Mexico…. A Sublime Feast

By: Lisa Coleman

With my recent post about the food festival coming to Puerto Vallarta, I thought it might be of interest to some of you to explore more of Mexico’s cuisine. The following article was published in December of 1999 in Food & Wine Magazine. I won the Pluma de Plata Award (The Silver Pen award given by the Mexican Government for the best article of the year) for this piece and it has been reproduced many times in a number of publications. But just in case you’re hungry… here it is… one more time!

Mexico … A Sublime Feast

As the sun slowly becomes an emblazoned image on the eastern horizon, the splendor of a Mexican city awakens and tradition comes to life. In the quiet hours of the morning, the local fishermen, farmers, butchers and bakers prepare their offerings for the sea of humanity that will soon pass by to experience the bounty of the land, the people, and the culture.

  Women in brightly colored dresses begin meticulously assembling their tables with succulent fruits and vegetables. A visual banquet of deep reds, brilliant yellows, tantalizing oranges and greens stand in vivid contrast against one another. Small children run through the aisles laughing, playing and stopping only long enough to stare in amazement at the shiny fresh fish being arranged in ice and rock salt. A man with a pressed white apron reaches up to suspend from hooks the finest cuts of beef, pork, chicken and game.  A multitude of aromas is swirling in the air, each reaching out to touch the senses. Fresh baked bread, pastries and tortillas intermingle in scent.  Baskets of chiles in all shapes, sizes and textures line the walkways. If you close for your eyes for a moment you can almost taste the magic of the extraordinary gastronomy that lies in front of you.

This is “El Mercado” – the market. Not only is the market the cornerstone of Mexican cooking ingredients, but also a pivotal gathering place for the community. For the people of Mexico, food is more than a necessity, it is a folkloric symbol of their heritage. Here, cuisine is culture. Layered by time, and influenced by its European conquerors, Mexico is the original birthplace of fusion cooking. They have always believed taste, smell and visual beauty of food enriches and inspires the spirit. Their interpretation and preparation of food is a mystical experience, a tribute to the great Mexican imagination. Theirs is truly a sublime feast.

Mexico has a remarkably powerful indigenous ancestry. As a result, it’s one of the world’s most captivating yet subtle cuisines. Contrary to popular belief, there is no singular, monolithic “Mexican food.” The dishes of this fascinating country are diversified by region, each as unique and distinctive as the area and its people. Throughout time, traditional regional dishes have come to represent unity, identity, and the foundation of a heritage.  

In order to understand the complexities and nuances of authentic Mexican food, it’s imperative to connect destinations with flavors – an Epicurean journey if you will. We will begin with the states along the fertile northern stretch of Mexico’s Pacific shoreline and the expansive region inland known as “El Norte.” Next, to the Bajío, the region of Mexico most intrinsically steeped in Old World Spanish tradition. From there, a glimpse from the snow-capped summit of Orizaba (a gigantic inactive volcano and highest point in Mexico) whose westward view encompasses the great central plains, and whose eastward vista is the dramatic drop into the balmy world of the states that border the Gulf of Mexico. Then, in contrast, we will discover the gastronomic diversity of Mexico City. Our sensory discoveries will conclude with the mysteries of the predominantly Indian areas of the south Pacific coastal region, southern Mexico, the Mundo Maya and the Yucatán. A culinary adventure is in the making.

Mexico’s northernmost stretch of pristine shoreline is washed clear by the peaceful waters of the Gulf of California – a sheltered body of water that opens to the south into the Pacific Ocean. The sea is the primary source of sustenance; it brings life, food, and ritual.

The morning belongs to fishermen carrying in today’s catch. Straw baskets full of lobster, shellfish and sardines rest near their weathered wooden fishing vessels.  Long poles slung over their backs host red snapper, mackerel, sea bass and amberjack. As the deep-sea boats arrive, an abundance of valiant billfish make their way to the market – marlin, sailfish and swordfish the predominant choices.

Throughout the north Pacific, the best cuts of fish are often set aside for slow smoking. Seaside palapa-style restaurants serve swordfish smoked over aromatic mesquite giving it a bold, rustic flavor. Tuna is briefly marinated in lime juice and served raw in the form of ceviche. Shrimp, also a standard in ceviche, is cooked and used as filling for tamales. Whole fish (usually red snapper) is skewered on sticks and braced upright in the sand before being grilled over a low fire and highlighted with squirt of fresh lime.

While the seafood is served, the music plays. This region pulsates with a tropical rhythm brought about by its native son – the mariachi. Developed in the state of Jalisco as wedding-party entertainment, mariachi music is now the enduring symbol of Mexico. Along with tequila, also Jalisco’s gift to world.)

From the rugged coast of the Baja to the lowlands of the Gulf, the sparsely populated landscape of “El Norte” also maintains its own individual food style. Norteño food, like its cowboy culture, is hearty, robust and simple. Beef (the finest in the country) is expertly raised, prepared and served with spicy beans. Tortillas de harina (wheat-flour tortillas) accompany every meal. Though the north region is the most modern in Mexico, hacienda living prevails as the standard.

As the rolling plains begin to broaden into the south, rancheros and desert landscape give way to colonial splendor and centuries-old architecture. A region known as the Bajío begins to take shape. It’s as though the Spanish conquistadors still remain in the picturesque states of San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, Guanajuato and Michoacán. Green hills, pine trees, wild flowers and farmland give the area a pastoral beauty unrivalled in all of Mexico. Oxen, donkeys and plows are still used as means of cultivating the land.

Many of the characteristics of the dishes here clearly reflect their Spanish origins: lengua rellena (stuffed tongue), puchero (a rich stew) and fiambre (cold meat) are the most notable. Nonetheless, the Bajio has held tight to its pre-Columbian past. A walk through the local marketplace radiates the heart and soul of its original inhabitants, the Tarascos Purépecha Indians). Still speaking their native language, they display such unusual treats as cactus blossoms and cactus pads (nopales) – a staple in the Bajio diet.

Fondas (tent-like or open stalls near the market) sell singular specialties like Michoacán’s famous carnitas. After an entire pig is slowly braised in a gigantic pot with countless varieties of spices and flavorings, the meat is chopped into thin slices on a wooden block with an arched cleaver. The resultant perfectly delectable cuts of pork are served with stacks of small tortillas, pickled vegetables, chiles, and various salsas.

In contrast, the Bajío is also home to a fresh water delicacy – the whitefish of Patzcuaro. The striking beauty of Pátzcuaro Lake (outside the city of Morelia), fed by mountain streams, is more than 2000 meters above sea level. Local fishermen stand in their boats, perfectly balanced in fluid motion as they gracefully cast hand-woven butterfly nets into the brisk waters and capture thousands of these tiny white fish called charales. Coated in batter, fried and served with a fresh lime, this specialty is one of the most poignant in the region.

The cool stretches of the Bajío pave the way into the Gulf region and central Mexico. The towering Orizaba volcano stands as a centerpiece. Its eastern side is one of the longest mountain slopes in the world, and in less than 50 horizontal miles, glaciers become tropical landscapes, groves of yellow and green bananas, and the temperate home of the states that border the Gulf of Mexico.

Tabasco, whose very namesake insinuates flavor, and Veracruz, known for exquisite seafood, maintain the essence of the cuisine and culture for the entirety of eastern Mexico. They say jarochos (the natives of Veracruz) have three passions: celebration, conversation and cuisine. A shady day in the town square will find them at a sidewalk café enjoying sopa de camarón (shrimp soup) or huachinango a la veracruzana (Veracruz-style red snapper) hile they watch the day pass by. Cold beer accompanied by the sweetness of a locally grown, hand-rolled fine cigar eases them into the afternoon. Near dusk, the aroma of rich highland coffee soothes their senses and steaming café con leche brings the day full circle.  

The prominent influences from the neighboring Caribbean and the Creole culture can also be found in the Gulf’s crayfish dishes, hot spices and red sauces. Yet the use of capers and green olives is surely a derivative of Mediterranean Spain. Despite these cross-cultural hints lingering in the Gulf, the cuisine of the central region remains indisputably Mexican.

In Puebla, Tlaxcala and Hidalgo, the ingredients are those of their ancestors – corn, beans, tomatoes, and chiles. From that standard comes a representation of inventiveness in a dish known as chiles en nogada. Batter fried chiles are stuffed with various fruits, meats, and spices that transcend Mexican food stereotypes. It is sweet, not spicy, served cold with fresh pomegranate seeds and parsley sprinkled over a white walnut sauce. It becomes a tangible, edible version of the Mexican flag.

And the patriotism rings true in the foods throughout all the regions. People continuously honor their roots as daily preparation for meals begin. But perhaps the dedication to culinary wealth is most eminently portrayed in the most colossal city the world has ever known – Mexico City. This is an ethnically diverse megalopolis whose cuisine and culture has been exposed to influences far beyond the scope of its boundaries. For the epicure seeking innovation and variety, there is not a more sophisticated selection for the palate in all of Mexico.  

The extensive exposure to a multitude of ethnic landscapes has prompted chefs throughout the city to experiment with new twists to old ways of cooking Mexican. Nueva cocina mexicana (new Mexican kitchen) is undeniably Mexican fare but with a somewhat modern and lighter touch. The trend has been towards salads, possibly with artichokes and squash blossoms, or perhaps a puff-pastry shell filled with fish rolls and a pungent Mexican spice called epazote. Nonetheless, millions of people from everywhere in the country descend on Mexico City and make it their home, and they desperately crave the specialties from their region.

The result is thousands upon thousands of restaurants specializing in any and every food imaginable from states across the country, and a huge, incomparable selection of markets. In southern Mexico City, one of the world’s most fascinating markets has been in existence since pre-Hispanic times. The “floating gardens” of Xochilmilco are cultivated farm plots in the form of tiny islands (chinampas). Reeds and mud throughout a system of quiet canals anchor them. On market days, flat bottom boats pole through the canals to pick up crates of fruits, vegetables, corn and beans. Some of the boats are simply decorated with a table and a Mariachi to serenade diners wanting an enchanting lunch. The chinampas of Xochilmilco still provide some of the city’s finest produce.

Salt, lime and a shot glass… or perhaps the ubiquitous margarita? There is certainly more to tequila than meets the eye. This is a spirit with a past, a present, and a future. Rather than being blended, slammed or “shot,” tequila is to be savored, much the same as fine cognac.

At least one thousand years prior to Spain’s invasion of Mexico, the Tiquila tribe (in the state of Jalisco) discovered and perfected the process of boiling and fermenting the agave plant. A low-alcohol, ritualistic beverage known as pulque was derived and consumed by religious authorities during celebration. In the early 16th Century, Hernán Cortés and his men arrived and brought with them the art of distillation. The result – Tequila.

The modern process is much the same and still done by hand. The mature heart of the tequila agave looks suspiciously like a pineapple but tips the scales at 50-150 pounds. After being pit roasted for 24 hours, it is ground and shredded by a mule or horse-powered mill. The pulp is strained, fermented in ceramic pots, distilled in copper stills and becomes tequila.

The freshly produced, basic tequila is always clear and colorless with an alcohol content of 40%. Gold tequilas are the consequence of aging in oak barrels. Reposado (rested) tequilas must be aged for at least two months and an añejo  (aged) tequilas will remain in barrels for a minimum of one year.

Mexican beer, on the other hand, is far less complex in scope. Flavorful, smooth, light to medium-weight brews have brought their country international drinking appeal. Regardless, it is impossible to compare the beers sold locally in the country with their exported counterparts. Unfortunately, Mexican breweries produce a separate beer for “gringo” stateside consumption that is not only lighter in taste, but lighter in alcohol content as well. Corona, the most well-known of all Mexican brew, has replaced Heineken as America’s top selling import.

Wine has been a companion of food since the dawn of time. Yet in Mexico the possibilities of the grape were not discovered until the 18th century, long after the wine regions of France had defined themselves. A Jesuit priest, Father Juan de Ugarte, and his missionaries arrived to Baja California in 1701 and took charge of the Loreto Mission. It was he who planted the original grapevines on the peninsula and initiated the future of Mexico’s vineyards.

What most connoisseurs may not know is that Mexico has a privileged region for the breeding and cultivation of great wines. In the northern most part of the Baja Peninsula, predominantly between Ensenada and Tecate, lie two famous valleys – Guadalupe and Calafia. In these areas, well within the wine-producing zone of the Northern Hemisphere, the waters of the Pacific Ocean dictate coastal weather. This creates a somewhat Mediterranean climate with winter rain and dry springs and summers. The result is a weather pattern that resembles that of France’s Rhone and Southern Burgundy regions.

Mexican wine and winemaking got off to a rather sluggish start and national names struggled to make a reputation for themselves around the world. But over time, modernization, development and a commitment to quality have cultivated the valleys’ resources the highest level. Mexico is indeed producing fine wines. The larger wineries like Pedro Domecq, Bodegas de Santo Tomás and L.A. Cetto continue to elevate the standards of Mexican blends. The smaller boutique houses, namely Cavas Valmar, Monte Xanic, Casa de Piedra, and Chateau Camou are also producing low volume runs of extremely flavorful and structured selections that have gained international notoriety. The level of excellence in today’s wine from the Baja is at a pinnacle never before attained in Mexico. It is not uncommon to see Mexican wines on import lists in the United States and Europe, even in France.

As long as there has been wine, there has been celebration of the harvest. And celebrations are at their best in Mexico. With splendor, grandeur, beauty and excitement the Mexican people embrace the tradition of recognizing the moment when grapes mature and new wines are born. Each year, beginning the first week in August, the Mexican wineries host the Grape Harvest Fiesta (Fiesta de la Vendimia). Over the course of four weeks, in the Valley of Guadalupe in the municipality of Ensenada, Baja California, grapes are carefully plucked from their vines and festivities abound. Cultural events, tours of the Valley, tastings and sumptuous feasts are the highlight for hundreds of visitors who partake in the offerings of local producers. Throughout the month, each winery has a schedule of happenings geared specifically for the introduction of their latest creations. Most of the wineries participate in group events with the exception of L.A. Cetto who presents its own fiesta the first week in September.

The quality of the wine estates of Mexico is constantly improving. Consumption is increasing and the wines of the Baja have surpassed the era when there were merely aspirations of collectors and curious connoisseurs. Like its cuisine, Mexican wine is now a respected contender in the wine circles of the world. 

Far from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City’s immense markets and restaurants, the country again makes a transformation, not only geographically but culturally as well. A new superhighway connects the country’s capital to the highlands of south Pacific coast.The states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas are a consecution of peaks, valleys and rocky shoreline. Along with the neighboring Yucatán states, these are the most wholly bound to their Indian roots. The provincial cuisine, like the inhabitants themselves, is dedicated to preserving the fundamental core of their lineage. Observing local dialect,dress, folklore and food, it seems as though time is standing still.

Like their Indian forefathers, the people of the south use the bare essentials (corn and beans) as the backbone of their food structure. However, unlike the rest of Mexico, chiles here are used as an accompaniment for a meal as opposed to being cooked directly into a dish. Complimenting the basic ingredients is an unprecedented number of herbs, greens and edible flowers that add an air of exoticism to most menus. Refined meat and game dishes are garnished with mixed nuts and spices, and most complex sauces gravitate toward sweet rather than piquant.

But nowhere in the southern highland region, or perhaps Mexico for that matter, has classical Indian cuisine been so masterfully elevated as in Oaxaca. Known as the “land of the seven moles,” this state boasts exquisite regional conglomerations, most notably, this renowned specialty. Mole, a thick brown sauce, is said to have as many as thirty ingredients including unsweetened chocolate, sesame seeds and chiles. Sometimes left to simmer for several days, it is best served over chicken or turkey. Constantly being reinvented with innovative ingredients, moles are a permanent feature on local menus.

As the south Pacific winds are crossed by damp Caribbean breezes, the landscape, language and culture of Mexico shift once again. This is the Mundo Maya, the heart and soul of history, the Yucatán Peninsula. The stunning ancient ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Tulúm are powerful reminders that the past is never far. The cuisine in the region possesses the same strength. One taste of a Yucateco’s culinary craftsmanship and the energy of the centuries will invigorate the consciousness. 

The influence of the Caribbean islands and Cuba are an underlying theme to Yucatecan cooking. Fragrant flavorings like cilantro, oregano, recados (spice blends) and epazote enhance the courses. There is a noticeable respite from chiles in the land of the Maya.  Many sauces here are fruit-based, dominant among them one made from dark red annatto seeds (achiote) and enriched with Seville oranges, garlic, cumin and pepper. Spread over pork (cochinita pibil) or chicken (pollo pibil) then baked in a banana leaf, this is a sampling of Yucatecan magic.

But the magic is not limited to the Yucatán, or to any other single state or region in Mexico. The cuisine of this enchanting country reaches far beyond chiles and tortillas; it is the perfect blend of sophistication and subtlety. Since the dawn of Mexican civilization, the people paid the ultimate tribute to their culture, they preserved and polished it. Not only through languages, dialects and celebrations, but also through a lifelong loyalty to its tastes and flavors – to its food.

As with most refined cuisines, understanding is the path to appreciation. Mexico opens her arms, sets her table and invites you to step inside.