chips and jars of chunky red salsa, etc.–had little to do with the real food from a country with a cultural tradition hundreds of years rich.
My expectations were exceeded. So many things make Mexico a spectacular place to visit–with food nearing the top of the list. It´s no surprise to me that Mexican food was named by UNESCO as an ¨intangible cultural heritage of mankind¨ and a ¨human treasure.¨ Here are a few of my Mexican food highlights…
You haven’t had tacos until you’ve indulged in a Mexican local´s favorite street stand. I was blown away from my first taco fresh from a street vender´s hot stove. A hot, freshly made tortilla filled with tender meat–cooked in its own juices–garnished with fresh cilantro, onion, spicy guac and lime. The meat salty and savory–the lime juice offsetting the saltiness with a bit of acidity–the onions spicy, the tortillas soft and warm, and the cilantro fresh; simple perfection for 6 pesos each (50 cents). The longer I stayed in Mexico the more their availability and variety became evident–nearly every street, all hours of the day or night and in a plethora of flavors–al pastor, barbacoa (sheeps meat slow cooked or smoked in a pit), bistek (beef), cochinita (pit-cooked pork), carne asada (marinated strip steak), shrimp & fish, tinga (any variety of meat marinated in tomato and onion). The quality and taste of a taco stands’ tacos often evident by the quality of the sauces, salsas and condiments provided at the table.
In San Cristobal, my coworkers and I would frequently take guests to our favorite el pastor taco spot. Here, where there is always a crowd–tortillas are made fresh, and your chunks of marinated pork are cut from a schwarma-style split grill, where they are grilled beneath a chunk of dripping pineapple, mere seconds before hitting your plate. I always ordered mine with melted cheese and a cup of horchata (rice milked sweetened and seasoned with cinnamon).
A few guys from Guadalajara took me to a rather hidden street stand in the city, where I was served easily some of the best and most unique tacos I have ever consumed. One was with shredded, marinated duck meat, on a lightly grilled wheat tortilla, with such an overwhelming plethora of toppings, sauces and salsas, I nearly fainted with joy–caramelized onions, guacamole, salsa verde, fresh cilantro, chimichurri, pickled onions, tangy tamarind sauce, spicy peanut salsa, and pico de gallo. The other taco–chunks of grilled rabbit meat. Both amazing–and as is often the case–were perfected with condiments.
While in Sayulita, on the Pacific coast, I nearly survived on fish tacos alone. During the week I was in the cute little fishing/surfing town, I made the rounds at numerous seafood and taco stands– tacos with shrimp, fried fish or grilled marlin; served with crispy slaw, pickled onions and hot sauce. There were days I ate fish tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Next came tortas (a kind of Mexican sandwich) made with a lightly grilled, crispy, fresh, french roll, often soaked first in the juices of its accompanying meat–which can be anything from pork to beef, chicken and fish (and all their body parts), to vegetarian options with eggs, cheese-stuffed chilis, or sautéed peppers and onion, garnished with avocado, tomato, lettice or cabbage, and my personal favorite–pickled jalepeños. Typically priced between 15 and 25 pesos ($1.25-2.05). Always fast, cheap, delicious–and again found frequently.
In Valladolid I ate a crispy torta filled with impossibly tender lechon (suckling pig), garnished with cilantro and pickled onions. In Guanajuato I ate a glorious breakfast torta with a soft bun, eggs and chilli relleno (cheese stuffed chili, lightly battered and fried), made perfect with avocado and jalapeños. In Guadalajara, I enjoyed the regional specialty–tortas ahogados- with tender, fatty pork, soaked in a tomato-chili sauce. Each one, inspiring and delicious.
Quesadillas, Huaraches, Gorditas &
For whatever reason, quasadillas never appealed to me…until Mexico. Though I´m not sure why–what´s not to like about a fresh handmade tortilla filled with ooey-gooey, melted Oaxaca cheese, veggies such as sautéed mushrooms and onions, flor de calabaza, sautéed peppers and/or any variety of meat, grilled to perfection. While in Mexico City, I made one quesadilla stand near my Metro station into a daily stop. I could have a healthy, hot and satisfying lunch of handmade tortillas made from blue corn and stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, spinach, and nopales (boiled cactus leaves–a vegetable resembling slimy green beans with a mild, slightly tangy flavor), for US$1.25. Add a strawberry, guava, banana licuado (fruit mixed with milk or fresh squeezed orange juice) for another dollar, and I was good to go.
I will undoubtably be making them a staple in my diet when I return home.
The first enchiladas I ate in Mexico were made by Sara, a coworker at the hostel I worked at in Chiapas. She made me them, on request, for my last dinner before leaving. She filled lightly heated flour tortillas with perfectly, pressure-cooked chicken, then soaked them in a salsa made from tomatillos, onions and garlic, and garnished with cream, avocado and shredded lettuce. My other work buddy made tasty guava mojitos to wash them down. Amazing food and even better company made this a perfect meal, and my favorite enchiladas ever.
Some of my favorites include–the mole negro enchiladas of Puebla; enchiladas verde at a restaurant specializing in enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo: and mole roja at a hole in the wall spot in Mexico City. I´ll definitely be making them myself one of these days.
Soup is a surprisingly popular Mexican meal—hearty, with meat and/or veggies. My particular favorite Mexican soup, Pozole–common in District federal, and Jalisco–is a simple blend of shredded chicken or pork, and hominy (a weird kind of treated corn), in a basic broth, garnished with chili, oregano, lettice, and sometimes radishes and crushed tortillas or tostadas. Comforting, healthy and filling.
One hungover Sunday, my lovely coworker Sara made her family version of tortilla soup–a spicy blend of shredded chicken, tomatoes, chipoltle, onions: with avocado, cilantro, lime and crushed tortilla chips as the all-important garnishes. The kind of meal that´ll warm you to the core.
Other common soups include in them a variety of veggies and meat–still on the bone. While in Guadalajara I tried Birria–a savory, brothy stew made from chilis and spices, often used in conjunction (or for dipping) with tacos made with mutton.
This one got its own blog post. See here.
Fruits and Fresh Juices
I´ll be a sad puppy when the day comes when I can´t walk out my front door and buy freshly sliced mangos, strawberries or melon; or fresh squeezed orange juice for around a dollar; or a massive variety of fresh fruit from the markets. I´m not sure if Latin Americans know how lucky they are to have widespread, inexpensive access to such deliciously ripe fruits. I´ve certainly been eating my fill. The typical Mexican will top their fruit (and pretty much anything else) with chili powder or chamoy–a strange paste made from pickled fruit. I never quite caught on to this. You can head to nearly any market and find a stand specializing in smoothies, fruit salads and fresh juices.
My first night in Mexico, I decided to eat for dinner the first thing I found from a random street stand for dinner. Lucky for me it was a marquesita stand. Marquesitas can best be described as a crunchy crepe–filled with any number of yummy stuff from from my favorite–Nutella–to fruit, cajeta (caramel made from goats milk), dulce de leche, and often garnished with shredded Edam cheese (I opt out of this bit). These stands are most often found in the Yucatan and during celebrations. I love the mixture of crunchy thin cookie filled with melted Nutella and banana chunks.
As an ice cream lover, upon entering Mexico, I realized quickly that I would need to control my habit in order to prevent major weight gain. More frequent than Starbucks in America–the chain Michoacana, takes every chance to tempt me with their paletas–essentially what Americans would call a large popsickle or ice cream bar–in a huge variety of flavors: fruity, creamy, coffee, chocolate, nutty. They are an addicting dessert for just 10 or 15 pesos (83 cents to $1.24). There were weeks where I´d get one a day. Luckily they are a controlled portion and many kinds are made with just fruit, water and sugar.
In most parts of Mexico, you can find men pulling along a cart of homemade ice cream or nieve–sorbet. This treat is often even cheaper than paletas and just as tasty. My most memorable ice cream in Mexico was a homemade coconut ice cream, bought after a long day at the beach–thick, creamy, cocounutty. Quite possibly the best ice cream I´ve ever had.