The foods of Southern Veracruz

A memela at Tio Chon, a restaurant outside Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz.

Janneth and I had talked about me visiting her in Coatzacoalcos for months, ever since she came back from Coatza one day and started telling me about all the things she saw there that didn't exist in Mexico City -- tubs of small freshwater fish, crackery tortillas, and puffy, airy quesadillas called empanadas, which were served covered in shredded cabbage. Crayton and I finally had some free days in September so we decided to take a long weekend.

An aeiral view of Coatza from Mexico PostCode.

Coazta isn't usually where folks stop in Veracruz. It’s an oil town along the state's southern edge, and nobody really goes there unless they work for Pemex or they know someone who works for Pemex. There is a beach but no one swims in it. One person commented on my Instagram feed that I should visit other cities in Veracruz, because Coatza was bastante “feíto.” (Ugly.) Coatza has nothing in the way of cool architecture or museums -- a reviewer on Trip Advisor called their Museum of Olmec Culture "a pirated version of Epcot Center" -- but it’s got good food, which makes it a perfectly reasonable destination in my eyes. After this trip I’m more convinced than ever that good food can be found anywhere in Mexico, even the most feíto towns. The best of Coatza: gorditas and markets Janneth grew up in Coatzacoalcos (her dad retired from Pemex), and she graciously offered to not only drive, but let us stay at her parents' house. Our first morning there we drove to La Picadita Jarocha for breakfast, a bustling cafe open to the street. She insisted we try the balloony sweet gorditas, made with masa speckled with anise seeds and stuffed with mole. They arrived liked little bubbles, and then we cut them open to reveal the mole underneath. I cannot tell you how good these things were.

Look at that mole peeking out from inside. It wants you.

Afterward we wandered around Coatza's market with Janneth’s mother Martha, a wonderful cook and local food expert. She pointed out more things I’d never seen: black camarones reculones, called as such because they walk backward; little nubs of homemade achiote paste, and hoja blanca leaves used to wrap tamales. She also showed me the cracker-like totopos that came from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where she’s from. I'd seen them before outside the 20 de Noviembre Market in Oaxaca, but they seemed to be more prolific here.

Lisa seca, a dried salted fish from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Martha said you have to soak it in water several times to remove the salt, then squeeze on lime juice, chopped tomatoes, onion and cilantro. Then you grill it.

Oreganón, an intensely aromatic oregano.

Fresh camarones reculones, AKA "shrimp that move backwards."

Fresh Mexican blue crab, known as jaiba.

Homemade achiote paste. This is not what you find in the supermarkets in Mexico City -- it contains nothing except ground achiote seed and water, cooked in a kettle until concentrated.

Then we made a quick stop at Janneth's aunt's restaurant to watch the staff make tamales de masa colada. I'd never actually seen masa colada up close -- it's a tamal dough made from nixtamalized corn that's cooked almost to a Cream-of-Wheat consistency. A team of two women worked fast on the back patio, laying down an hoja blanca leaf, a banana leaf, a heaping spoonful of masa colada and then chicken, epazote and red chile sauce. Then they wrapped everything neatly and tying the tamal with a little knot. I tried to make one and the sauce oozed out one end.

Pretty little tamales.

We ended the day at an open-air restaurant with a dirt floor called Tio Chon, located off the old two-lane road to Minatitlán. Janneth instructed us on the proper Coatzacoalcosian way to eat camarones enchipotlados -- place the whole shrimp in your mouth, suck off the sauce, then dip it in more sauce when no one is looking. (Her mom immediately told us, don't do it that way, she's wrong.)

Just seeing this photo now makes me want to suck off all the chipotle sauce.

I'm calling this a mole sundae: rice topped with fried plantain, egg and rich Veracruzan mole.

The Minatitlán market Crayton was not exactly enthused to visit another market, but he was powerless against the trio of Janneth, Martha and I, who could together probably spend eight hours talking to vendors and scribbling down recipe notes. We visited another market -- the Mercado Popular Campesino -- in Minatitlán, a small town about 20 minutes from Coatzacoalcos. The heat was stifling even at 10 a.m. Ladies in checkered smocks, their faces shiny with sweat, sold various vines and fruits and vegetables, some of which I hadn't seen at the Coazta market the day before. We tried pópo, a beverage made from toasted cacao beans, rice, cinnamon and a vine called asquiote. One vendor was selling asquiote, too, which excited all of us to no end. "Look, it's asquiote!" I told Crayton. He just looked at me and continued checking his Blackberry. I loved the tortillas de frijol, a crispy plate of a tortilla -- sort of like a tlayuda -- made from masa mixed with beans. Martha said you eat it with cheese and very hot salsa. I bought one and munched on it while we shopped.

Asquiote, which is chopped and ground and used in the beverage pópo, in Southern Veracruz

A jicara full of pópo, a beverage made from toasted cacao beans, rice, cinnamon, anise seed and asquiote.

This is the tricked-out molinillo -- made by hand -- used to aerate the pópo, which traditionally is served with a thick layer of foam on top.

Our Minatitlán breakfast. They were out of pejelagarto tamales.

Chile chilpaya, sort of like piquín but rounder and slightly longer.

There was one more food-related activity -- hunting down the famous carne de Chinameca -- but I'll save that for the next post. After only a few days together, I told Janneth and Martha that we should plan another trip together, to Martha's hometown in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in 2013. If we do go... sorry Crayton, you're not coming.
16 Responses to “The foods of Southern Veracruz”
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