La reja

In such a big country is no wonder that each place has its unique and folkloric customs. In the south of Mexico lies a little town, Comitan de Dominguez, where on every birthday a reja de papel picado, a fence made of tissue paper with cut out shapes, is placed on the bedroom door of any who have a birthday. As the birthday person it is wakes up to the singing of Las Mañanitas – the mexican much better version of “Happy birthday” song – and comes out of their room they must tear the reja apart. The reja is made of 9 pieces of papel picado representing each of the months one spent in the womb; and as one crosses the reja, it is representing a new birth to life.

Of course in a restaurant as there are no bedroom doors, they make do with a couple of sticks to place the reja for birthdays.

El árbol de los deseos

In many hectares of endemic forest there is a garden, and in that garden a magical tree: el árbol de los deseos. What makes it special is its ability to make the wishes that are hung there come true. The only requisite is to hang your wish with hope and trust that the tree will make it happen. And as it is, many if them have already come true, many more are on the making and when wishes come true, the wish’s rightful owner must go back and take it off.

From generation to generation

In Nahuatl, mulli or molle, in english, sauce. This sauce is possibly the most iconic of the sauces of Mexico; though not everyones cup of tea or chocolate in its case. The complex and rich taste of mole is strong and divisive, either it is loved or hated; it can be said that its taste can be classified as “acquired”. Regardless, it is a popular sauce in many parts of central and south of Mexico and has gained popularity worldwide as it is part of Mexico’s culinary and cultural identity.

There are many legends about the origins of the iconic dish called Mole. Some say it was created by the cook fray Pascual in the convent of Santa Rosa to receive the visit of the viceroy of the New Spain. The cook accidentally mixed all ingredients when trying to put some order in the kitchen. Another story says that a nun, in the same convent, ground in a metate many different chillies and condiments to create a dish for a celebration; the result, something so delicious that even on its own in a tortilla was delicious. But the most commonly told story is a mix of those stories, saying that a bishop was visiting a convent. Due to bad weather, the nuns couldn’t go to the market and had to make do with what they had mixing whatever they could find in their pantry together. The nuns then ground all ingredients in a metate to make a sauce. The result we now know as mole.

There are different kinds of mole. The most commonly known is the Poblano – named after Puebla, the city where mole originally comes from; moles from the south of Mexico like Oaxaca and Chiapas are much darker and thicker as they have more chocolate and nuts than chillies, therefore is sweeter. There are other varieties and colours: green mole, black, yellow red mole. However, Mexican households have their own family recipe that is passed down from generation to generation.

Whatever the chosen recipe, making mole from scratch takes some serious dedication, a time-consuming labor of love, effort, and ingredients, sometimes 30 ingredients, sometimes even 100.

Whatever the type or way of making mole, it is something reserved for special occasions and it is always the family recipe that is preferred.

Local beliefs

The “mal de ojo”, the evil eye, might well be a superstition or a crazy belief, but in this corner of the earth it is quite believed in.

It is said that a baby has been ojeado (eyed) when they are fussy and cannot seem to calm down; when trying to put babies to sleep, they wake once asleep and are unable to stay asleep for long as they are jittery and uneasy. The popular belief says this is so because the “mal de ojo pica”, it itches and so the baby is unable to settle.

Babies get eyed by people who like them and dont hold them or touch them. And if the person has a “hot look”, the affliction is worse.

To avoid the evil eye the baby must wear amber, either in a necklace or bracelet. An alternative is to wear a red ribbon. Or sometimes, people in grocery stores might rub saliva on your babies ears to avert passing the misfortune of the evil eye.

If a baby has already been eyed, the sure remedy is to rub a raw egg on its shell all around the babies body. For a better result, accompany the egg with rue, or basil if unable to find rue, and alcohol. Also, for optimum result, have someone with “hot look” to pass the egg through the baby’s body. Once the egg has been “passed” through the baby, it should be left on the rue (or basil) for a while and later cracked in a glass of water. One knows that there is “ojo” if the yolk of the egg has white dots that resemble eyes.

Family heritage

Along with corn and beans, chillies form the basic gastronomic trilogy that is key in Mexican cuisine. Chillies are sometimes used in recipes to add spice, sometimes texture and always flavour. Such is our love for chillies in Mexican kitchens that many fresh chillies have an equivalent dried version equally tasty.

Chile Ancho is known as Chile Color, Chile Colorado, Chile Ancho Chino, Chile Pasilla Rojo depending on the region in Mexico. In its fresh form it is a type of Poblano pepper that once it ripens it turns into a red colour. To make Chile Ancho, the Poblano peppers are left to rippen in the plant until they are red in colour; they are then sun dried. The texture of te skin of this chillie is soft, bright and corrugated; its flavour fruity and its spice is mild.

Chile Mulato is made also from Poblano peppers but a darker variety – one that is hardly ever sold fresh as farmers prefer to dry it and sell it as Chile Mulato. When its dried, the color is dark brown with a hint of red. The difference between Chile Ancho and Chile Mulato is a couple of genes that make them mature into their distinctive colours – though when in doubt, it is Chile Mulato the darker lf the too.

Chile Pasilla gets its name due to its dark and wrinkled skin akin to a prune or raisin; but it is also known as “Chile Mixe” y “Chile Negro”. When this chilli is fresh, it is Chile Chilaca which comes from the north of Mexico. Chile Pasilla is mild in spice but with plenty of flavour, almost fruity and smoky at the same time. Given its importance in many dishes, its nutricios content and healing powers, the Chile Pasilla is part of Mexico’s basic basket of goods for families.

Now you might be wondering, so why these three chillies are important. While they are used in many dishes, they blend their flavours to create the iconic dish mole the family’s own recipe variation.

Night butterfly caterpillar

Mexican indigenous consume more than 200 insect species die to their high nutritional contents (somewhere between 10 – 77% of protein depending on the species). Amongst most of the Tzetzal speaking towns, the Arsenura Armida, commonly known as zats or tsats, is enjoyed between June and August when it is easiest to pick. The word zats or tsats means worms in Tzotzil even though it is really a caterpillar for the nocturnal butterfly.

The worms are found in rubber trees mainly in Chiapas in the municipalities of Chilón, Ocosingo, Huitiupan, Simojovel and Yajalón. They are cleaned, ie. the bowels removed, and cooked in salty water for at least an hour. Some deep fry it and add salt, lime and chilli. The sats are then enjoyed as a snack or in a taco and sometimes bought in the street markets. Maybe one day I will venture to try them…

Exoticly delicious

In Mexico, many of the endemic varieties of fruit are exotic to others. Such is the case of the papausa, said to be hard to find, impossible to forget. Found only in the south of Mexico and central America, between August and September, you never know if you will get a white or a pink fruit.

It is said that Aztecs used fruits to cure diseases and thus why they also left them in their ofrendas. Papausas are said to have medicinal properties to both humans and nature. Its high content of Vitamin C and antioxidants help reduce cardiovascular and cardiac diseases. It also helps reduce the risk of cancer, especially colon and breast cancer; helping also with its antiviral and antibacterial properties. In nature, this tree helps the recuperation of eroded soils as they can grow with little soil and water. Maybe the civilisations of old included this exotic fruit in their ofrendas too.

Mostly white

Veracruz was one of the first municipality to be established after the Spanish conquest. As with all of Mexico, its customs are rooted in the intermarrying of cultures: the Spanish, the African culture, the “half bloods” and the indigenous. Specifically in Veracruz, there is the additional mix of Caribbean influence due to the marine commerce during the Colonization; especially in the music.

To the mix of instruments and tunes, nowadays, traditional dancing is performed using an outfit that for women is inspired in the union of three “huastecas”: potosina, tamaulipeca and veracruzana; and for men, wearing the typical “guayabera”. The outfit is easily identified as from Veracruz for the dominance of the colour white.

It is not uncommon to see performers in restaurants often dancing “zapateado” and making bows with their feet during the spectacle.

For celebration or for love?

It is said that when the Mexican Independence finished, the nuns of the Convent of Santa Monica prepared a dish for the celebration banquet of Agustin de Iturbide that would last for centuries to come. Others contend that the dishes origins was the product of the love of three damsels waiting their three respective soldiers returning from the battles of independence who jointly created this dish for their return. Whatever the true origins of this dish, the fact is that during September, the patriotic month, many Mexican tables see the chefs colourful works of art called: chiles en nogada.

This dish consists of poblano peppers filled with a mixture containing mince meat, fruits, and spices topped with a walnut-based cream sauce know as nogada, pomegranate seeds and parsley. The colours of the dish make it representative of Mexico with the green of the pepper and parsley, the white of the sauce and the red of the pomegranate. Being such a laborious dish, anyone who is able to taste it homemade is sure to be grateful for their luck.