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.

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.

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…

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.

The suburb, not the country

Just an hour north of Sydney, is a quirky island with 650 residents, a prime destination for those of us who seek random stays for our weekends.

Scotland island, since 1974 runs an annual dog race in Christmas Eve, in which dogs must swim the 450 meters that separate Scotland island from Church Point. The entry is a longneck and a tin of dog food still to this day.

This little island is approximately 1 km in diameter and has around 350 houses in the perimeter foreshore, all of which have the right to roam in their decks to walk the 2.5-kilometre circumference of the island. Though be prepared to have to climb over any number of random obstacles.

Working or worming

Three hours South of Sydney, Conjola Beach is within the Narrawallee Creek Nature Reserve. Golden sand beaches with striking blue waters that are backed by 10-20 m high foredunes; and nearby, a small community of Lake Conjola (population 350). The perfect setting and location for a holiday, or for a home if you are a beach worm.

Beach worming is one of the least known fishing activities yet one that can only be described as an art, or hard work. It takes the patience of a turtle and the speed, laser vision of Cyclops, and lightning hands of a ninja to snatch the worm from the sand. Pliers in one hand and a smelly fish in the other, the worms poke their heads up to feed, concealing the rest of their bodies. One must creep behind the V-shaped pattern in the wash the worm creates when it sticks its head above the sand for the smelly fish. Then, with another piece of stink bait held close to its head one must lure the worm out on the bait. Once the worm is biting the fish, one must close the pliers around its head and draw its thrashing form from the sand. That’s the idea, anyway. Surprisingly, some beach worms grow to be up to 2½ metres long, beneath the sand.

Selling for $1 to $1.50 each worm, it makes for an attractive business when there is no limit on bag sizes for licensed wormers and one might harvest up to 1000 a day. However, over-harvesting has caused the destruction of the pipi industry. And some fishermen say to have witnessed a depletion of worms on the mid-north coast of NSW. Hopefully the industry will be regulated so that this skillful hobby can be done in the years to come.

Pooping log

Christmas is around the corner and with it, it comes a myriad of traditions. Each place has its distinctive customs. Here in Catalunya there is the Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) or more commonly known as Caga tió (pooping log). As with all traditions, families have adjusted this one and some details of it may vary from household to household.

The Caga tió used to be a regular log but nowadays it is a smallish wooden log with stick legs, has a happy face, wears a red, Catalan ‘barretina’ hat and is covered in a blanket. The log poos lollies and small presents at Christmas though it is not as simple as just that.

From the 8th of December (Día de la Inmaculada Concepcion) the log “appears” in the house doorstep or found in the woods. From that day onwards, children must feed and look after the log until Christmas eve. Sometimes the feeding is recommended to be dry bread, orange peel or dried beans. Others, turrón (nougat). Sometimes parents might replace the small log by increasingly bigger ones as time goes by to make the children think that the log has grown after being fed.

On Christmas Eve, the tradition becomes bizarre and quirky. In order for the Caga Tió to produce its gifts, children are to beat it with another smaller wooden stick and sing to it, ordering it to poop presents. Whilst the words may vary from town to town, the tune stays the same, and translated to English it goes something like:

Poop, log,
poop nougats (turrones),
hazelnuts and cheese of mató,
if you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
poop, log!

The song should end with a final load cry of Poop log! (Caga tió!) to command to the log to poo. The children then reach inside the Caga Tio’s blanket and find whatever the log has defecated. In some households children must go to a room to pray that the log has pooped something.

Traditionally, the Caga Tio produced relatively small gifts that were for all to share, and not individual gifts. The most common droppings offered by the log include turrón (nougat), small sweets, biscuits and dried fruits.

When the log has nothing left to evacuate, it finishes the feat with a salt herring, a head of garlic, an onion, or it ‘urinates’ by leaving a bowl of water. If there is a fireplace, the Caga tió can be burnt afterwards. Though these days many people keep it for next year.

It is said that the origins of this tradition date back to the days when the fireplace was a central and important part of family life. The ashes of the burnt log were kept and spread by crops and near the stable and even on the beds as a rite to promote fertility. Others say that the log symbolized the gifts of warmth and light that were given by the earth in the form of wood.

Whatever the beginnings, in this corner of the world, comes Christmas eve, many children will be wacking a log with a stick to make it poop presents and lollies.

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!