travelog 39

Delicacies Mexican Style

Cucumbers piled up in pyramids and mountains of red radishes lead us into temptation. Mangos, guayabas, and pineapples come from the southern parts of the country. Every stall sells fresh cilantro. Attractively stacked up fruits and vegetables are picked ripe and fresh and fill the whole market with their fragrance. At the next stall you can stock up on all the different kinds of dried chiles. Butcher shops are lined up all in a row, with entire cow and pork heads on display. Beef halves dangle from the wall and the butcher cuts the desired part from huge pieces of meat. The flies celebrate Christmas every day! Whole fish which could feed a family of ten, fish fillets, clams, and other seafood wait for buyers. A bit farther one finds basketry and pottery. At a nearby stall you can also buy jeans, shirts, and tennis shoes. Or a typical Mexican hat made from palm leaves or rice grass at the Sombrerería. In this whole maze of stalls and people, little children scurry around to sell homemade Tamales or sweet breads to the innocent tourist. Most of the times we can't resist. Not because we're hungry, no, it's because the children are so cute and beam happily when we buy something for a few pesos. A bloody cow head without its skin covering is pushed on a trolley behind the customer to the next taxi cab. In the dairy department the offer of regional, fresh whole cheese, ricotta in big buckets, butter and lard is tempting. Everywhere you can taste a sample before you decide whether to buy or not. Next to the restroom, a wizened old woman sells partly fresh, partly dried medicinal herbs and other folk medicine.

The "Mercado Publico" is a place where you can hang around for hours. You can best observe the bustling activity from a seat at the long counter of one of the food stalls which sell tacos, quesadillas, soups and stews. The señoras highly recommend their dishes in a high voice, and hungry customers are attracted with "muy sabroso" (=very tasty), "pasen le" (=come in!) or "que le damos a comer" (=what can we serve you for lunch?).

Every corner of Mexico has different culinary specialties to offer. The real flour tortillas, prepared with butter or lard, are available only in the north. In the poorer south, which certainly begins already far north, the people eat corn torillas which are freshly prepared several times a day. Carne machaca is another typical speciality of the north. This dried, shredded meat is usually beef (there is a rumour that cheap donkey meat is added), sometimes venison, the latter a delicacy. For households without a refrigerator, and there are many of those in Mexico, it's perfect because it's suitable for storage without refrigeration for a long time. It's sometimes prepared with scrambled eggs or roasted crisp and brown with onions, garlic, tomatoes and served in tacos. Sonora and Chihuahua are big meat producers, the people big meat-eaters. For the weekend the extended family gathers on the Rancho or drives to the beach where thin and huge escalopes of beef are grilled on a little fire. The coast of Sinaloa is famous for Pescado zarandeado. A whole fish, preferably Huachinango (Red Snapper), is cut open sideways, spread flat, marinated with a spicy mixture of herbs, and roasted on the bbq. The fish is then served with the inevitable tortillas and a hot green tomatillo salsa. Durango has many Mennonite colonies who produce the famous Queso mennonito. The astonishing thing for us Europeans - who are accustomed to a huge variety of cheese and sausage - is that the selection of cheese is limited to two or three varieties. It's mostly useless to look for sausages, although the Spanish, the Mexicans' European ancestors, produce such delicious sausages. Sweets made of almonds are another speciality. In general, the Mexicans are a sweet people. Bakeries have a wide selection of sweet breads, much too dry for our taste, but sometimes you can find delicacies such as jelly doughnuts, cream slices or other little pieces with filling.

The best, fastest, and cheapest way to eat in Mexico are the many roadside food stalls with their delicious dishes. Tacos are the most well known. At strategically important places like bus-stops Taco stalls sometimes even have some chairs and a little table. At those stalls the keyword is normally: "de maiz o de harina ?". If you've once decided between flour or corn tortillas, the Tacos are filled with varying ingredients: carne asada is especially popular in Sonora; pork or beef, cooked in a full-flavoured broth (if you make enquiries you will probably find out that it was a stew of boiled cow head = birria); breaded fish fillets; entrails. You choose between onions, cabbage, lime wedges, hot chiles, guacamole, and of course different spicy salsas. Of course there are many more things to make from tortillas and all that is available too: Quesadillas are tortillas filled with cheese and fried on the Comal until the cheese is melted. Or the tortillas are spread with a mixture of potatoes and meat and fried in oil (= Chimichangas). Served with guacamole, mayonnaise, and hot salsa, shredded cabbage and onions, this is probably the best lunch we ever had in Mexico.

Of course all of us have already heard (or read) about how dangerous it is to eat on the roadside or in the market at a food stall, for instance in Mexico. Unhygienic, without water, flies, no refrigerator, etc. In our opinion this is, however, the safest way to protect oneself against Moctezumas revenge. In restaurants, salsas are moved between the refrigerator and the customer. What you don't use today will be put back in the fridge, or worse, the freezer. After all, the tourists will never figure it out because they certainly expect to develop an upset stomach and strong diarrhea. The taco stalls, however, work on another basis: the goods are fresh and as long as there is something to eat, you will get it. Those stalls are small one-woman, one-man, or family businesses which only prepare a certain quantity of food. If the tortillas are all used up, they send the employee around the corner to the nearest Tortillería. If the meat or the clams are used up, however, the place closes for the day and the owners leave. Either to enjoy the rest of the day or, more likely, to go about their second business. Of course you also have to exercise caution with those taco stalls. Choose only the most popular and season with enough hot salsa and fresh onions to not give any chance to any little monsters possibly lurking in the food - this helps at least psychologically even if the little creatures don't give a damn about the spicy chiles. After you hear all the stories of tourists who had dinner only at restaurants (of course only the recommended and good, thus expensive, ones) in order to avoid poor digestion, and ended up with an upset stomach or worse, our way of preventing it seems to be more logical, don't you agree?

Another subject is the water. Drinking water in Mexico is Agua Purificada (usually with reverse osmosis filtered water - absolutely safe to life and limb). Everybody has to pay for this drinking water. It is quite expensive in relation to one's earnings, even in other countries. For a Garrafón (= bottle with 5 gallons of purified drinking water) they charge about $1, which, when compared to Mexican wages, is synonymous with about 10 Franks for the Swiss, 12 Marks for the German and $7 for an American. There are many people who are stupid enough to drink river water or the village water from the faucet. Water is often stored in big earthen jars, as well, to keep it cool. This commonly leads to cholera outbreaks or dengue fever, which are warned against all over Mexico. For example the following is printed on milk cartons: "¡¡Llegaron las lluvias, pero tambien puede llegar el Dengue !! Limpia tu casa de cacharros y evita depositos de agua estancada" (= The rain has arrived, but so could dengue fever! Get rid of earthen jars and avoid stagnant water). Most of the normal water systems are infested with Coli bacteria, thus it is best avoided. In some cities, however, the water from the faucet is purified drinking water. These are the municipalities which put up building-high notices asking people not to waste this precious water by washing their cars or cleaning the driveway. Slogan: "...because, una gota es una gota" (= a drop (of water) is a drop and nothing less)! We are impressed.

Bus-stops, traffic lights, and street corners in general are very popular places for street vendors. Here you can buy (practically) everything you need during the day: newspapers, sweets, chips, cigarettes, orange juice in plastic cups, whole coconuts with a straw, strawberries, and grapes from Chile. Fruits are arranged decoratively and sold in plastic cups. Sprinkle it with lime juice and season it with cayenne pepper or hot salsa, and the snack is ready. As soon as the light turns red the street vendors pounce at the (poor) car drivers: 4 melons in a big bag, a bag of oranges, or even 2 pounds of prawns out of a cooler - mostly for outrageously excessive prices, of course. If two pounds of oranges go for 2 pesos in the supermarket, the street vendor tries to palm you off with the same two pounds for 5 pesos. One has to be a capable sales.

Names for restaurants, signs, or product advertising is another interesting subject of study. Many restaurants are named "Drive Inn", but don't offer a place to spend the night at all - what one would normally derive from the word "Inn". Somebody simply changed an English expression into a Latin-American one. In the hinterlands of Sinaloa we even saw a Japanese food stall: "Shushi, comida japonesa". In the bakery the well-known "brownies" are sold as "braunis", the English word spelled as it sounds in Spanish. In the supermarket you can buy glasses which Non-Mexicans use for a "Highball". Here in Mexico they are sold as "Hai-Boll". If a Mexican wants to advertise on the sign of his Pizzeria that his dishes are easily digestible, it's quite possible that he writes "ligth" (and not "light") behind every dish - and serves a combination of pizza, spaghetti, and salad. Sometimes a good portion of reasoning and intuition is necessary to find out the meaning behind something.

If you visit beaches in tourist areas of Mexico, you will meet another pedlar: it's the fish vendor who offers you - caught of course today, possibly only half an hour ago - fish, clams, prawns, or even spiny lobsters out of his cooler. Everything for a good price, as he assures you (and thinks to himself that those tourists certainly have no idea about the local prices). Two pounds of scallops go for 160 pesos. We haggle over the price for a few minutes and refuse to buy them. Suddenly the nice fellow offers us the same two pounds for all of 100 pesos. Such events teach you the most!

Our most interesting culinary experiences in Mexico take place when we visit new friends on their Ranchos. We told you something about two Ranchos in our last travel report. Here you always have the opportunity to peer over the Señora's shoulder, ask her for tips, or let her show you some techniques and practice the newly learned stuff at the same time. Without exception all the women are very happy once they recognize true respect for their work, especially if they can show off some of their skills. That's how we learned to prepare tasty Caldos (soups - the poor chicken in it was sent to the happy hunting-grounds the same morning by our host), huge paperthin Sobaqueras (a special tortilla), or Bayusa (boiled century plant flowers, see also our recipe here).

Within the last half year we have become accustomed to the very different culinary scene in Mexico - and we highly appreciate it.

What will it be like for us when we return to our native Switzerland? Will it not be very strange to pay $2 for one mango instead of $0.80 per kg (2 pounds)? How will we find our way through the huge European selection of cheese, bread, and sausage? In Europe we will certainly miss the phenomenal selection of wonderful tropical fruits, the freshly caught fish, and the (still) unspoilt meat!

Culinarily speaking, Mexico is (thank God! still) a land with a high quality of life. The selection does not come anywhere near that of Europe or the USA, but is also not (yet) corrupted by materialistic interests or the bells and whistles apparent in these other markets. No cattle rancher would even think about feeding his poor animals the ground-up remains of other animals in order to increase his profits. Practically no fruit producer picks his fruit before it's ripe or treats it radioactively to make it look fresh for a longer period of time (and rot internally - like often in the USA). No authority (like the European Union) has enacted regulations which dictate the length or curvature of a banana.

May it stay like that for a long time! Viva México !

May 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen