The place of origin of tamales is disputed amongst many countries, however it is true that corn is from Mexico and it was Mexicans who taught the world how to cook it and its many uses which makes one assume that tamales were probably originated in this country. Even the name comes from the náhuatl tamalli, which means wrapped.
This dish is originally indigenous, prepared with corn dough (masa) with a filling and wrapped with corn, banana, maguey or avocado leaves depending greatly from the region they come from. Most tamales are steamed to cook. Tamales are popular for festivities, christmas posadas, day of the dead ofrendas, Candlemas day or birthdays.
Chiapas has the greatest variety of tamales and there have been found mayan hieroglyphs of tamales and traces of tamales in tombs highlighting the importance of this dish for the “Chiapanecos” since prehispanic times. Such is the variety of tamales in Chiapas that even how the masa is prepared and used changes the name of a tamal.
As with many dishes in Mexico, the effort of making tamales is proportional to their deliciousness. And learning the fine art of tamal-making certainly gives one a different appreciation for this exquisite dish.
Corn masa is a complex matter that requires knowledge, practice and skill. Masa could easily be one of the foundations for Mexican cuisine. In order to make it, one must use nixtamal, for the fresh or dried corn is no good for tortillas. Nor tamales nor any dish that requires masa for that matter.
The preparation of nixtamal involves a simple process but one that needs to be done properly. The nixtamalization includes soaking the corn kernels and then cooking then in an alkaline solution (of water with lime or ash) and allowed to soak for over 12 hours. During this cooking, corn changes its chemical and molecular structure, making it much easier to peel and grind it in a metate or a mill. And in this way masa can then be made. Though it is important to say that with such a diverse range of dishes, the masa needed will most likely be different from one to the next.
Surrounded by concrete, Joyo Mayyu is said to be the lung of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Opening before sunrise, and together with the park Caña Hueca, it gives early risers a space to exercise and a free space for families to gather.
Joyyo Mayu, “flower of May” in Zoque, has two natural waterholes and a lake that are home to fish off the region; it is also full of endemic old trees of Zapote, Matilisguates y Mango and other smaller plants of the region providing shade and refuge to anyone who wishes to escape the heat of the Chiapas capital city.
Nowadays people can visit the air park, paddle in boats in the lake, canoodle under the giant trees or simply stroll and breathe some fresh air.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.