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:
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.
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.
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.
After meeting some affable Mexican folks in my travels – including through becoming an impromptu translator in China – I started traveling more throughout their country, increasing my awareness of regional Mexican cuisines. I will cover more of these food discoveries stories in later posts, but for now, we’re going to take a look at the tlayuda, the Oaxacan specialty affectionately known as the “Mexican pizza.” Hmm.
Tlayuda are eaten either with granulated sugar, or with any number of savory ingredients…
Savory tlayuda are first, smothered in a mix of refried beans and pork lard, the latter called asiento. Then…whatever! For the one above, I ordered it with ground chorizo, squash blossoms, quesillo (Oaxaca cheese; roughly similar to mozzarella), radishes, avocados, tomatoes, and a couple of flora unique to the region.
On the left, the green pod is called guaje. Although the pod is inedible, the seeds have an eclectic flavor profile, something of a grassy pumpkin seed. More importantly, the guaje, being plentiful in the region during the time of Cortés, lent present-day Oaxaca its name. Since the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the plant, they abridged it to become Oaxaca. So much easier, right???
And on the right, pipicha, or chepiche. Does it bear a striking resemblance to tarragon? Yes…but the flavor is more like a citrus cilantro, with a hint of minty licorice. Used by Aztecs and other ancient tribes to treat the liver, pipicha also are high in antioxidants, and can be used to cleanse the palate after a meal. I felt that the flavor was quite strong, so I would recommend using it sparingly.
As I mentioned in the latest post, Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the world. And how might a city enter that hall of fame?
Having good food is a start.
I’d like to share with you a few highlights from a recent trip to the world’s largest Spanish-speaking city, in what I hope will become a series documenting Mexico’s variegated cuisines.
But before we dive in, we might want to consider…
“The Vaccine.” What an unusually timely name for a restaurant. Though, I’d say for eating out on the town, washing up with soap with suffice.
OK, let’s start with two examples of comida callejera, or street food.
Green chorizo, what?! Yes, chorizo verde was something I only discovered at a brunch buffet two years ago in the Mexican capital. Hailing from the city of Toluca in the state of Mexico (which surrounds Mexico City on three sides), chorizo verde consists of pork, and mix of herbs, spices, and chilies. Standard chorizo – the reddish one given a smokiness by the cayenne pepper (pimentón) – is quite filling, so the green version allows one to…eat even more. That’s my experience, anyway!
Chorizo verde is not one of the more common street food options, but keep a look out for it if you want an herbal, slightly lighter take on its Iberian cousin.
Having consumed just two tacos for the day, I was still feeling peckish. Enter, one of the best food stalls I’ve seen in Mexico City, nay anywhere, in the Colonia Juárez district.
It’s easy to get distracted by the deliciousness surrounding you in a place like Mexico, yet even in that lofty position, there exist stand-outs:
On the comal – a flat griddle (historically made of clay) used for centuries in Mexico -these three chefs had chorizo, campechano (a mix of beef and pork of various cuts), suadero (fried beef), carnitas (shredded pork shoulder braised in its own fat), something akin to a burger, papas (potatoes), and nopales, or cactus. What really sold me was the “fixins’ bar” of condiments– guajillo salsa, tomatillo salsa, beans, avocado tomatillo salsa, guacamole (!), pickled carrots, onions and cilantro, and a bevy of Veracruz limes. Wow.
What did I order?
Two chorizo tacos with melted queso para asar (grilling cheese), potatoes, and onions, and a plate of the fun stuff. Naturally, by the time I was finished chowing everything down, I had two more plates of salsa, and three more tacos.
Time for a drink break.
Nami, ola in Spanish, means wave. It’s also the name of the first brand of sake produced on Mexican soil, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa. Although the brewery, called Sakecul, produces three types of sake – junmai (純米 – pure rice without added alcohol/sugar), junmai ginjou (吟醸 – highly milled rice), and junmai daiginjou (大吟醸 – very highly milled rice, usually considered the top-tier of sake) – they also produce a beer called Haiku. Nami was founded in September 2016, and can be found throughout major Mexican cities.
To top off my first review of Mexico City eats, I bring you la Señora Torres (named after the restaurant owner):
Basically, I was searching in Spanish for popular restaurants in Mexico City, and came across Mi Compa Chava (My Pal Chava), a relative newcomer in the chic Roma Norte section of town. It’s a seafood restaurant focusing on fresh catches from Sinaloa, the same state where the sake originated.
It’s also the home of that unbelieavable tower (torre coincidentally means “tower” in Spanish) of seafood, as shown above and below…
The edible skyscraper had layers of octopus, raw shrimp, cooked shrimp, cucumber, yellow fin tuna, red onion, avocado, and callo de hacha (scallops). Upon serving the tower, the waiter poured a blend of lime juice, charred tomatoes, Morita chilies, and a house salsa over it, returning the seafood back “to the sea.” Actually, that’s just my take on things.
The dish was a delight to conquer, and showed how fresh each ingredient could taste, in spite of being a couple of hours flight time from the Sinaloa port of Los Mochis (Mexico City is, after all the home of the largest seafood market in the country, and the largest wholesale food market in the world).
What’s that you say? You want to see more of Mexican gastronomy? Perhaps a churro, some tacos al pastor, or even a tour of the retail section of the wholesale food market?
Originally, the Aztecs celebrated their “great feast of the dead” (called Xocotlhuetzi) in present-day July/August, offering to their deities seasonal native crops such as beans, corn, and pumpkin. The pumpkin -more commonly known as Cushaw squash and specifically Cucurbita argyrosperma (from Latin, “silver-seeded gourd”), was at that time prepared with honey in a fire pit.
When the Spanish Queen Isabel of Castile (Castilla) tried the pumpkin for the first time, it became a hit, even adopting one of her titles as its name– calabaza de castilla.
Isabel…that name sounds familiar. In short, she was the queen of Spain when Columbus set sail for the western Atlantic. Along with Spanish marauders, Columbus took sugar cane to the Caribbean, which eventually made it to Mexico in the early 1500s. Now that we’ve got our two main ingredients, let’s explore the dessert du jour, calabaza en tacha.
Water and cinnamon (cinnamon is actually from Sri Lanka) are first boiled in the pot, then a heaving mass of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) gets added. Thereafter, the only must is the pumpkin, and typically its seeds. The version I tried, at the Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, was a real treat, counting sweet potato (camote) and guava (guayaba) as bonuses. Cloves are often added near the end of the preparation.
Calabaza de tacha is a delicious blend of autumnal, international, and tropical flavors with a touch of local history that helps keep Mexico among my top spots for culinary travels.
Ciudad del Carmen, in the Mexican state of Campeche, is not a star in Mexico’s tourism constellation. It’s a petrol-oriented city on the Gulf of Mexico, hot year-round, and lacking in terms of attractions– its most-visited point of interest is Puente El Zacatal (The Zacatal/Pasture Bridge), the longest in the country. Coincidentally, I had driven over this bridge in 2018, but didn’t stop to check out the city.
Now, if you’re a fan of ceviche, you will find that the Mexican variety is quite different from the Peruvian. In Mexico, ceviche and cóctel go hand-in-hand, offering up a mix of fish and seafood submerged in Clamato/tomato juice/ketchup and served in a glass or bowl. Although I’m partial to the Peruvian exemplar, I’ve got a weakness for mariscos (seafood), so I had to try something.
That something became Vuelva a la Vida.
Meaning “return to life,” it is a popular hangover cure throughout Mexico. Throw in a whole range of things from beyond the shore…think shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and then on top of that, add in red onion and cilantro, and if you’re like me, some wildly spicy salsa. Don’t fret, for the sweetness of the tomatoes in the liquid base will help soothe some of the spiciness.
Though I really don’t ever want ketchup unless it’s beside a french fry, I couldn’t resist the assortment of marine life swimming in the glass.
Next time, I will see if they can add crab to the motley crew.
Mexico City is thus far, one of my favorite cities in the world. It has some precious architecture, both classical and modern, the temperatures are great, and the food.
Oh, the food.
Today’s pick comes to us from the Renacimiento neighborhood of the Mexican capital, close to the city’s main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma. After a mostly filling lunch of quesadillas, I was still hankering for a botana, or snack.
Randomly, I had passed by a restaurant called Casa Kun; on its menu was a dish of octopus prepared in peanut sauce. I was not peckish enough for that, but given that the menu sounded delicious, I did a search online for meal recommendations.
That’s when I found out about the squid hot dog, or hot dog/jocho de calamar.
I’ve had my share of mystery meat hot dogs, and even an eel dog in Tokyo, so there was no way I could turn this one down.
If you’re sensitive to “fishy” tastes, then the calamari hot dog would not offend you. You are able to enjoy the flavor of the squid, the house-made mayonnaise, and the surprisingly tasty bun without any one flavor overpowering the others. It was served with fried baby octopus, roasted potatoes with scallions, and chile de árbol salsa.
Want to watch me try the calamari hot dog for the first time? Check out my YouTube.
Río Amazonas 73, Col. Renacimiento,
Renacimiento, Cuauhtémoc, 06500
Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Welcome to the world of Mexican corn smut, better known as h(c)uitlacoche.
What is huitlacoche?
Also called corn mushroom, Aztec caviar or Mexican truffle, it’s a fungus that the Aztecs knew about; the name derives from the Náhuatl words cuitlatl, or droppings, and cochi, sleeping. The corn kernels become entirely consumed by the fungal disease, swell, turn grayish and surprisingly, wind up in your street food; when the huitlacoche is still white, you can eat raw, but if it has already turned gray/black, it should be cooked. It doesn’t ordinarily devastate whole corn crops at one time, so a visit to a cornfield might take you a while to find husks that are infected.