Barbacoa: The REAL Mexico

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.28.00 PMBy Kathy Taylor

There are people who look at Huatulco’s manicured boulevards and immaculate all inclusives and say to me, “you don’t live in real Mexico.” Hah! This IS real Mexico, the new Mexico, the Mexico of national travellers, sophisticated hospitality professionals, and shifting regional populations.

Huatulco is a Mexican melting pot. Before Fonatur development, Huatulco’s main industry was fishing, and in the mountains, coffee production . With touristic development came jobs, both in construction and the hospitality industry, and to these jobs, workers swarmed from other states, bringing with them their habits and accents and platillos tipicos. Because nostalgia resonates in the familiar, in the food we love and associate with home and heart, up and down the streets of Huatulco you will find restaurants advertising distinctively un-Oaxacan specialties like Carnitas Michoacana, Baja Style Fish Tacos, Acapulco and Jalisco Style Ceviche, and Guerrero Pozole.

A bit of a nostalgic myself, on a recent dry spring day here in our tropical savannah, I was reflecting on spring feasts in other places, in other times. I could almost taste my grandmother’s spring borscht, the tender baby lettuce from the garden, and I vividly remembered my dad bringing home 2 lambs for the freezer every spring, still baa-ing and prancing, and the first delectable roast served with minted baby peas and nugget potatoes. Farm kids don’t carry a lot of guilt about the circle of life.

So here in southern Mexico, in search of a bacchanalian feast for this awakening season, I turned to…. BARBACOA. A couple of restaurants in town have just that one word painted on their exterior wall – and that one word really says it all. Barbacoa simply means meat that has been cooked slowly in an underground pit – there are few variations on the theme. In central Mexico, barbacoa is wrapped in maguey leaves before being roasted. Here in the south, banana leaves are used. Primarily a specialty from the middle of Mexico, barbacoa typically involves goat or lamb, although in pre-hispanic times venison, rabbit, armadillo and iguana were pit-roasted. The introduction of livestock by the Spaniards meant an adaptation of this ancient cooking method to the new species.

I recently spent more than just a few hours with a family that has been cooking barbacoa for nostalgic travellers, and Oaxaqueños alike for more than 20 years.

I arrived at La Barbacoa at 8 am on a Saturday. The place has wide, barred windows, a counter and stools on the street, a long working counter with a hand written menu, and a darkened cave in the back corner, next to a stack of flattened cardboard boxes. Arranged around the interior on the uneven concrete floor are oilcloth covered tables, and plastic chairs. It is FULL at 8 am. Heads down, little talk, taxi drivers breakfast with their families, a chef hangs his jacket on the back of his chair and tucks in, and a well known local real estate mogul, with well dressed associates, are all eating barbacoa. Beatles # 1 Hits loops on an old cassette player. A woman with a bandana on her head, cooked meat on a worn wooden block f ramed by massive stainless cauldrons. Two waitresses work the room. I ordered consomme and 2 maciza tacos . The usual accompaniments are laid on the table: salsa verde, salsa roja, chopped cilantro, onion and lime wedges .

The consomme arrived, smokily aromatic, with a deep red clarity that revealed garbanzos and chunks of potato and carrot in the bottom of the bowl. Two warm tortillas stuffed with lean succulent lamb partner with the soup and the feast began. This is nothing short of delicious. No wonder the place is packed at 8 in the morning. I approached the woman behind the counter, and introduced myself, brandishing a copy of Huatulco Eye flipped open to the article on bacalao. In Spanish I say, “This is me, I write about food, please, could I watch you prepare the barbacoa tonight? May I take photographs?” “I am Rita Santeyen,” she said, “yes, come back at 7.” I returned at 7 that evening, and graciously, Sra. Rita as I now know her, let me observe this timeworn ritual, this backbreaking, physically demanding Dante’s inferno of a process.

Flames are leaping out of a blackened maw in the corner of the room, in what can only be called an aluminum corrugated cave. The cave houses a concrete platform featuring a brick lined hole about a meter and a half deep and a meter wide. Sra. Rita, feeds the raging hole flattened cardboard boxes and small trees until the bricks glow like plutonium. It takes 3 hours for the bricks to radiate the correct hellish heat.

A metal cage slightly smaller than the oven, lined with banana leaves, sits in front of the platform. The leaves are folded and clothes-pinned back over the lip. How many leaves? “Eighty”, she says Avocado leaves soak in a plastic basin. Cats, grandkids and a small poodle wander in and out, and the sounds of rhythmic chopping emanate from behind a curtained doorway. I nurse a beer.

Finally, the oven is deemed ready, and the ceremony begins. The first washtub of meat is hauled from behind the curtain, the beautifully butchered cuts readily recognizable – ribs, leg, shoulder. “The lamb comes from Zimatan,” Sra. Rita says. “We only use machos, under a year old. Hembras (females) are stringy and tough.”

The average weight of an 8 to 10 month old male lamb is 20 kg., and tonight the banana leaved contraption will hold 80 kg. The first layer of meat is placed on the grid on the bottom of the cage, and a handful of avocado leaves are scattered over this layer. Sra Rita and her helper repeat until the tub is empty, and return with another. Finally, two plastic bags filled with pancita (tripe) are nestled between pieces on the top layer and the banana leaves are un-pinned and folded over the meat. Why the plastic bags? “Because not everyone likes pancita, so we keep the juices separate.” (I say a personal silent gracias for that, not being a big tripe fan myself.)

Next from behind the curtain comes another washtub, blackened on the outside, but scrubbed to a gleaming sheen on the inside, as is every other utensil here. About an inch and a half of garbanzos roll around the bottom, soon smothered by a puree of onions, garlic, tomatoes and guajillo chiles. A big tub-full of chopped potatoes and carrots laced with epazote follows. The two women hoist the washtub full of vegetables to the lip of the oven and don heavy leather gloves. Using long hooks, they lower the tub onto the glowing carbon embers at the bottom. A few buckets of purified water are poured down into the tub.

And then, with a practiced motion, they heft the cage onto the platform, balance it, step up onto the platform and slowly lower the cage onto the tub of vegetables. A big slab of metal is quickly flipped over the hole; in front of the oven where the uneven concrete floor of the restaurant gives way to a dirt floor, she flips up a piece of cardboard, revealing a crater of damp mud that is soon reconstituted into “barro”. She shovels and shapes the barro in a continuous mound around the edge of the metal slab, sealing the suffocating heat below. “Come back at 7 in the morning,” she says. “Good night.”

Morning arrives and at 6.30 I am still tired, just from watching these women work the night before. I arrive at the restaurant with my coffee in hand, and have the eeriest sensation. I know that almost 200 lbs of lamb cooked here overnight, but there is absolutely no smell, nothing, not a hint. Sra Rita cracks the barro, shovels it back into the floor crater, and sweeps the loose dirt away from the edge of the cover.She lifts a corner of the slab with the shovel and the aroma blasts out of the oven knocking my senses six ways from Sunday. My nose is assaulted by heady roast lamb with top notes of avocado, charred banana and a swirling phantom scent of chiles and garlic. It is sensational.

The long hooks and gloves are repurposed, and the two women strain to lift the cage out of the oven. They rest it on the platform and carefully remove the charred outer banana leaves. The two huge stainless cauldrons stand sentinel. When the blackened leaves are removed, the remaining top green leaves are used to line other waiting containers. With a pair of tongs, Sra. Rita lifts the pieces of meat out of the cage, and the cuts are separated into mazica and surtido. The meatier legs will be mazica, served without bone, sinew and fat, and surtido will be all of that.

She uses a long hook with a stainless steel bucket on the end and starts dipping out the consommé which has had all the wonderful meat juices dripping into it all night, into the waiting cauldrons. Finally light enough to lift, they use two hooks and lift the washtub out and empty it.

Customers are starting to arrive. It is 8 in the morning, and it is now that this family’s real day begins. I place my order. It tastes better than the last time, although that seems impossible. It is obvious that tackling barbacoa at home, even scaled down, would be a daunting project. But Daniel Hoyer, has done just that, adapting the cooking process to a gas barbecue or low oven. In his wonderful book, Culinary Mexico, Authentic Recipes and Traditions, he details the recipe and steps. I have placed it on my blog, for anyone with the tenacity to tackle it. If you love lamb and the Beatles, I recommend a visit to La Barbacoa. But go early, they DO sell out.

La Barbacoa is in La Crucecita, on the corner of Sabali and Jazmin, across from the funeral home. They are open Saturday and Sunday, from about 8 am till 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

Kathy Taylor arrived in Huatul co in 2007 by sailboat. Her passions are food, sailing and Mexico