My first post for this blog — almost four years ago to the day — was a lament on how I couldn’t take any of my American pantry goodies with me to Mexico City.
Four years later, I run a food tourism business in Mexico (can you believe it?) and my pantry has become an extension of my new passions: dried chiles that smell like campfires, dried corn ready to be nixtamalized in my table-top grinder, indigenous salts, Mexican herbs, hand-ground chocolate picked up on side trips to Oaxaca. My cooking style, more and more, ignores the stuff I grew up and instead relies on using Mexican products in ways that make sense to me. Sprinkling homemade chile morita powder on my mother-in-law’s traditional creamy Thanksgiving mushrooms, for instance, sounds completely practical to me, and it turns out its awesome. (The morita adds a touch of smoke and the right kick of heat.)
The movers told us that they wouldn’t take any food to New York. So I went to Costco and spent $100 on a vacuum-sealer.
Two days ago I picked through my pantry and vacuum-sealed bags of chile pasilla oaxqueño, and a kilo each of dried white and red corn. I vacuum-sealed my Oaxacan oregano, and my pimienta gorda, and my dried cacao flowers, which still smell heavenly even though I bought them in Oaxaca in August.
I vacuum-sealed some chile mulato, just in case I’m going to make a mole from scratch (you never know), and a few handfuls of pumpkin seeds, which are meatier and more flavorful than the pumpkin seeds they sell in the U.S. I’m not sure how much of this stuff will make it through customs, by the way. The first trip on Sunday will be a learning experience.
All the vacuum-sealing isn’t entirely about whether I’ll be able to find Mexican ingredients in New York. Deep down — really deep down — I’m terrified that once I move, I’m going to forget everything I learned and tasted. I didn’t speak Spanish fluently or even know what a tlacoyo was until four years ago. What if in New York I lose my Spanish and my newish longing for the smell of fresh masa on the comal? What if what fed my passion was this crazy, insane city, and once I leave I’m just a regular old American again? These ingredients, carrying them in my suitcase, makes everything feel real. This did happen. It wasn’t a dream.
Hopefully in New York I’ll have the best of both worlds. I’ll have the Mexican ingredients I love, and the American and ethnic ingredients I love, and we’ll be able to order Thai takeout from our phones. (Dude. Living in the future.) What I’m not sure about yet is this budding Mexican part of me, and how it’s going to do in Nueva York. Supongo que verémos.
UPDATE: Everything made it through customs. I asked the customs officer whether I could bring cheese the next time around, and he said yes. The only prohibited items were meat, fresh vegetables, plants and seeds for growing plants.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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