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.

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.

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.

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.

Twice a month

Right in the city center, in the midst of Ciutat Vella, lies a plaza that can be traced to the X century. Once a cementery of the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi, the plaza nowadays hosts (and from 15 years ago) a little market for artists, craftspeople and artisans on the first and third weekend of every month. All products are handmade and range from cheese and honey to sausages, wine and biscuits. Next to the plaza, a painters display is set.

The Plaza del Pi gets its name from its literal meaning, Plaza del Pino. The story says that a pine tree was planted in 1568 and lasted until the war. Since then, a new pine is planted when the current one gets sick or dies. The one currently standing in the plaza was planted in 1985.

A regional (not national) dish

Paella is originally from lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia and dates back to the mid-19th century. In Spain, paella is considered a regional dish and not the national dish we all think it is.

According to Valencian tradition, paella should be cooked over an open fire, fueled by orange and pine tree branches along with pine cones which imbues the rice with the aromatic smoke. Said to be a dish of poor peasants due to its filling and cheap nature from ingredients from the countryside.

Paella, above anything, is a rice dish which means when the rice is cooked well, paella will be good, no matter what is in it. Normally “bomba” rice is used and stirring is definitely forbidden. 

Its name comes from the pan where it is cooked in and from the Latin word for ‘pan’ or ‘dish.’ People eat it straight from the pan. 

Well cooked paellas have a lightly toasted layer that remains at the bottom of the pan once finished. This layer must be crunchy but not burned and never burnt. The socorrat, as this layer is called, is a privilege for whoever gets to eat. 

The best kept secret worth eating

A recipe now considered a national treasure has been kept secret for 200 years. It is said that only 6 people know the recipe for the Pastéis de Belém a Portuguese egg tart pastry (similar to pastéis de nata except made in Belem). It is incredible to think that these cakes that are only made of egg yolk, milk, flour and sugar end up being crispy on the outside, sweet and creamy on the inside.

It is said that to keep the recipe a true mystery, not only do all bakers have to sign a non disclosure agreement but they also work inside the secret  factory – Oficina dos Segredos. A recipe invented by the monks that lived in the Monastery in Jeronimos in the early 19th century to bring income to their home and to use up the leftover yolks from starching their habits with egg whites.

Be sure to buy more than one because these mouthwatering tarts sprinkled with cinnamon are too good to be on a diet. It is no surprise that this place sells on a daily basis around 20,000 tarts; number which in the summer gets doubled!