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.
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.
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.
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!
Carballiño (literally meaning the little oak), a little town in Galicia has celebrated, since 1969, on the second Sunday of August, “La Festa do Pulpo”. This is a culinary party with an estimate of 80 to 100 thousand guests who consume around 50 thousand kilos of “pulpo a la gallega” during the event.
It is said that the festival started as the fishermen of the area were obliged to pay a tax in produce to the frays. Amongst their catch there was the octopus, plentiful in Pontevedra. With the quantities they were receiving, the frays had to commercialise it and the festival began.
The “polbeiras” or “pulperas” (women who cook the octopus) cook this animal in copper pots. The octopus has to be ‘scared’ and is introduced into boiling water for a few seconds and taken out again a few times. This technique helps the octopus keep its skin once boiled for longer amounts of time. After its boiled, the octopus is cut in slices and served with olive oil and cayenne pepper sprinkled in the top. Perfect to pair with a local brew or wine.
Surrounded by sea, Spain offers an opportunity to taste a wide variety of creatures from the ocean. Sometimes even what was once used, and still is used, as bait years later becomes a delicacy.
These fish are long, thin molluscs with shells that look like the old cut-throat razors and are sometimes aso known as razor clams. They swim vertically, in sychronised groups, with their long snouts pointing down.
Sometimes they are harvested by hand or trailing an electric cable behind a boat to struck the fish.
One of the benefits of living in a multicultural city is the opportunity to stumble across different cuisines. Especially if you know it will be good seeing the numbers of people regularly eating there. An authentic flavour of South America brought to our table on a Friday evening; washed down with some Venezuelan brew.
Venezuelan cuisine, “cocina criolla” as it is known, reflects the complex history of the country mingling European influence (especially Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese), indigenous roots and African ancestry. This unique blend makes it a flavoursome dishes.
In our table the national dish, Pabellón Criollo, and the most famous dish, Arepas. The Pabellón Criollo is a simple dish of shredded beef or pork, black beans, white rice, and sometimes accompanied by fried plantain. Arepas are cornmeal disks that are grilled, baked or fried. Unlike in its neighbor country Colombia where it is normally eaten unadorned, in Venezuela Arepas are split open and filled with a variety of cheese and/or meats. In Venezuela, Arepas are generally eaten as snacks or as side companions at meals. For us, as a main dish.
Long summer evenings allow for time basking in the park and having a picnic. Enjoying a rare bottle of wine in which one must hand write a letter to the owner to get some of his produce. Local sausages and cured meats and cheese from around Europe. This is the reward and the celebration of the end from enduring months of bad management and borderline bullying behaviours.