In the modernizing Mexican kitchen

A traditional kitchen: flat or slightly concave comal over a fire; clay dishes

I have been anticipating this post for a while. Finally, the time is right! I can announce the kick-off of one of my projects. Along with a few friends, I have been creating a collaborative food blog for Peace Corps Mexico volunteers, staff, friends, and family. Most recipes will work in the United States as well, so stop by periodically for some food-inspiration: Beyond Vitamin T

From the website:

Mexican cuisine is a famously rich source of Vitamin T, with dishes such as: Tacos, Tamales, Tostadas, Tortas, and Tlacoyos; all of which can be washed down with Tequila. Peace Corps Mexico Volunteers are often nourished with Vitamin T, but to keep the diet balanced, they cook meals that go Beyond Vitamin T. Here are some of their favorite recipes, all of which fit in their budget using ingredients found in Mexico.

There, announcement made. Speaking of food, on to the blog post: In the Modernizing Mexican kitchen.
Warning: this post may make you drop everything and head for the nearest Mexican restaurant or to the international aisle in your local grocery store.

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If it is not patently obvious by now, I love to cook and to explore the world via cuisine. When receiving my invitation to serve in Mexico, one of my first thoughts was: awesome, I will learn how to make some amazing salsas and how to perfect the homemade tortilla! Many of my fellow volunteers felt the same way, and this is no surprise. US Americans have a strong love of Mexican food. I mean, when was the last time you ate a taco, burrito, or fajitas? I would wager that it was not very long ago.

Our love extends much farther beyond salsas and tortillas though. When was the last time you craved chocolate or ate a tomato? Would summer barbeques be complete without corn on the cob, and would fall still feel right without squash and pumpkins? So many of the foods that we enjoy everyday originated in Mexico, as did our words for those items. You probably did not know it, but your grocery store is filled with words in Nahuatl! Here are a few:

Avocado: āhuacatl
Cocoa: cacahuatl “seed from the cocoa tree”
Chia seed: chian
Chili: chīlli
Chipotle: xillipoctli “smoked chili”
Chocolate: chocolātl “to make bitter the water”
Guacamole: āhuacamōlli “avocado sauce”
Jalapeño: xalapeño “chili from Xalapa”
Tomato: tomatl “the swollen fruit”

A dough of corn, black beans, cilantro, and salt are mixed over a volcanic metate

Traditional ingredients persist in the Mexican diet: A dough of corn, black beans, cilantro, and salt are ground together over a volcanic-rock metate, with delicious results

Fun fact: Chilies and salt were so prevalent in the native diet that the Aztecs considered themselves to be fasting if their meal did not contain both ingredients

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Many food traditions have changed little in thousands of years, such as the daily consumption of corn, salt and chilies. However, the arrival of Europeans in the 1500’s resulted in big changes. The mostly-vegetarian diet sprinkled with occasional crickets, worms, and salamanders shifted to a very meat-heavy diet. This legacy has lasted in the present day.

Live chickens, sold at the market

A common market sighting: live chickens being carried away for family meals

Fresh meat sold at the market

Fresh meat sold at the market

More recently, large food companies have made their products available to even the most remote corners in Mexico. Now, just about every corner tienda offers cookies, chips, and sodas, and little else. These introductions were rapid and ubiquitous, and resulted in Mexico taking on two worldwide superlatives: the second-largest consumer of soda per capita, and the most obese nation.

A typical diet for a family of five for one week in Southern Mexico. Check out all of that soda; it amounts to 24 liters! (photo credit: Peter Menzel) Click on the photo for more info

To combat the growing public health problem, Mexico is looking into instituting an additional tax on soda, and Peace Corps volunteers are teaching recipes for alternative beverages. Good work guys!

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Just as with the diet, the Mexican kitchen has held on to many traditions while embracing new technologies. I regularly see traditional kitchen equipment utilized. One of my favorite tools is the molinillo, pictured below in the center.

Traditional wooden utensils with the molinillo in center, used to whisk hot cocoa into a froth

Traditional wooden utensils with the molinillo in center, used to whisk hot cocoa into a froth

Typical tortilla press

Typical tortilla presses are still used, although a mechanic version invented in the 1960’s has forever altered Mexico’s sound space and introduced the question: “machine or handmade?”

However, one technology that has been adopted in almost every kitchen with electricity: the blender. There are still a few traditional molcajete die-hards out there, and there have been more than a few family fights about this particular modern conundrum. I wrote a short children’s story about this very topic, based on such a fight in my co-worker’s family. Enjoy!

Typical clay pots and dishes, with molcajetes and tejocotes in front used to make salsas and grind chilies and cumin

Typical clay pots and dishes, with molcajetes and tejocotes in front used to make salsas

Hello, my name is molcajete. Can you say my name? It is pronounced mole-cah-HEEH-tay. Funny name, right? Well, it is a really old name where I come from, and it is from another language called Nahuatl. It means: bowl sitting on three legs!

I come from a country called Mexico, but a long time ago it was called the Aztec Empire. My family goes back a long way. Longer than you and your parents and their parents have lived, combined. More than 1,000 years actually!

I am here with my friend tejolote (tay-ho-LOH-te). We are best friends.We do everything together, but we especially like helping out in the kitchen. Do you like helping out in the kitchen too?

Our favorite thing to make in the kitchen is salsa, although sometimes guacamole is fun too. We help to combine tasty tomatoes, onions, chilies, salt, and whatever else other people have imagined. The tejolote gets to work, grinding everything together so that in the end, all of those individual ingredients have turned into a salsa, ready for eating. It is almost like magic that has happened in kitchens throughout Mexico for many generations of kids.

Can you believe that many people in Mexico still make their salsas with us, everyday? Some families, however, started using blenders.

One of my favorite moments shows how things have changed in Mexico from your grandmother’s time to yours. Many people like to use blenders because it is easier. But I know someone who thinks that the flavor of every salsa is so much better if it is made with us, the molcajete and the tejolote. A few years ago, he asked his wife to stop making salsas in blenders because her salsas were so much better when made the old-fashioned way. She did not want to change back to the old way though.

One day, she decided to play a trick on her husband. She made the salsa in the blender before he came home from work. Quickly, before he walked in the door for dinner, she poured the salsa out of the blender into a molcajete! Her children and grandchildren all knew what she had done. Everyone was anxious to know; could the husband tell the difference in flavor?

Well, that night during dinner, he happily scooped salsa over his tacos. He took a bite. His face showed how he felt. He said: “These tacos are even better with your delicious homemade salsa. I am so glad that you still make it in the molcajete. You can really tell the difference, like I always say.”

Everyone at the table smiled and nodded in agreement. Since then, the wife always used the blender to make her salsas, carefully pouring the finished sauces into the molcajete afterward. This kept the husband happy, their children and grandchildren laughing, the salsa looking pretty, and the molcajete maintaining an important place in the home: it was the glue that kept everything together.

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Despite some dietary and technological changes, many food traditions remain strong in the Mexican kitchen. There is still a value on food cooked the slow way, over a fire, and patted out by hand. For this, I am very lucky to live here, to eat here, and to share meals with these wonderful people, an observer of the changing times.

A hot flame under a comal is all most cooks still use

A hot flame under a comal is the main way that many people still cook their meals

Meat is still barbequed in the ground, a pan below to catch the drippings and cactus paddles above to lock-in moisture

Meat is still barbequed in the ground, with a pan below to catch the drippings, and with cactus paddles above to lock-in moisture

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For those wanting a simple salsa recipe made the traditional or the modern way, check out this video:

Could it be any easier?

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Making me smile

  • After a long chat with the Spanish Program Coordinator, I asked how I had progressed since meeting her last August. She told me that she was floored with my progress and rated me as solidly in the middle of the Advanced level. Not bad considering that I came in with almost nothing. She also showed me what a long way from fluent I was though!
  • I am growing an even deeper love of Thanksgiving: after Day of the Dead, Christmas decorations are already showing up here. I am happy that in the USA, Thanksgiving serves as a buffer. My love has been discovered by my fellow volunteers though, thus I have been contracted to make TWO separate meals this year
  • Speaking of Christmas, I have been planning a get-away from this London-like cold weather. Through the drizzle, I fantasize about the warm sun, a sailboat on the Pacific, and my family
  • Making movie dates and spending some quality girl-time with my best buddy here. Peace Corps certainly makes you realize the power and importance of friendships
  • Finally meeting the artist who paints cool murals around town. I was out on a run when I almost plowed into his ladder. He shook my sweaty hand and was very patient with my foreign accent peppered with heavy breaths from the run
Part of a mural around town

Part of a mural around town

Part of a mural around town

Part of a mural around town

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One response to “In the modernizing Mexican kitchen

  1. Awesome post! And I still giggle from the story of the blended salsa trick 🙂 Can’t wait to try out some of these Beyond Vitamin T recipes in Thailand!

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