Just why is Mexican cuisine so great? Is it the impossibly fresh ingredients, the grandmothers' secret recipes...or even the ancient Aztecs' flair for sauces?
There is a man selling oro mangoes at the farmers’ market in Malinalco who cuts them up into small, uneven chunks and serves them in a disposable cup, and I strongly suggest you buy one because it will be the best mango to ever pass your lips—a record that will stand for, oh, a minute. The oro (“gold”) is just a workaday mango, the man will tell you, about as good as a petacon (“butt cheek”), but nowhere near as good as the king of all mangoes, the mighty manila, a golden lobe of tropical acid-sweet balance that arrives peeled and gamely impaled on a wooden stick and dusted with chili powder.
I hope you’re hungry. Because there are also pig’s-brain quesadillas; pancita, a deeply savory beef broth with chunks of tripe finished with fresh oregano and a squeeze of lime juice; tacos filled with pig’s feet cured in vinegar; woven baskets heaped with just-baked bread; quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms; heirloom tomatoes (which, around here, aren’t considered heirloom yet); free samples of chicozapote, a red-fleshed fruit with a flavor somewhere between nutmeg and cinnamon; unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese; tamales; enchiladas; fresh-squeezed orange juice; and locally grown, locally roasted coffee beans.
And don’t be surprised if you see a dude clopping down the street on a horse and dismounting to eat—what else?—a taco. He is not an attention-seeking foodie hipster reveling in trumped-up “authenticity,” or some former CEO turned organic vegetable gaucho. He is a man who does not own a car. Brooklyn—to say nothing of Austin and Portland—has nothing on this place.
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Malinalco is a small town about seventy miles southwest of Mexico City, and here is the most unbelievable thing about it: The daily market, which brings the town square to a superbly aromatic halt every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, is not considered a standout. People in other parts of Mexico are not—I repeat, not—talking about it, because they have their own equally good and possibly even better farmers’ markets.
I’d come to Mexico to partake in a culinary tour, the kind of region-to-region food pilgrimage more commonly experienced in the countryside of Italy or France, where one inches along, town by town, indulging in local specialties and roadside delights. The plan was simple: Land in Mexico City, meet up with a driver who came recommended, head south to the state of Morelos, which is famous for pork and chilies and their infinite permutations, then east to Puebla, where mole was invented (maybe), and finally back to Mexico City, a city that never sleeps in large part because it never stops eating. Before you hurl the magazine across the room in jealous disgust, let me assure you that my purpose is greater than mere indulgence—although there will be no shortage of it. I am here to ask the following questions:
1. Is Mexican food in Mexico really so much better than the Mexican food in America?
2. If so, why?
As far as question one goes, I had the answer—a vigorous, enthusiastic yes—long before meeting the mango hombre. Barely an hour south of Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport, I asked my driver to pull off the toll highway on the edge of La Marquesa National Park, remarkable for its towering conifers and green glades. In the village of La Marquesa, the place to rent an ATV or horse, I found a taco stand, which is to say a shedlike structure so rickety as to invite a tornado. In front of it stood a beat-up stove on top of which sat a shoulder of pork braising in hot manteca (lard). I sat and ordered. Plastic cutlery arrived, followed by a container of chopped onion and cilantro. A woman laid down a paper plate with two warm tortillas cradling chunks of pork. I dressed the taco, expecting it to be terrible, mentally rehearsing the apologetic hand gestures I would use as I sprinted from taco-stand squalor back to the car. Instead, the taco was not only the best I had ever eaten in my life, it made every previous taco seem like a cultural atrocity. I reeled at the sheer corniness of the tortilla, the porkiness of the pork, the savory burn of the salsa, and the bright crunch of the cilantro and onion.
On to question two: Why?
This is, for me at least, one of the burning questions of our time. It is a question that has nagged me since the summer of 1996, when I spent three months as a student intern in suburban Brussels in a state of constant awe over the quality of pastries, chocolates, mussels, beer, sausages, and so forth. Why did Belgians eat so well? I wondered. Why, for that matter, do Italians? And the Japanese? (And, if you ask me, the Koreans.) Why do Germans, who are better organized and wealthier than Italians, visit Italy by the busload just to eat? Shouldn’t the food be better in Germany?
All of which makes Mexico a particularly interesting case. It is, by a long shot, much poorer than its neighbor to the north. So why is the food so good? How can a random roadside taco be better than the most critically acclaimed, cutting-edge taco in all of New York City? (I’ve had both.)
The secret wasn’t tough to ﬁgure out: ingredients. The maize in the tortilla shell was local. The chilies in the red and green salsa were yanked out of a garden maybe fifty feet away. So was the cilantro. The pork—dark enough to qualify as “the other red meat”—didn’t spend its days on a metal grate eating industrial feed. It rooted around in someone’s back field. It wasn’t braised in industrially refined corn oil, either, but lolled for many happy hours in the saturated bliss of rendered pork fat.
I had it all figured out. Mexico, whose geography includes tropical beaches, forests, dry deserts, fertile valleys, and snowcapped mountains, is home to a fantastic diversity of ingredients. Although its economy is on a roll, so far it isn’t in the grip of industrial agriculture. It is, simply, the land of fresh and local.
The ingredient theory was working beautifully. Every stall was a ringing endorsement. Each, that is, except the cecina stall, which brought the theory crashing painfully to earth. Cecina is beef rump that’s cut into pamphlet-thin sheets, salted, then dried and folded like linen. When you place your order, a portion is sliced off, grilled over wood, and served, often in a taco. I was midway through cecina taco number two when the taco vendor wondered if the cecina-crazed gringo (me) had been to Atlixco, a city a few hours east of Malinalco that I’d neverheard of. Atlixco, it turns out, is famous for cecina.
This was all well and good for Atlixco and its fortunate residents, but not for my theory. Because what was so good, specifically, about Atlixco? Could the food there somehow be fresher? More local? Other tensions in the theory were coming to light. For example, if merely being tropical and nonindustrial is the secret to Mexico’s food, then shouldn’t Guatemala and Panama, which are arguably more tropical and more nonindustrial, have even better food? (They do not.)
No, there had to be something else. As I raised my eyes from the tables heaped with food to the people preparing that food, it hit me: grandmothers.
The stalls, though the very antithesis of “corporate,” were nonetheless competitive in a way that would warm the heart of a Chicago school economist. If you ask, say, a grandmother over at this enchilada stall about the grandmother at that other stall, you will be met with a certain look, just as you will if you mention the tlacoyos (oval stuffed tortillas) down the road in that other town, or the cecina in Atlixco, which, however famous, could not possibly be as good as the cecina in Malinalco.
There is only one country I can think of with a similar level of region-based culinary egocentrism. There is only one country where one grandmother will casually trash-talk about the way the grandmother across the street—whom she has known for the better part of a century—cooks.
That country is Italy.
We shall call this the peasant cuisine theory of good food. According to this point of view, deliciousness isn’t the product of high-end chefs and their wizardly techniques. It rests, rather, on the army of everyday cookers and eaters who not only inhabit the countryside but are the countryside. This theory explains why visitors to Italy return with rapturous tales of the twelve-dollar bowl of orecchiette thumb-shaped by some wrinkled nonna. And it’s why I ate more good food in a single hour at a small-town Mexican market than in the previous three months back in the so-called land of plenty.
The Italians currently own the theory, but they didn’t create it. The legendary French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier—the inventor of modern cuisine as we know it—did a brisk business repackaging the Provençal dishes of his youth to an unsuspecting crowd of high-end ladies and gentlemen. A good example is his carré d’agneau Mistral, a southern French lamb dish of artichokes and potatoes baked in olive oil and garlic that he “refined” by using butter and truffles.
The whole point is the connection between high and low, a link that can be witnessed in its full glory at Las Mañanitas, a resort you find by driving two hours east of Malinalco over the Sierra Madre. Unlike most resorts, Las Mañanitas is situated smack-dab in the middle of a city, Cuernavaca. Inside its cloistered walls sprawls an incredibly non-urban expanse of manicured green, with tropical birds squawking and a pool replenished by an artificial waterfall.
The menu offers a few hilariously anachronistic dishes such as lamb chops with mint jelly. But those are the exception on a list that reads like the fantasy of some famished industrialist who misses his abuela: tortilla soup, bone marrow tacos, pig’s knuckle, liver and onions, brains in black butter sauce. Like Escoffier, Las Mañanitas replaces the peasant fat, lard, with clarified butter. (Personally, I’m not convinced.) But the sense of tradition runs deeper than the air of refinement. When I asked the waiter what was particularly good right now, he said escamoles, or ant eggs, and then he said gusanos de maguey, maguey worms. You don’t hear that every day.
If you explore Cuernavaca further, you will find the house that used to belong to the famous Mexican comic actor known as Cantinflas. He’s been dead for twenty years, but his house was converted into the restaurant Gaia, which when I visited boasted one of the country’s few top female chefs. There, you could sit on the second floor and stare at the mosaic pool by Diego Rivera while enjoying refinements like a taco topped with duck, or a smoked marlin tostadita (like a taco only not folded). But the menu’s little secret is the chicharrón (pork rind) soup, which marks a new—not to mention unforgettably savory—high point in low-high Mexican cuisine. It reads as so down-market that waiters actually have to encourage locals to give it a try. But only once.
And then there was the small matter of the cecina in Atlixco, which is only another two hours east of Cuernavaca—which means that if you don’t linger too long over the chicharrón soup, you can make it there in time for a pre-dinner of grilled beef. (That said, it’s strategically even smarter to spend a night amid the historical sweep of Hacienda San Gabriel de las Palmas, a former sugar plantation originally commissioned by conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1529 that has been reborn as a resort. This way, you can arrive at the market by lunch.) The Mercado de Atlixco isn’t messing around. It’s a permanent affair, a buzzing wonderland of burbling liquids, bizarre animal parts, and haggling. Tables are heaped with folded sheets of goat and sheep tripe, pork knuckles, stomach, and liver. There are giant bags of lard, dried shrimp, bins of purple corn fungus (a delicacy often compared to truffles that doesn’t taste anything like truffles). A woman was holding what looked like an oar to fry a vat of chicharrón. And there was tub after tub filled with mole.
The cecina vendors spotted me before I spotted them. They dispatched children who buzzed in like Spitfires and confronted me with samples of uncommonly good grilled beef. “Why?” I asked the woman standing behind a charcoal grill and nearly hidden by a tower of folded meat. The beef, she said. It was all local, from ten-year-old bulls fed grass and alfalfa. “Anything younger than that,” she informed me, “and the meat doesn’t have enough taste,” which was her way of telling me the other cecina vendors weren’t doing it right.
Atlixco is half an hour from the much larger city of Puebla, which locals will tell you is the country’s number two city, culturally speaking, even though it may not be in terms of population. Poblanos think nothing of making a quick dash to Atlixco for some cecina. Not that they’re short on food options, mind you. Puebla, it is said, is the birthplace of mole. (So are Oaxaca and Tlaxcala, apparently, but work with me.) If you don’t know what a mole is, it’s often described as the material expression of the Mexican spirit, its hot-blooded earthy passions distilled into a single, divine ingredient. It’s also a spice mix that usually, but not always, involves chilies.
There are hundreds of moles in Mexico, but mole poblano is the most famous. You can buy it by the barrel in Atlixco—I recommend it—but good chefs insist on making it themselves. One of them, Gabriel Rojas, is so proud of his award-winning mole poblano (yes, there are awards) that he puts on mole demos. Rojas met me at Casareyna, the restaurant and boutique hotel in downtown Puebla that specializes in food and art. He stood behind a linen-covered table bearing all seventeen ingredients in little bowls (sesame, anise, toasted tortilla, stale bread, raisins, chocolate, cloves, lard, chicken broth, dried chilies, etc.). He toasted this and that, then threw everything in a blender. Quality, he said, was a product of a slavish devotion to ingredients and an even more slavish devotion to process. “Too many people are lazy,” he said.
Now Rojas melted lard in a pan—enough that I understood why it’s sold by the bag—added the mole, and cooked it for twenty minutes. “Never add water,” he announced with a tone that suggested there are a lot of idiots out there adding water. Then he began pouring in little spoonfuls of chicken broth, as though making a risotto. Finally, some sugar—“to bring out the taste of the chocolate”—then he simmered it for an hour more, at which point what had not long ago been seventeen separate ingredients was as dark as soy sauce and as thick as honey. I ate it draped over chicken, and it tasted sweet, spicy, and savory—a chorus of flavors in which no individual note could be identified. I was thankful that Gabriel Rojas is not lazy.
According to legend, mole poblano was invented by a gaggle of nuns who were in a panic over the news that the archbishop, or possibly the viceroy of New Spain (no one’s quite sure), was on his way over for dinner. The nuns’ kitchen—at the convent of Santa Rosa, which dates from the 1600s and is found in Puebla’s superbly colonial old center—has been preserved as a museum, where the mole-stricken can gaze at an ancient oven larger than most hotel beds and enormous earthenware bowls and wooden spoons so big you can herniate a disk just looking at them.
In truth, the nuns’ invention was more like a riff. Moles, like so many things in Mexico, have pre-Hispanic roots. The dish we see and taste rests on an often invisible native foundation.
There are literal instances of this all over the place in Mexico. Many of the country’s oldest churches stand on the ruins of much older native temples. Consider Cholula. At the time the Spanish settled Puebla, Cholula was a thriving native city. So when the Spanish finally got to Cholula, they built the church of Santa María Tonantzintla where formerly stood the temple of Tonantzin, an earth goddess so fond of fruit that devotees would bring it to the temple as offerings. Inside the Christian church, there is even a carving of what looks very much like a pre-Christian goddess gorging on something sweet and very juicy.
Outside, I made my way to the impossibly massive Great Pyramid of Cholula—the largest on earth, though not the tallest. At its base, a vendor was selling something fittingly pre-Hispanic: chapulines—fried grasshoppers seasoned with lime and chilies.
I bought a bag, sat down, munched insects, and kissed another theory good-bye. The peasant cuisine theory of Mexican food, I realized, wasn’t so much a theory as a description. What was it, specifically, about these people that made their food so good?
A new, better theory—one that tasted oddly like fried onions but nuttier and with six legs—was crunching between my teeth: the ancients. Locals had been eating moles, tamales, and tortillas since long before the Spanish showed up. Like mole poblano, what made Mexican food distinctively Mexican (not to mention good) was the ancient native influence. The Aztecs’ vast and great empire enjoyed a correspondingly vast and great cuisine. Their last emperor, Moctezuma II, may have eaten better than his European contemporaries. He sipped a chocolate-vanilla potion out of golden goblets. Every day, runners would sprint fresh fish from the gulf coast and ice from the tallest volcanoes to the royal palace. At each meal, he would sit down to thirty courses. His favorites included partridge, rabbit, venison, and wild boar.
I take zero credit for this theory. If you ask a Mexican grandmother why the tamale she just handed you is so good, chances are this is the answer you will receive. She will point out that the regions of Mexico with the most distinctive dishes—the Valley of Mexico, the Yucatán, and Oaxaca—overlap with the ancient seats of civilization (Aztecs, Maya, and Zapotecs).
The most famous exponent of the pre-Hispanic theory is probably Martha Ortiz, a high priestess of Mexican cuisine who lives and cooks in the former heart of the Aztec empire known today as Mexico City. A fiery, dark-haired poetess who’s almost as well known for her good looks as her culinary creations, Ortiz describes her cooking as “painting with the ingredients of Mexico.” Manning market stalls up and down the country, she apprenticed with artisan womenfolk, from whom she learned the techniques of the ancients—such as the finer nuances of grinding ingredients in the ubiquitous, not to mention pre-Hispanic, mortar known as a molcajete. (Most people, she says, grind too fast.) Her cuisine seems inspired less by trendy ingredients and fashionable techniques than by history and art mixed with an equal dose of passion. “Corn,” she proclaims, “tastes like the sun.” A Mexican sauce cannot be made “without touching stone.”
Ortiz sent me to a place called Xochimilco, an ancient city within the unending flood of urbanity that is Mexico’s capital. Xochimilco is famous for its canals, which are all that remain of an enormous aquatic farming and transport network that used to span the valley, making it something like an Aztec freshwater Venice. The market there is yet another fantasyland of Mexican specialties, many of which haven’t changed in a thousand years. There were giant tortillas, thick tortillas, tiny tortillas, intestines, various dead birds with their feet still on, and a cecina from Yecapixtla, which some say is better than Atlixco’s. (Impossible, I say.) But that’s all just delectable background noise compared with the lake products that recall the ancient but now endangered aquaculture. An old woman wearing a checkered apron was cutting chunks off a massive wheel of fermented fish eggs. Nearby, a table was stacked with baked carp. Next to it, an eighty-two-year-old woman sold frog’s-leg tamales—and had been doing so since she was twenty-four. I ordered a tortilla unlike any I had ever seen, a thick shell hand hewn from intensely blue corn flour, topped with cactus leaves and a sprinkling of fresh cheese. An ancient pre-Hispanic base, once again, covered with a layer of Europe.
And then at dinner, I did a gastronomic one-eighty. I left the anthropology department and headed for the beach. Which is to say I headed back downtown to the extraordinarily charming, fashionable (and pricey) neighborhood of Condesa, whose windy streets are crowded with trees, boutiques, Art Deco apartment buildings, and restaurants—lots of restaurants. Judging by appearances, life in Condesa consists of looking good and going out to eat. The lucky ones dine at MeroToro, a cool and relaxed newish joint whose chef, Jair Téllez, hails from the surfer paradise of Baja.
Baja California is about as far from ancient Mexico as you can get, both geographically and culinarily, without leaving the country. Téllez is that rare Mexican who ate sushi long before mole. His cooking is, you might say, unencumbered by Mexico. “In Baja, we’re not carrying the pyramid around on our shoulders,” Téllez told me as I ate a crispy yet melting hunk of pig’s head with a poached egg on top set on a bed of smoky lentils. “The result,” he continued, “is that we focus on quality instead of on the narrative.” It sounded like a dig at Ortiz, but I think it was more like the observation of a dude from Baja who’s into pairing sea scallops with green apple, pistachio, and preserved lemon, or placing the tenderest morsel of braised beef short ribs on a bean purée good enough to induce a public bout of plate licking.
In other words, so much for the pre-Hispanic theory.
Téllez had his own ideas about his country’s unwavering deliciousness. “It’s because Mexico is very mixed,” he posited. “There are a lot of different climates.” Call it the climatological theory, which is really a variation of the now-defunct ingredients theory.
Or was it defunct? Because Téllez was making sense. But so was everything: ingredients, the peasant tradition, the pre-Hispanic stuff. I was less sure of things now than when my plane landed a million calories ago.
Before heading to the airport the next day, I set out for a locally famous hangover remedy, hoping its curative properties might extend to a not-dissimilar mental state known as confusion. Barbacoa El Calandrio occupies a warehouse-like space in a neighborhood called San Martín Xochinahuac and attracts everyone from the working-class to rich guys in sports cars for its lamb, which is wrapped in maguey leaves and slow-roasted over hot coals for sixteen hours. Before tucking into a mountain of espaldilla (the top of the front leg) served with warm yellow tortillas and a small army of garnishes, I received the medicine I craved: the broth that collects underneath.
As I sipped, the fog lifted. I thought back to Gaia, the restaurant in Cuernavaca that now seemed almost a distant memory. While I was eating dessert (spiced banana cake with coconut ice cream), the chef, Fernanda Aramburo, took a break from the hot stove to talk food with the gringo who wouldn’t shut up about the chicharrón soup. I pressed her for her own Mexican food theory but rejected what she said because I was, at that point, in the giddy throes of the peasant cuisine theory. The lamb broth, though, brought it back to me, and now I recognized the wisdom and beauty of her words. “Culture and tradition,” Aramburo said, “and it’s made with love and kind hands.”
If the hand that cooks loves, the theory goes, the mouth that eats will too. I took a bite of lamb and dabbed a tear from my eye. It must have been the chilies.
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