The black panther

There are actually two species that are referred to as black panthers: black jaguars and black leopards. If they didn’t live so far apart they would be confused with each other. In fact the only easy difference is that jaguars, in their yellow colour, have spotty spots. Jaguars have black dots inside some of their spots (rosettes), whereas leopards don’t. However, this “easy” difference becomes quite hard to see when these cats are melanistic, that is, a black coat or entirely black. Whilst the spots are still visible, distance makes them harder to distinguish.

About six percent of jaguars will be all black. In the same way, there are also jaguars that are all white or albino jaguars. Both black and white jaguars are exactly like all other jaguars in every other way; they are just a different color.

There is a big need for conservation of these rare black cats. They need to be taken seriously as they are at a high risk of becoming extinct with an estimated population of only around 600 worldwide.

Royal village of Chiapa

At 2100 meters above sea level, and one hour from the capital city of the state of Chiapas, lies San Cristobal de las Casas. This iconic Mexican city is seated at the center of an ancestral Mayan region hence why there is a high density of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples. The city is even still known by its indigenous Tzotzil name, Jovel.

San Cristóbal de las Casas was first established as a settlement in 1528 by the Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, who named it Villarreal de Chiapa. The city still preserves its stunning and unique colonial architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and roofs covered in red clay tiles, pedestrian only streets, bright and colourful houses, and its singular 16th century baroque cathedral which overlooks the main square in the centre of town. This cathedral has an unique façade, broad mishmash of architectural styles, and has become a symbol of this city and the state of Chiapas. Anyone who has grown up in this corner of the world will know they are home at this the yellow and red sight.

Sharing with the natives

The tropical fruit of the Annona muricata, the “guanabana”, is an almost miraculous fruit that has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. First by the indigenous and now by everyone who knows the extent of its powers. Starting by the great source of vitamin C, iron, magnesium and potassium; to its aid against malignant cells of 12 types of cancer (including colon, breast, prostate and lung), relieving hemorroide pain, prevention against osteoporosis and insomnia. The seeds can be turned into powder to be used as insect repellent.

Guanabanas are native in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia and thus it is known by various names like graviola, guanábano, catuche, catoche, anona de México, anona de la India o mole, or soursop.

Guanabanas grow all year around, they have crooked heart-shape with small spike-like protrusions. The skin is dark-green and turns slightly yellowish-green when ripe. Their shelve life is only a few days hence why it is most commonly cultivated at home. Though nowadays one must fight the non native squirrels that have become a plague in the south of Mexico as the delicious taste of this fruit is one of their favourites; and of course guanabanas are to be shared with the native tlacuaches.

Like the Mayans

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.

No good for tortillas

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.

The lung of the city

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.

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.