Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

A few years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in Mexico.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where did you have your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!

A Real Oyster Cracker

Some call them water crackers, Philadelphia crackers, or Trenton crackers, but they’re most commonly called oyster crackers.

Although Westminster Bakers Co. claims to have invented them as early as 1828, officially that record is from an 1847 listing for the Adam Exton Cracker Bakery. No matter what the correct answer is, they’re ever-so-slightly modeled after oysters, and started off as a popular topping for oyster stews.

American oyster crackers
Westminster Baking Co. Oyster Crackers, Santa Barbara, California, United States

To me, oyster crackers have always been reminiscent of being slightly less salty versions of Saltines.

But what if I told you that there’s a “leveled up” version of these so-called oyster crackers that actually contain the aphrodisiacal mollusk?

For a sample of those, you might have to go — or these days, find an awfully generous local — to grab you these snacks. Why?

Because they’re in Japan.

A random stop in Kurashiki, a pleasant little canal town known for its centuries-old rice warehouses, helped lead me to bicchu kurashiki Setouchian (in Japanese, 備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵). This particular store specialized in local gastronomy, and I must say they had some delicious offerings that you may never have expected to see; for instance, I remember going back for sample after sample of their orange butter and (famous in the region) peach butter.

I did end up buying a jar of the peach butter, but what struck my attention for a bit of Japanese food fusion was the oyster senbei:

oyster senbei cracker kurashiki japan
Bicchu Kurashiki Setouchian (牡蠣薄焼き煎餅 – 倉敷市、備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵), Oyster Senbei/Cracker, Kurashiki, Japan

Senbei (煎餅・せんべい) are rice crackers, local snack staples throughout much of the country. Many are flavored with sesame seeds, seaweed, and/or soy sauce. This one, however, had oysters BAKED IN, ostensibly from the nearby Setouchi Inlet.

It was an umami feast, but after a few of those, I needed something sweet.

So that’s where the peach butter came into play ….

Let’s Get Muddy: A Mexican Food Idiom

I spent several months in Mexico living with a Mexican woman who not only showed me around her country, but also taught me some albures. Albures are mischievous idioms which I believe help make Mexican Spanish so fun and alluring to speak.

For starters, use of the doble sentido, or double entendre, is very popular in casual speech. If you’re with a group of Mexican friends, be prepared to get playfully embarrassed by someone. Chatting in Mexico to me seems authentic … you just have to know the double meanings  of some of the words to delight in the good-natured ribbing.

Take this one as an example:

atascate que hay lodo mexican idiom

I saw this sign at El Sinaloense restaurant in Mazatlán, one of a number of popular beach resort cities along the Pacific. “Atáscate (ahora) que hay lodo” roughly translates as “get yourself stuck (now) since there’s mud.”

And again, the sign was at a restaurant.

That was your one hint.

OK, here comes the explanation:

Pretend your a swine, curly tail and all. An inauspicious kismet awaits you, but that’s temporarily on hold due to the torrential rains. Your once dry pig pen is now a muddy paradise.

You’re lapping up the mud so much that you get stuck in it.

All of that mud.

guacamole fish tortillas Mazatlán Mexico
Guacamole and Fish, El Sinaloense Restaurant, Mazatlán, Mexico

Human analogy: you’re one person, but you’ve ordered as if you were three. Look at all of that food in front of you.

The food is the mud, the guacamole is the paradise, and you’re a glutton for punishment.

Just don’t say the phrase in polite society ….

Bon Appétit!

Oreos: Omnipresent, Overzealous, (Un) Original?

These days, Nabisco’s diminutive Oreo might be a mainstay in supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. However, these black-and-white sandwich cookies received great inspiration from the Hydrox, the original, introduced by Sunshine Biscuits in 1908, four years earlier than the Oreo.  Whether or not you prefer the darker chocolate of the Hydrox – or that it still tastes as good as it did back in 1908 (quite an exclamation) – there’s no denying that the origin of both cookie names is unusual.

Whereas Hydrox is a portmanteau of hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements composing water, it was also controversial in that the term “hydrox” was more commonly known as both being a company selling hydrogen peroxide (for bleaching and for disinfecting), and as another term for soda. Doesn’t sound like the most appealing name for food, hey?  Might as well name your firstborn “Student Loans.”

The history of “Oreo” is even more dubious, as it either refers to the Greek word for mountain (Όρος “oros”) – since the cookies originally were slightly mounded – or the French word for gold (or), because the first packages were golden.

Alas, we’re not here to cover the background, or the rivalry between the two brands.  Instead, we’re going to focus on Oreos – and their knock-offs – from all over the world.

The discoveries were mostly in North America and East Asia – no shock there – but there will be a nuanced example at the end.

The United States

Nothing too unique found in the US; yet, three of the brands don’t even hail from the country. Then again, there’s the token glutenfree “Oreo,” but I wouldn’t touch those with a 10-meter cattle prod.

To start off this post’s language lesson, “giro” in Spanish means “turn,” which reflects the most famous way Oreos have been eaten.  Also, although there is a word for sandwich (샌드위치 senduwichi) in Korean, the Lotte package abbreviates it to 샌드 “sendu.”  Japanese does this too; the verb “to make into a sandwich” is サンドする (sando suru), literally “to sandwich.”

Mexico

Considering the bright colors, I could stick this package on the back of my metaphorical bike, in lieu of a yellow reflector.  Found in Mexico City, this Oreo “trio” offered a combo of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, better known as the Neapolitan.

Cambodia

The Lotus Strawberry Mini Leo come from Thailand, but I saw them in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  C’mon Thailand, you can be much more creative with your flavors.

Taiwan (ROC)

Though the product doesn’t quite look like an Oreo, the name sure does. But are Orievo the biggest offenders?  Stay tuned.

Bought the Goriorio at an Indonesian store in Kaohsiung.  The cookies were so artificial tasting that the wrapper probably would’ve tasted better.

China

Mango and orange Oreos, made in China.  So, replace the mango and orange with Styrofoam and dish soap, and then you’d be correct.

Nah, I’ve been craving Hunanese food lately, so I’ll lay off of the reality for a bit.  They weren’t bad, but the grape and peach ones were another story.

Apologies for the inferior photo quality, but the most important aspect of the photo is clear enough.  “Ord.”  That’s a good one.  But might it be shorthand for the Chinese ghost city aka Ordos?  No.  No way.

Indonesia

These Indonesian “Dueto” look like pieces of chocolate instead of sandwich cookies.  Maybe marshmallow is in the middle?  Tidak (no), it’s not.  They were also extremely artificial tasting. But what’s that sneaking into the photo on the bottom?…

Ooh, now we’re talkin’.  Tried these coconut delight Oreos in Solo (Surakarta), and they were addictive.  Deliberately took the photo in front of the sign which translates as “ginger alley 3.”  Ginger-flavored Oreos?  Perhaps one day…

Japan

Soft Strawberry Oreos?  The darn things will fall apart in the milk all too quickly.  I’d bake ’em first.

Cream Clan by Happy Pocket.  What???

Egypt

Egypt decided to join the fray, and surprise, their “Borio” brand is the winner of the least original yet mostly likely to cause a chuckle award.


Which Oreo (or Oreoesque) cookies would you like to try first?

Delightful Seafood at Marajillo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

pulpo zarandeado / octopus nayarit-style mexico
Pulpo Zarandeado, Restaurante Marajillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

I’ve got to show a hint of appreciation to a lackluster Airbnb for having introduced me to one of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever tried.

Marajillo, a small, noisy restaurant and bar in the middle of nowhere touristy Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was mostly a bright spot during my brief stay in that tourism hub. Although I cannot recommend the comparatively bland and insipid ceviche Vallarta, the pulpo zarandeado, chicharrón de pescado (fried fish resembling pork rinds), and aguachile were excellent.

Although the verb zarandear generally refers to shaking and jostling something, in cooking, it refers to a style from the central western Mexican state of Nayarit. In this case, it means to split something — usually fish — from head to tail, and grilling it on a rack over hot coals. My dish at Marajillo was pulpo, or octopus, one of my favorites from the wide world of mariscos mexicanos, or Mexican seafood:

Tetetlán, an Architectural Gem of a Restaurant in Mexico City

Avocado Pizza Tetetlán Mexico City
Avocado Pizza at Tetetlán

Originally the location of horse stables for a client of Luis Barragán, Mexico’s most well-known modern architect, Tetetlán, a Mexico City restaurant specializing in local ingredients, is the result of an extensive remodeling effort by an art collector.

Although a bit snobbish, I was quite taken by the combination of the emphasis on local ingredients — for instance, some of the greens on the avocado pizza were grown at Xochimilco, an ancient irrigation system — as well as Tetetlán’s architecture.

Tetetlán main dining room Mexico City
Tetetlán Restaurant Main Dining Room, Mexico City, Mexico
Tetetlán small dining room Mexico City
Tetetlán Restaurant Secondary Dining Room, Mexico City, Mexico

If you’d like to experience it before you experience, watch my quick review of Tetetlán:

Mexican Tequesquite, aka Slack Lime

Last week, I took a trip to Roosevelt Ave. on the eastern frontier of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City.  The mission expressly revolved around eating food from Mexico.  Continue walking east on Roosevelt Ave. towards Corona, and finding a taco will be as easy as finding a plastic surgeon in Seoul.

I walked into a Mexican supermarket called Bravo and strolled right up to the wall of spices, herbs and who-knows-what.  Sometimes, I-know-what, with a fair amount of culinary travel experience in Mexico under my belt; but even if I didn’t know Spanish, some foodstuffs like albahaca (basil), perejil seco (dried parsley) and tomillo (thyme) might still be familiar.

But then we have this one …

tequesquite slack lime mexican product
Los Compadres-brand Tequesquite (or Slack Lime) Mexican Cooking Product

Known as such.  What am I supposed to make of that? Did someone royally screw up spelling mesquite?  At first glance, it looks like clay, or stale psyllium husks.

Tequesquite, what are you? Similar to salt but composed of various minerals, it originates from the depths of various lakes in what is now Distrito Federal (Mexico City) and the state of MichoacánTrivia time: Name two more Mexican states (if you say Texas, I’d like to see your globe).  The word stems from the Náhuatl language, whereas tetl means rock and quixquitl signifies gushing or sprouting.  During the dry seasons, the beds of salt lakes such as Texcoco would be exposed, thus giving rise to the practical uses of tequesquite.

Aztecs and their descendants predominantly used tequesquite to leaven corn dough, but it was also used to soften corn kernels, as well as preserve the green color of nopales, or cacti.  On your next trip to Mexico, when you order a tamale or a corunda, its triangular cousin from the state of Michoacán, you might have tequesquite to thank.

From the Wayback Machine re: mexconnect.com

Oh, and as for assigning it an English name, there’s a possibility that builder’s or slack lime are contenders.  Slightly off-putting for use on supermarket shelves, but I can hear an avant-garde Home Depot calling its name.


Have you ever made tamales or corundas?  Are you able to find tequesquite?

Three Tamales and a Cup of Atole in Atzacan (Mexico)

In 2019 I visited the small municipality of Atzacan, about two hours west of the eastern Mexican port of Veracruz.  For the budding linguists out there, the name Atzacan derives from three Náhuatl (a group including the Aztecs) words— atl, or water, tzaqua, or stop, and can, or place; in other words, “the place where the water stops.”

Founded in 1825, Atzacan is best known for its maize (corn) and beans, as well as an annual festival in April celebrating Santa Ana (Saint Anne), its patroness saint.

downtown Atzacan Mexico
City View of Downtown Atzacan, Mexico

Of course, I was there to eat.  Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – I was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.

This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons.  One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious.  Two, it’s a locavore’s delight.  And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.

beans vendor Mexico
Beans Vendor at a Food Market in Downtown Atzacan

Although the tamal can be found in countless forms stretching from Mexico to Chile, I couldn’t believe how many types there were just in Atzacan!  

Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding this pueblo, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.

tamales atole
Chocolate Tamal, Strawberry Tamal, and a Cup of Corn Atole (not seen, the Rapidly Devoured Coconut Tamal)

As for the atole, the hot drink made of masa, cinnamon, water, and often raw cane sugar (piloncillo), it’s a particularly heavy pairing with tamales, though no less tasty.  Over time, atole, too has come to be prepared with guavas, pineapple, nuts, and other naturally sweet ingredients…to wit, its most famous cousin, champurrado, is made with masa, water, and chocolate.

My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener.  Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of hyper-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.

Exploring Indigenous Mexican Drinks: Tejate and Pozontle

As much as I trumpet Mexican food, I don’t often write about Mexico’s drinks.  Specifically, given the biodiversity and varied topography throughout the country, I’m also curious about what everyone was drinking before the conquistadors.

On the topic of indigenous and Prehispanic beverages, let’s look at a couple – tejate, and pozontle – which both originate in the present-day state of Oaxaca.

tejate drink Oaxaca market
Woman Preparing Tejate in Oaxaca, Mexico

Yes, tejate, the first of today’s two Pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) drinks, is often seen in vats at markets and bazaars in Oaxaca.  Centuries before the Aztecs, the Zapotec peoples  – mostly the upper class  – of what is now the state of were enjoying tejate.  Its ingredients include water, toasted corn, pixtle (ground roasted mamey pits; incidentally, pitztli means bone or seed in the Aztec language Nahuatl), fermented cacao beans, and cacao flowers.  The cacao was most likely introduced to Oaxaca from Chiapas state in Mexico through early bartering.

Generally, tejate is served in a bowl made of jícara, an inedible fruit from the calabash tree:

mexican jicara tree
The Jícara Tree, Valladolid, Mexico

I consider tejate a light and very frothy drink, a bit bitter and not too sweet.  Though there are indeed, differences in flavors, I had a similar opinion regarding the less well-known pre-Hispanic Oaxacan beverage, pozontle.

pozontle vendor oaxaca
A Glass of Pozontle in Oaxaca, Mexico

On a visit to a random market in Oaxaca, I stumbled upon La Pozontoleria, a small kiosk serving up this foamy and slightly sweet “shake” more easily found at rural wedding ceremonies, baptisms, and during the Day of the Dead in traditional hillside Oaxacan pueblos (towns).

Pozontle’s four more recognizable ingredients are water, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and ground specks of cacao and corn.  The cacao and corn are rolled into little spheres, which are then dissolved in panela water.  The fifth ingredient, called cocolmécatl, is a vine in the Smilax genus that when ground, causes the rest of the pozontle mixture to foam.


Many of us might be quite familiar with Mexican dishes.  But when it comes to Prehispanic drinks, that’s an entirely different world equally worth discovering.

Ski Inn: The Lowest Bar in the Western Hemisphere?

A few years ago, I took a weekend trip to Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, in Southern California’s Imperial County.

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 from the spillover of a badly planned state irrigation system, and quickly became a weekend getaway from SoCal residents.  With a growing population, farming activity greatly increased in the region.  By the 1970s, however, agricultural pesticides and other chemicals contributed to the demise of the man-made Salton Sea, creating an incredibly saline – and dystopian – point of interest.

Scattered Fish Skeletons Form Today’s Bombay Beach Coastline of the Salton Sea

In addition to being on the coast of the United States’ own Aral Sea, Bombay Beach, in the former “Winter Tomato Capital of the World” of Niland, California just so happens to house another unusual claim-to-fame: the Ski Inn.

Sign at the Ski Inn, Niland, California

The Ski Inn – named for water skiing in the heydays of the Salton Sea -opened in the 1950s, and bills itself as the “lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere.”  Unless a bar opens up in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, the Ski Inn, at 223 feet below sea level, might actually own that record.

It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the once prosperous Salton Sea resort area, and has an unusual collection of dollar bills taped around nearly the whole interior of the bar.

If you’re ever in the area, you’ll be glad the Ski Inn is still open.  Shops and their hours of operation are limited, so go on in, pay the friendly folks a visit, and grab a burger and a brewskie.  Directions are here.

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