November 9, 2006

Mexico: No quiero taco bell!

Ok I was going to do this post last, but I get the hint, you want it now hehe. Well, I am only too happy to oblige. :)

If you have an adventurous palate, you will be rewarded in Mexico. Mexican cuisine is considered by many to be one of the world’s most creative. Here, the kaleidoscope of color that is such a treat to the eyes, can also be found in its dishes. Like it’s culture, Mexico’s food blends the influences of the Old and New Worlds.

I can’t say I had any authentic Mexican cuisine prior to this trip because the food that we associate with Mexico is most likely not traditionally so. For instance, there is no such thing as a hard taco shell 'south of the border'. Also, the dishes are not as spicy as they are made out to be in popular Tex-Mex Cali-Mex or Southwestern restaurants. A quesadilla (from the word queso which means cheese) is a tortilla filled with cheese. That’s it, no chicken, no meat of any kinds are found in authentic quesadillas.

What Mexican food lacks in presentation, it makes up for in bold flavors from unique spices. The basic ingredients are corn, tomatillo, chili, beans, Mexican oregano, chocolate and vanilla. And what is a cuisine without the staple carb? Naturally, for Mexicans, this would be the tortilla which are flat pancakes made of flour (more common for the northerners) or maize (which is more common in Mexico city and the south). Tortillas are usually served alongside most meals as bread would be but they are also rolled, fried, grilled, and baked and transformed into full meals.

Oh and the Mexicans love their salsa! They normally serve a variety of salsas on every table, regardless of what's ordered. The most common are salsa cruda (chopped raw vegetables), salsa verde (green tomatillos, cilantro and chilies), salsa de jitomate (cooked tomato sauce), salsa de chipotle (smoked jalapeno chilies in tomato sauce) and guacamole. They are great for enhancing the flavor of the dishes or giving it a "kick".

Top: Chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros
Bottom: Mole Poblano and Flan

For my first ever Mexican breakfast or Mexican meal for that matter, I asked Katia as we sat in a booth in Vips what she recommends. And without blinking, she answered: Chilaquiles! So that's what I had. Chilaquiles is a favorite breakfast dish of tortilla chips layered with crumbled cheese, salsa, chicken, and topped with a fried egg. Now, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and I can really consume freakish amounts of food in the morning but this plate was huge! I did, however, enjoy it immensely and almost wiped my plate clean. My chilaquiles had salsa verde which made me an instant fan of tomatillos, a tart vegetable (or is it a fruit?) that is native to Mexico, also called husk tomato because of its papery outer skin or jamberry. They are green in color but should not be confused with green unripe tomatoes.

Another popular breakfast is huevos rancheros which are basically fried eggs on fried tortillas, smothered in a tomato sauce that is usually heated up with some chili. At this point, I am already loving the combination of egg, tortilla and salsa so I enjoy this breakfast just as much. Sometimes, like in the picture above, it may be accompanied by a serving of frijoles or beans which I adore! The Mexicans like to crumble cheese over soups and many of their dishes (as you can see in most of the photos above). Mexican cheese is soft, white cheese very similar to feta but not nearly as salty. What you are most likely to have crumbled on your dishes is cojita or panela.

Since I first read about mole sauce, I made it my mission to try it. A sauce made of chocolate and poured over turkey or chicken?! I was all over it. So when our guide took us to Pyramide Charlie's across from the pyramids of Teotihuacan for "the food that made the Aztecs great", I ordered the Mole Poblano which is Mexico's national dish. Mole sauce is a rich, dark sauce made with chilies, spices, nuts and bitter chocolate. The most famous mole sauce comes from the state of Puebla and thus called mole poblano. It is usally served over chicken or, more traditionally, turkey. So how was it? I really liked the sauce but I would have liked it better if it wasn't too thick. I would definitely order it again, but this time maybe try it in the enchilada form. By the way, did you know we have the Aztecs to thank for chocolate? It was regarded as the drink of the gods, and then brought to Europe from Mexico by the Spaniards.

In Mexico, the most common restaurants are called taquerias where tacos are the main fare. Not to be confused with cantinas which are casual bars that serve tequila with some antojitos (appetizers). El Lago de Los Cisnes (left) located on Prado Norte is one of the bigger taquerias in the city.

This is where I finally had my first taste of authentic tacos and the most amazing cheese appetizer ever! It was like a sheet of rolled paper made entirely of cheese, very thin and sooooo good! Unfortunately I don't know what cheese it's made of and how it's prepared. All I can tell you is that it was wonderful, the perfect crispness and sharpness and that it is called Chicharon de Queso. (thank you for that info, Katia! :) )

Yummy chicharon de queso

chicken, beef and pork tacos: the real deal

We had chicken, pork and beef tacos and prepared them with the condiments and different salsas that were laid out on the table. It was a glorious Mexican feast! I loved experimenting with different combinations: salsa verde with salsa chipotle, guacamole with salsa roja, salsa cruda alone, etc. They all complemented and enhanced the already flavorful meat fillings.

I couldn't resist ordering the Chile en Nogada (chile in walnut sauce) which looked very festive and inviting. It is another national dish usually served during Mexico's independence day, that proudly boasts the flag's colors of green (the stuffed roasted pepper), red (pomegranates) and white (creamy walnut sauce). All these ingredients came together in a very interesting and unique flavor and texture, which some found too sweet for their taste but enjoyed by those who, like me, enjoy sweet/savory dishes.

Chile en Nogada

Another dish unique to Mexico is pozole, a favorite of Katia's. I could have sworn I took a picture but can't seem to find so I guess I didn't. Anyway, pozole is a wonderful soup which originated in the Jalisco region of Mexico. It's main ingredient is hominy, or whole maize kernels, and is cooked with pork, chili (of course!), other spices and served with a garnish tray of fresh ingredients which one can add to the soup according to his taste.

Finally, where would a post about Mexican food be without some mention of mezcal? We were given a free lesson about the agave or maguey plant (from which mezcal and tequila are made) during our trip to Teotihuacan. It was very interesting to learn about the multiple uses of this plant such as how the natives derived paper from it's leaves as well as natural needle and thread.

Aside from the mezcal (can you see the worm?) we also got to sample different types of tequila which were all surprisingly much smoother than the spirit I am familiar with and have a very strong aversion to and which conjures terrible memories of embarassing actions and painful mistakes, not to mention hangovers. The tequila is a type of mezcal but distilled specifically from the blue agave.

this sap from the agave is distilled to make mezcal and tequila

Up Next: Casa de los Azulejos (with more food photos)


katia said...

hi christine...thx for the postings, its nice to be reminded of what a fun time we had and all the things we got to do! sure hope theres a next time one day. BTW, the cheese app. is called chicharon de queso ...a type of melting cheese (Oaxaca or Asadero, we presume)that is toasted on the griddle. And speaking of cheese, also very popular here is Panela, a soft white crumbly mild fresh cheese also sprinkled over in soups, salads, tacos and burritos...mmmm, Im hungry.

Senor Enrique said...

It is so wonderful that you're able to gallivant at these places and try out their various foods. It surely looks like a great trip!

christine said...

Katia, thanks! Now I can update the post with a name for the cheese, at least. I really loved it. I wonder if it's easy to make. Is the panela what was crumbled on most of our dishes instread of cojita? Btw, your CD of photos should be on it's way by today, sorry I took forever to send it!

Hi Eric, yes I do feel very blessed to have gone to so many beautiful places. It's what I love to do, so I'm very grateful for the chance to do it. Now if I could just travel with a new camera like yours! ;_

Katrina said...

YAY! Finally, the food post! ;-)

It all looks delish! I'm especially drawn to the Chile en Nogada. I love when sweet/savory/spicy/crunchy combine in one dish. Speaking of crunchy, that chicharon de quezo looks like something I could eat a bucket of!

Did you ever eat at Manana in Boracay? Everyone says it's the best Mexican resto in the country, and I did enjoy it (they have mole there), but I'm curious if it's truly authentic. I'll be in Bora in a few days and can't wait to EAT!

katia said...

Thanks for the really looking forward to the cheese, I think it could have been any one, both types are used (its just that for some reason when I used to ask what type of cheese was sprinkled on top of my beans, they would say Panela)...I was told they look similar, both white and crumbly however Panela is milder, less salty. Its a fresh cheese, whereas Cojita is a firm cheese, and has apparently been compared to Parmesan.
Congrats on your blog being in the paper, by the way!

joey said...

Hi Nens! I love this post! YUMYUMYUM! I know someone who will love it even husband and "fake" mexican! :) So glad you tried authentic Mexican chow...I never did like tacos in the hard shell...they hurt my mouth! Mole sounds sooo good...but I think my heart will be stolen by the chicharon de queso...madre mia!

christine said...

Katrina, the chicharon de queso was the bomb! I could have eaten a bucket of it myself. Maybe we can figure out a way of cloning it.

Katia, it was definitely panela then! Thank you so much for the additional info! Please jump in anytime and help me make cuento. It would be super appreciated, since a lot of the documenting I'm doing from memory and it WAS a month ago! :) Miss you lots!

Joey, I know you would have loved it! Totally our type. And I did think of C each time I would see a man in a poncho and remember his little predicament at the Ttijuana border hehe.