By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
We were told that the broad theme for this issue is the ocean. I assumed that our contributors living on or near the coast would write about sun sand and surf, aquatic life, fishing and boat tours, or eating seafood. Since I don’t live on the coast and rarely visit the Oaxacan resort towns, I decided it would be more appropriate to write about what I know more about, which is meat. Inland we eat much more meat than fish and seafood.
Even well-traveled tourists who have years of experience ordering food in restaurants throughout Latin America, may find it a little different getting what they want in a restaurant in Oaxaca. Not that Oaxacans are so provincial that their palates lack exacting gastronomic sophistication, or that we in Oaxaca don’t know the different between a sandwich on a bun (torta in Oaxaca), and a piece of cake (torta in some other parts of Latin America). Spanish terminology at times varies from country to country, and indeed from state to state in Mexico. A gordita in Puebla is a thick tortilla usually with a filling, while a gordita in Oaxaca is a plump girl or woman. Now that’s quite a difference, although etymologically I assume there’s a connection.
What follows is an explanation of some common culinary terms, essentials when ordering meat plates in Oaxaca, whether at a high end restaurant, middle-of-the-road lunchtime haunt for both tourists and locals, comedor featuring a comida corrida (daily lunchtime full meal special), urban street stand, or roadside eatery along any highway.
One might ask “why the need for a glossary of food terms when visiting a popular tourist destination in Mexico.” In Oaxaca many restaurants do not have bilingual menus or staff, especially when one ventures away from the restaurants noted in the usual tourist guide books. True enough, those eateries popular with foreign tourists do cater to English speaking clientele; but there’s much to be said for venturing off-the-beaten-track and sampling food in the smaller restaurants and comedors; where Oaxacans eat, whether near the state capital or away from the beaches of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido.
Here’s my primer on meat terminology in Oaxaca:
Cecina is thinly sliced, grilled or fried pork with a dusting of chili, usually quite tender. It’s generally not very spicy, so sampling should entice even those whose intestinal tracts cannot tolerate the heat.
Tasajo is beef, also thinly sliced and cooked just like cecina. It’s usually seasoned with only salt. Tasajo does not tend to be quite as tender as cecina, probably because in modern times virtually any cut of beef is used to prepare the dish.
Alambre is strips of tasajo usually grilled with onion and green pepper (but not exclusively), served with melted quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) on top. Restaurants serving “authentic” alambre use a better, more tender cut of beef than tasajo. Alambre can also be made with pork or chorizo.
Chorizo is Mexican sausage, once again prepared like tasajo and cecina, usually served link, but sometimes outside the casing. Chorizo is made with minced pork (sometimes with beef as well, and at times using chicken for the more health conscious) and fairly spicy dried chili peppers which have been ground at a local mill. When served as huevos con chorizo it consists of scrambled eggs with fried chorizo mixed in; as choriqueso it’s simply a mixture of fried chorizo and melted quesillo.
Barbacoa can be misleading, since the meat is not prepared on a gas or charcoal grill. It’s usually goat or sheep (at fiestas it’s sometimes beef) prepared in an in-ground oven, stewed and often served with its juices, at times alongside a mushy hominy-style corn known as zagüeza. But when the menu refers to barbacoa de pollo, it means chicken prepared with a tomato-based sauce, the distinctive flavoring coming from avocado leaf.
Parrillada is a medley of meats, vegetables and cheese, often partially cooked in the kitchen and then brought to the table, still on the hibachi, where the grilling continues. A parrilla simply signifies a grill, as in a North American style charcoal barbecue; hence pollo a la parrilla would be chicken grilled over charcoal or firewood, while pollo rostizado usually signifies chicken prepared on a commercial spit as commonly encountered throughout the US and Canada.
Costillas are pork ribs, arrachera is grilled skirt steak and albondigas are meat balls.
Tampiqueña is a better cut of beef, usually grilled filet, traditionally served with enchiladas, beans and tortillas. When one orders this dish, nothing more should be needed to provide a satisfying meal. The name derives from the fact that tampiqueña originated in Tampico.
Fajitas usually connotes strips of pork, chicken or beef, fried with a combination of onion, tomato and chili, accompanied by tortillas and often white rice. This is not a traditional Oaxacan plate, though it’s becoming increasingly popular, especially for catering to the tourist trade, á la tex-mex. The plate originated from a desire to use up the small strips of chicken which are alongside the breast.
A tlayuda is essentially an oversized tortilla from the comal or grill, with a bit of manteca (pork fat) and black bean paste, topped with cheese, sliced tomato and shredded lettuce. It’s served folded or open face. Meat (chorizo, cecina or tasajo) is often added; on the open face version it’s served on top, often in strips, and when folded the meat is either inside or served on the side.
Tlayudas should arguably be categorized differently than the other dishes noted above. However, because of the tradition of serving the tlayuda with meat, one can clearly consider it a meat plate. There are in fact other main courses which can include meats such as enchiladas, but one tends to consider such meals tortilla-based and not meat plates.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.