Friday, January 25, 2013

Shots and Snacks

As everyone knows, tequila is the national tipple of Mexico.  And, as perhaps many of you also know, it is an internationally recognized DOC manufactured in the state of Jalisco using a distillate of the blue agave plant.  If your bottle says 100% agave that's what it is and if it just says tequila it can be 51% agave and 49% something else - usually distilled corn.  I prefer a white or blanco tequila but most of what's in the stores here and everywhere else looks like this.
It's reposado and means it has been aged in oak.  But looking at row after row after row of reposado tequila I started to have my doubts.  I mean were all these hundreds of thousands of gallons actually aged in anything?  It seemed like the Mexican equivalent of truffle oil which I know for a fact - since a friend of mine makes it in Italy - has never made the slightest acquaintance with a truffle.

I discovered that the licenses to produce tequila are controlled by the Mexican government.  Indeed, all of the distillation, aging, bottling, transportation, etc. is governed by law.  Upon reading this law it seemed that the aged in oak requirement was for real.  Two months for reposado; one year for anejo.  But then, Ah Ha, section 4.1 also allows for "mellowing".  What can you put in tequila to "mellow" it?  Caramel coloring.  Natural oak or holm oak extract.  Glycerin.  Sugar based syrup.  So, my suspicions confirmed, my advice to you would be to only purchase A) Blanco Tequila B) 100% agave which doesn't have any of that crap in it.  Plus look for a bottle that says not only C) Hecho (made) in Mexico but also D) Bottled in Mexico.  Any tequila that gets shipped abroad in bulk ends up being mixed.

That being settled, how to drink it?   Mexicans do drink Margaritas but not to the extent Americans do.  It seems the most popular tequila cocktail here is called a Paloma, a mixture of tequila and grapefruit soda.  Yuck.  For me the most civilized way to drink it is with sangrita.  You can buy it already made up like this or you can make it yourself.  If you have a shot of tequila, a shot of sangrita, and a shot of lime juice together it's called a bandas - the colors of the Mexican flag.

Supposedly the original sangrita wasn't tomato based but a mixture of sour orange juice, fresh pomegranate juice, salt and dried, powdered chili pequin.  Since sour oranges are all over the place here and we found fresh pomegranates at the supermarket I recreated the original and it was delightfully refreshing if not what I was used to. 

I found some pretty outlandish recipes for sangrita through Google.  Wacky non-Mexican ingredients including soy sauce and horseradish. The noted American chef, Bobby Flay, makes sangrita and then dumps the tequila into it as if it was a Bloody Mary.  But my favorite recipe is one I came up with in Italy.  Surprisingly, given the fact that tomatoes figure in every other dish, it is hard to find tomato juice in Italy.  So when I wanted to make sangrita there I made some homemade tomato juice and added pomegranate juice from the fruit tree in our garden plus the chili and salt.  Delicious.  I'm only showing you one picture of sangrita because they all pretty much look the same even though they all taste different.

In Mexican bars you are never just served a beer or a shot.  There's always a snack - a botana.  It can be as simple as a bowl of chilied peanuts or some chicharron.  For those who don't live in North America this is chicharron.  Deep fried pig skin sprinkled with salt.  Incredibly popular and surely a dish which contributes significantly to the girth of the population.

The Yucatan peninsula is famous for the diversity and yumminess of its botanas.  Bruce and I have a couple of watering holes we're cultivating where all you have to do is order two beers or tequila shots and they bring you so many goodies you don't need to eat lunch.  These "small plates" - as the trendy saying goes - can be simple like pickled cucumbers or potatoes with sour orange juice, onion and habanero chili or more filling - scrambled eggs and chorizo (sausage) or what is practically the "national" dish of the Yucatan "pan de cazon" -  shark meat layered between tortillas with black bean puree, spicy tomato sauce and maybe a little grated cheese on top.

But my absolute favorite botana is a sort of dip called Ttikil p'ak which sounds like sikh sikh pak when you pronounce it.  It's a Mayan word and a Mayan dish.  The best one I've had is at the bar/restaurant "El Bucanero".  I asked them for the recipe and the chef, a woman named Karla Pech, happened to be making some right then in the kitchen and showed me how it's done.  By the way, Pech is also a Mayan word as in Campeche, which, in the original Maya, means "place of snakes and ticks"  Not a very salubrious sounding locale.  Here's Ms. Pech's recipe.

6 grilled tomatoes - skins should be blackened
1/2 grilled white onion - also should be blackened
4 grilled habanero chili - you can cut back on these if you like since they're quite piccante

Put the well grilled vegetables into a blender.  Then add what Ms. Pech described as ten pesos of toasted ground pumpkin seeds.  Cilantro/fresh coriander to taste.  Salt to taste and blend the whole to a paste.  I know it doesn't look like much but, boy, is it good.  If you keep it in the fridge she says it will last for three days.  But how much, you ask, is 10 pesos of ground pumpkin seeds?

Well, those Masa Senoras also sell toasted ground pumpkin seeds.  So it was back to the market to buy ten pesos of "pepita molida" which when I weighed it came in at about 100 grams or 4 ounces.

Buon aprovecha


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mercado de Pescados

Here's the second reason I wanted to come back here - the Campeche fish market. All fresh, all local. No Pacific halibut or Arctic char for sale here just what's caught off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. After three years in landlocked Laos this abundance from the sea was irresistible. What was it all?

On New Year's Eve my friend, Glynnna, an American who has lived in Campeche for over six years and speaks fluent Spanish, agreed to come with me and get the names of everything. Bruce came along as photographer. The folks selling the fish were totally into it and once they knew we were documenting their products they started dragging stuff out and running up to us with so many different types of fish I couldn't write fast enough and Bruce couldn't snap fast enough to keep up. We managed to get the names and photos of over sixteen different species before we became completely overwhelmed. And this was on New Year's Eve - a slow day. Here's a guy holding up the primeval looking "peje lagarto" - crocodile fish.

I took my list home and started trying to figure out what they all were in English. Some, like "cazon" - shark was pretty obvious. Others like "pargo amarillo" I figured out was yellowtail snapper. And some like "cochinito" which I know translates as little pig were inscrutable. Perhaps it's colloquial like the names of wild mushrooms in Italy. What somebody in our village calls a particular funghi could have a completely different name twenty kilometers down the road. I consoled myself with the notion that since I didn't know what it was in English I wouldn't be able to look it up on the Monterrey Aquarium website and find out I was dining on an endangered species.

While trawling the net for "corcovado" (caranx lugubria) or black jack I made a surprising discovery that gave me pause. There's a disease called ciguatera which can be found in tropical reef fish all around the world. This was a problem. Pretty much all they sell here is reef fish. Ciguatera can make you very sick or really, really sick. It grows in plankton and algae which are then eaten by herbivorous fish who themselves are eaten by bigger fish working it's way up the food chain - kind of like mercury in tuna.

Well, there goes my purchase of a barracuda steak. It seems there's no way to detect ciguatera-poisoned fish although I did enjoy some of the folklore connected with that. Flies won't land on an infected fish or if black ants crawl over it and die you shouldn't eat it. The best was if you put a silver coin under the scales and it turns black it's no good. Which, coincidentally, is what Italians say to do with your pan of wild mushrooms. If the coin turns black non si mangia.

And then it dawned on me. Please. You're going to worry about a food borne illness in Mexico!
Lighten up and stop reading Wikipedia.

Here's what we bought for New Year's Eve dinner. I already knew what these are called. Robalo and huachinango - snook and red snapper. They were both scrumptious but the robalo was superb. I've never understood why it's not more popular in the states. Is it because "I'll have the snook" just isn't as sexy as "I'll have the branzino". Then I found out that snook is not permitted to be commercially sold in America. I don't know why.

But here in Mexico you can buy it at the market and then take it over to the guys who, for a few pesos, clean your fish for you.

We took them home and marinated both in olive oil, habanero chili and Seville orange juice. Seville orange juice - which is more sour than regular orange juice - is used extensively in Yucatan cooking. It's kind of like a cross between orange and lime juice. Then we wrapped the pair whole in banana leaf packages and grilled them on the barbecue. Muy rico - delicious.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Masa Señoras

Here's the real reason I wanted to return to Campeche. Yes, it's a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage colonial town on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico but seven years ago when we first came here what caught my eye was this group of vendors in the market. I call them the Masa Señoras.  We'd travelled a lot in Mexico and were living in the state of Veracruz but this was the very first time I'd seen people actually selling homemade masa. Masa is the dough from which tortillas and tamales are made and heretofore the only kind of flour or tortilla I'd encountered was made from this:

This is Maseca corn flour which lines the shelves of every shop in the land from supermarkets to local bodegas. It's made by the Gruma corporation which is headquartered in Nuevo Leon. They manufacture corn flour all over the world - they even have plants in the south of France and China! It's pretty much an instant mix - just add water and press out your tortilla. The only problem is that the tortilla it makes is lousy in comparison to the traditional dough which the Masa Señoras sell. How did Maseca become so ubiquitous? Ah, therein hangs a Mexican tale.

In 1990 this man, Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, made a deal with then Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. For decades the Mexican government had controlled the supply of corn - the country's staple food. Salinas used that authority to freeze the amount of corn supplied to small tortilla producers and decreed that all growth in this sector was now to go to the corn flour business - the vast majority of which was controlled by Barrera. He and Salinas were old pals from Monterrey. It was as if the French government had limited the supply of wheat for baguette in order to manipulate the market so people would have to purchase Wonder Sliced White.

Here's the tortilla "factory" in the Campeche market. Looks like a venerable piece of equipment, right? But no, as a result of Salinas's corn policy many small tortilla producers went out of business. But the Gruma corporation was happy to step in to sell this machinery to Mom & Pop operations everywhere - specifically designed for just making corn flour tortillas - the proof of which is huge sacks of Maseca flour piled up nearby. If you wanted to survive in the tortilla business you had to do business with Barrera. And just to make this deal even more lucrative the government subsidizes the cost of these Maseca tortillas to keep a supply flowing to the poor while paying Gruma the difference between the cheap tortilla and the more expensive real cost of ingredients and production. When Barrera died in August of 2012 he was worth 1.1 billion dollars US.

After uncovering all this information, my Masa Señoras seemed less like a romantic nod to a vanishing way of cooking and more like the tortilla equivalent of Occupy Wall Street.

The Masa Señoras all come from the same town about thirty kilometers from Campeche called Tanuba. That's where their mill is. They each have their names on their buckets to identify their own masa as it comes out of the mill. How does one make masa? You take dried corn and soak it in an alkali solution heating it slightly and then letting it soak. This process, called nixtamalization, does two important things. It breaks down the corn so that the hard bit on the end - you know the piece that holds the popcorn together - comes off so the rest can easily be ground and, more importantly, it chemically transforms the corn to release niacin. Without niacin people who consume corn as a staple fall ill from pellagra. There was a huge epidemic of pellagra in northern Italy 100 years ago because people were living off polenta but didn't know to soak it first as the Mexicans had been doing for centuries. I still haven't figured out what the difference is between say the masa from Lupe's bucket as opposed to Carmen's bucket. And I don't know if they grow their own corn or get it from somewhere else. But I was completely psyched about making my own traditional tortillas.

I bought a tortilla press and a comal in the market. A comal is a flat metal pan you put over a flame to cook the tortilla. I've read that the best type is earthenware but in all my travels in Mexico I've never seen one - and believe me I've been looking. I decided to make my own tortillas into a dinner of enchiladas. Boy, did that not work out. Here I am trying to smile for the camera while freaking out over my abject failure. I know "a poor workman blames his tools" but my comal was crap, buckling and twisting and not letting my dough puff up which is how you know you're cooking the tortilla all the way through. I bought another heavier duty comal at the supermarket which worked better but not as well as my flat cast iron skillet on which I'd cooked tortillas before - but that was back in Italy.

It seemed to me this authentic masa was making my tortillas too thick so Bruce suggested I cheat a bit and mix in some of the evil Maseca dough with the good stuff thinking it would lighten the whole thing up. I think they were better. But it may just be that I'm getting better at pressing them out and getting the heat right. I don't know. What I do know is that a really good tortilla, like homemade pasta or pizza dough, is one of those simple things that could take a lifetime to master.