This morning, at a coffee stand inside the Terminal del Norte bus station in Mexico City: Me: I'd like a cafe americano with milk, please. Young woman: We don't sell an americano with milk. You can get a black coffee or a cappuccino. Me: Can't I just get a small amount of milk in my coffee? YW: No. Me: What if I paid extra? It's only a very small amount of milk that I want. YW: We don't sell americanos with milk. Me: What if I paid for a cappuccino? And you could give me an americano with just a little milk in it? Then I would be paying for extra milk, because I want less than you put in a cappuccino. *She looks at me doubtfully.* Me: So I would be paying you more money. You would win. YW: That'll be 21 pesos. *(Yelling to her compañera)* She wants an americano with milk. *** A few minutes later, I watch as the barista adds exactly one-half cup of milk to my coffee, the same amount she used in other customers' cappuccinos. So much for wanting, as I told the girl in Spanish, "un chorrito de leche, nada más."
We arrived in Xico just in time for the Fiesta de la Magdalena. Mary Magdalene is the town’s patron saint and she's celebrated yearly in July. I wish I would've known more about the festival, but unfortunately all we could do was watch without really knowing what was going on. After lunch, we saw a group of young people carry a costumed statue of Mary Magdalene on their shoulders, singing hymns as they walked toward the other side of town. Once arriving in the main square, the site of Xico's largest church, a crowd of children danced in brightly colored costumes. Here's a few more of the photos I took, both of the processional and the children dancing. If anyone out there knows a little bit more about the festival, and the significance behind the processional and the costumes, I'd love to hear it!
"Hola bonita, buenos días." It was a stranger. I didn’t see his face. I mumbled buenos días and kept walking, stepping up onto the empty sidewalk near the Chedraui. From the other side of the street, a chicken vendor yelled out, “Hola guerita!” You’d think they had never seen a girl before. I pressed ahead, not looking at anyone. Then, just about 10 paces later, the first guy's voice again: “I’m trying again, I wanted to say hi, because I very much feel like I want to know you.” Intento otra vez, te quería saludar porque tengo muchas ganas de conocerte. His earnestness made me laugh. I didn’t want him to think he was having an effect on me, so I just pressed my lips together and walked more quickly to Mercado San Juan. Avoided Chicken Row on my way back.
UPDATE: See the reader comments below. It appears this restaurant has closed. A few weeks ago, my friend David mentioned a new Haitian restaurant he’d heard about in Santa Maria la Ribera. I think I’d had a little too much wine, so I crowed, “Oh my god, Haitian food! We have to go! Haitian food!” Not that I even knew what Haitian food was. One thing about Mexico City is, we do not get a lot of ethnic foods. There’s a growing Korean neighborhood in the Zona Rosa with fantastic cuisine; other than that, it’s Mexican and some mediocre attempts at Thai and Indian. I wanted to try Haitian food out of pure curiosity, so David, Jesus and I stopped by the fonda last week. Jesus originally found the place and wrote about it on his blog. It turns out Haitians eat a lot of fried things. Every plate on the menu had some sort of fried meat, fried fish or fried plantain. The food was fine. My favorites were the flaky fried fish, and the spicy coleslaw that accompanied everything. (I later found out the coleslaw contained either habanero or manzano chile.) The service, however, was outstanding. Our waitress Alejandra had a lovely smile, and she asked where we were from and what our names were. She told us she’d been in Mexico for almost 3 years, and that she was a doctoral student at the UNAM. She spoke lilting, French-tinged Spanish. The food wasn’t so spectacular that I’d recommend making a special trip here, based on eating fried Haitian delicacies. But if you’re curious about Haitian food, and you want to support a family that’s getting its first foothold in Mexico City, this place is worth seeking out. The vibe here is comfortable and friendly. Le Bon Gout, a Haitian fonda Manuel Carpio 99 #1C, near the corner of Dr. Atl Note: The entrance is on Dr. Atl. From the corner of Dr. Atl and Manuel Carpio, walk toward the Oaxacan cafe (away from the park). The fonda is just past the Oaxacan café.
Mexican History and Gastronomy program is that to understand Mexican cuisine, you really have to know what was happening in the convents during the viceregal period. The viceregal period refers to when Mexico was ruled by the Spanish crown, from 1521 to 1821. Yesterday Edmundo gave us a fascinating lecture on what life must have been like for the nuns back then. I didn’t realize the extent that money and class determined the course of their lives. The first convents in Mexico were segregated. If you were poor and indigenous, you couldn’t enter, except as a servant. Even women from good families might not have been able to afford it -- the convent required a dowry, and women who didn’t have one needed a rich benefactor. The rich benefactors preferred light-skinned, virtuous women. Young women who were about to “take the habits” (the literal translation from Spanish for taking a nun’s oath) had lavish, three-day parties where they paraded around town in jewels and fancy clothes. Families even paid for portraits of these women, as a sort of “before the convent” photo. One of these portraits is hanging in the Frida Kahlo Museum, near the kitchen; a few more are at the wonderful Franz Mayer museum. If you were a lower-caste woman without means, you had to find a husband, become a servant, or become a prostitute. One Mexican convent, Jesus María, was specifically founded to help prevent women from entering into prostitution, Edmundo said. The Franz Mayer Museum building, which lies just north of the Alameda Central, used to be a hospital exclusively served prostitutes, so this was a very real possibility for women back then. Even though a woman would've paid money to enter the convent, life there wasn't easy. One historical report that Edmundo read to us last night had the women waking up at 4 a.m. to pray. And there would've been various power struggles and scandals that come with sharing the same space with the same women, day after day. Once enclosed in the convents, the nuns used food as a way to make money -- several of their sweets live on today at Dulcería Celaya in the Centro Histórico. But eating was also a way to grow closer to God. These were not simple dishes. Can you imagine that first taste of a hand-ground, creamy walnut sauce, or a manchamanteles spliced with tomatoes and fruit? It had to lift them to the heavens. Heck, it lifts me to the heavens and I'm not living a cloistered existence. I bought a book of Sor Juana's recipes at Ghandi yesterday, and I'm excited to check them out and possibly make a few. When I do, I'll be grateful that I live in 2011 with the freedom to both work and cook.One of the things I’ve learned in my
Last week over lunch at El Cardenal, one of the restaurant’s owners, Marcela Briz, stopped by our table. Dining with me were some fancy guests -- Penny, two chefs from the States and Ruth Alegria. So Señora Briz graciously gave us each a little present: a lotería game she researched and designed based on traditional Mexican foods. I’ve seen riffs on the traditional lotería game before, but never anything that focused specifically on food. This game is actually quite educational. Each card contains a detailed description in Spanish of a variety of Mexican foods and cooking utensils. There's a metate, comal, molcajete, cazuela, plus prehispanic foods like chinicuiles (maguey worms), amaranto and flores de maguey. And dozens more. If you're not familiar with how to play lotería (I actually don't have much experience), Wikipedia says it's like bingo except with pictures. Sounds easy enough. I wonder if you can play with mezcal? As of now, the game is only available in Mexico City. You can find it the El Cardenal location inside the Hilton Hotel on Avenida Juárez, and at the Museo de Arte Popular. It costs 35 pesos, which seems like a steal for the amount of work that went into this. If you're a fan of Mexican cuisine and you're passing through the city sometime soon, you should pick one up.
My visit to Tlacolula made me think a lot about the type of traveler I am. Now that I have a fancy camera, I bring it everywhere, so I can take pictures to show all of you people. (And to show my parents and friends.) But really, why is it so important for me to take pictures where I'm traveling? Is taking pictures ever exploitative, even when I don't mean it to be? The Tlacolula Market, held Sundays in the town of Tlacolula outside Oaxaca, has some interesting prepared foods and produce. But the people-watching is what makes Tlacolula an experience. Dozens of Zapotec women in colorful headscarfs and ribbon-wrapped braids walk around chattering in their language, selling bowlfuls of tejate, bunches of garlic with the stems still attached. They also buy and sell live turkeys. I'd never seen anything like this before. I desperately wanted to take portraits of these women, but I couldn't work up the guts to ask. (The photos above were shot secretly.) Instead I took pictures of food. About half the vendors I dealt with seemed upset even by that. One woman called out to me -- "Señora!" -- after I took a picture of her roasted chicken from across the aisle. When I told her I couldn't buy a chicken, she grumbled. So I offered to erase the photo. At another stand, I bought a kilo of criollo corn. The man selling it gave me a curt nod and didn't look at me when I asked if I could take a picture of it. Crayton asked me: Why are you so upset? They're vendors who make their livelihood off of selling food, and they're annoyed with tourists who don't buy anything. "But I am buying stuff!" I fumed at him. Except... not a metate. Seeing a line of them painted with flowers made my heart flutter, so much that I wanted a photo. I asked the vendor politely and she nodded and looked a bit annoyed. I wanted to give her something, but handing over 20 pesos seemed rude. I'm not sure she would've taken it. What it came down to was, yes, I had a camera, but I didn't like being treated like a rude tourist. Was I acting like one, just because I had a camera? Should I have not taken any pictures at all? I cared deeply about Mexican food and culture, and to arrive at Tlacolula and be treated like an outsider stung. But obviously I was an outsider. I didn't speak Zapotec and I didn't live in Tlacolula, and these people weren't making a dime from me. To just tromp in and expect them to cater to me didn't seem respectful either. A handful of the vendors I spoke to were really nice. The woman who sold me dried beans and tamala squash seeds said I couldn't Tlacolula without trying higaditos, which were a kind of egg guisado made with shredded chicken and tomatoes. It didn't have any liver, contrary to the name. Crayton and I shared a bowlful at a little fonda called "Juanita," inside the big market building. We also split a chocolate atole, which was nothing like the thick, overly sweet champurrados of Mexico City. This one was fluffy and light, full of pieces of corn. We also tried tejate, which is a pre-hispanic drink made from cacao, corn, and ground mamey seed called pixtle. It was viscous and not very sweet, which I liked. I also liked drinking it out of a jícara, a traditional bowl made from a squash gourd. A few days after my visit to Tlacolula, I visited the market in Teotitlan del Valle, another tiny town outside Oaxaca City. This time my guide was Zapotec -- a fabulous local cook named Reina Mendoza. The difference was noticeable: every vendor smiled at me, and one woman laughed when I said "thank-you" in Zapotec. (Reina told me how.) So my question for you is: What's the answer here? Is it a matter of not bringing the camera at all, and not writing this blog post out of respect for the people who sell their food and don't get paid directly by Internet attention? In a perfect world, I could've hired a Zapotec guide to take me around Tlacolula. Or paid some type of photo fee to take pictures. But neither of those things were options. What would you have done?
Mexico City newsstands lie just about on every block, and they're kind of funny places. Most of the magazines are wrapped in plastic, so you really can't stand and read as much as stand and stare at the titles. The newspapers are often clothes-pinned to a rack so you can only see the front page. Despite that, it's super common for people here to just walk up to a newsstand and stare at what's available. The vendor never rushes anybody, and he doesn't say "Can I help you?" because it's assumed that you're going to stand there and peruse the titles awhile. Usually I don't like to while away my time at the newsstand. But today while walking home from yoga class, I felt so tranquila that I stopped at a newsstand and stared awhile. I bought an issue of Arqueología Mexicana devoted to sexuality in Mesoamerica. ("Have you read this?" I asked the vendor. "Of course!" he said. "What kind of vendor would I be if I didn't read what I'm selling?") And then I asked him if he could take a few recipe magazines out of their plastic. They were the kind of cooking magazines I never buy -- the off-size, glossy kind that look like they came with coupons in the mail. In fact, they're part of an El Universal promotion called "Cocina Estado Por Estado," aimed at highlighting different regional Mexican cuisines. A new recipe book devoted to a different Mexican state is released each Monday. There's 11 so far, and there'll be 21 in all, the vendor said. I picked up the Oaxaca and Distrito Federal mags and both seemed really neat. The Oaxaca one came with recipes for tejate (corn and cacao drink), nicuatole de maiz (a drink, not the dessert), and horchata de melon, plus recipes for mole rojo and tamales oaxaqueños. The Distrito Federal version includes recipes for pambazos, chorizo verde, tacos al pastor, limones rellenos and pan de pulque. I might try out a recipe on Saturday -- the horchata de melon sounds especially good -- and I'll report back whether it actually works. Either way, these would at least be good references for my growing Mexican-food cookbook collection. By the way -- the Mesoamerican sexuality magazine is going to be my airplane reading. I'm leaving for a trip to the States next Sunday.
Every year in late summer and early fall, the chile en nogada makes its brief run through Mexico. The star ingredients, walnuts and pomegranate seeds, are not available any other time of the year. So it's a festive time. Restaurant storefronts become festooned with "We have chiles en nogada!" banners. Pomegranates glitter at the tianguis. Mexican Independence Day is right around the corner (on Sept. 16), and the dish is pretty much the culinary centerpiece of the celebration. To me, the most interesting thing about chiles en nogada is that it's a living piece of Mexican history. Puebla nuns invented the dish in 1821, to honor a visit by Mexican General Augustín de Iturbide. The dish featured the colors of the Mexican flag: a poblano chile stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, covered in creamy walnut sauce (white) and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley (red and green). The Mexican flag was unveiled around the same period, so you can imagine the patriotic fervor. Today, the chile en nogada sounds awfully baroque. Fruity meat? Pomegranate seeds? Who would eat that? At the time, however, nogada sauce was popular. And so was the idea of combining dozens of ingredients to create a complicated, tedious dish. (The Pueblan nuns also invented mole.) Chiles en nogada is not an easy dish, and it's not meant to be. That's part of the tradition. Walnuts must be peeled. Spices assembled. Raw and dried fruit, chopped. Even after assembling your chile, you must dunk it in egg batter and fry it. In the olden days, the nuns didn't have blenders, so they ground the walnut sauce on the metate. As someone who has done her fair share of metate-grinding, I can tell you that it had to take entire days of grinding to get the texture they wanted. Let me repeat that: days of grinding. ...
The other day, I was really craving a torta. This doesn't happen to me that often (I'm much more of a tlacoyos girl) but this craving was undeniable: I needed a stack of meat, melted cheese and avocado piled between layers of soft bread. Since I don't eat tortas that often, I don't have a favorite variety. I asked my Facebook friends which type I should choose. The response was swift. "Cancún!" said my friend Hugh. "Anything with quesillo!" said Alejandra. There are about 10 torta stands within walking distance of my house, but I wanted the best. So I went downstairs and asked the portero which one he preferred. He made a vague motion across the street. "Allí," he said. The only thing I'd seen across the street was a fonda, so I thought he meant across the street and down the block. I peered over the parked cars and didn't see anything. And then, walking toward the corner, I saw it: a torta shop tucked next to the fonda, behind a tree, with a cheery sign. The sign looked like someone had taken a bite out of the side. Standing inside the cramped space, I kind of felt like being in a panadería for the first time. There were so many flavors! So many different meat and cheese combinations! I ordered the Cancún -- a mix of chuleta, cheese and pineapple. (Thanks, Hugh.) But the shop had run out of chuleta. So I thought a bit and instead went with the Holandesa, which was the same as the Cancún, except with pierna. Of course it came with all the other torta fixins, too: beans, avocado, tomato, and a shmear of chipotle salsa. I can't tell you how excited I was when I took this thing home and unwrapped it. The greasy paper. The oozing cheese. The smell. I was so excited, in fact, that I managed to take only two pictures before taking a bite. Since then I been thinking about tortas much more often, and I'm thinking this might be regular thing for me. Next time I'm at the tortería, what kind should I get?