Tag Archives: Food

Bananas / Plantains/ Plátanos

By Julie Etra

Called the banana in America, this lovely and versatile fruit is just one in a group of fruits more commonly known as plantains or plátanos (in Spanish). They are the most widely distributed and consumed fruit in the world and consist of a large number of species, hybrids and cultivars of the Musa genus. Only the grains wheat, rice and corn surpass the production of plantains (bananas) globally. In many parts of the world, the kind of plantains that are cooked are distinguished from the sweet, raw bananas familiar to us in North America.

The origin of this starchy fruit is most likely Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, or the Philippines. The first references appear as early as 600 BCE, but it was noted by Alexander the Great during his travels to India in the 4th century CE. Through trade, like every other valuable commodity, it was dispersed to China, Africa, and well, the rest is history. This original seed-filled fruit barely resembled those consumed today, which has resulted from centuries of plant breeding. The world’s largest producers of bananas in 2017 were India and China, which together accounted for approximately 38% of total production.

One banana, two bananas, and many more

Are you confused by the variety of bananas and banana-like fruits displayed at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco (MOH)? Or in the various fruteriás along Calle Carrizal or elsewhere in La Crucecita? A pity most of us are only familiar with the common and ubiquitous Cavendish (Musa acuminata), named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who began its cultivation in British greenhouses around 1834. (More about this common banana later.)

As shown in the graphic, there are eight principal banana crops produced in Mexico, including, of course, the Cavendish. As an alternative to that “standard” banana, try the diminutive Dominico bananas, also known as plátano enano, or dwarf plantain, most of which come to Huatulco from neighboring Veracruz. This is the smallest banana available in Mexico. It is a very sweet variety and is widely used in pastry and other confections, including drinks. It is rich in vitamins B, C, and E and has a high magnesium content. It is our favorite banana, and although we can find them when we are going through withdrawal upon our return to the USA, they are very expensive and it seems they never ripen. It usually takes me three plus tries to give up on these expensive imports. When in Huatulco, this banana is our favorite snack.

Later in the Mexican winter the slightly larger Manzanos are available. They are different, of course, with the Dominicos being slightly sweeter and easier to find, even in the super stores like Chedraui and Soriana. Our previous neighbors have a Manzano tree, but I have not been bold enough to approach the present occupants. Manzanos are a bit nuttier and harder in texture than the fast-ripening Dominico.

Problems with popular bananas

The Gros Michel is an example of monoculture disasters. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was the most popular banana in Europe and North America. In 1940, however, a fungal infection arrived in Panama, more precisely Fusarium oxysporum, which attacked the roots of the Gros Michel. Since it produced no viable seeds, only reproducing asexually, it was particularly vulnerable to disease, and hence its demise 20 years after the fungus arrived.

The Cavendish, resistant to the fungus described above, became more popular, with several available varieties including the big dwarf, the small dwarf (redundant, I know), the Lacatan, Valery, Robusta, and Poyo. Recently, another variety of the fungus that infected the Gros Michel has been discovered, and this banana could go the way of its predecessor as it is also asexually cultivated in monocultures (clonal propagation). This type of monoculture cultivation results in plants very vulnerable to plagues and possible extirpation, exactly what happened to the Gros Michel.

Broaden your banana repertoire!

The plátano macho is the largest and heaviest of the bananas and is not sweet. It is cooked in a variety of ways, and can be yellow-, green-, or dark-skinned when very ripe. Machos are consumed in many tropical countries but are virtually unknown in Europe.

The red bananas you see at the MOH and grocery stores, the thick-skinned plátano rojo, is very popular in Latin America, and its availability and use has recently expanded to Europe. It can be consumed raw or cooked.

And yes, there are even more varieties, typically available on a local level, such as the Tabasco (Mexico) and Roatan (one of the Bay islands in Honduras).

Patacones, as they are known in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, but usually called tostones in Mexico, are small pancakes or pucks made from green Machos, cut in cross section, fried, then flattened and fried a second time. Another fried plantain, cut lengthwise, is a typical accompaniment to Latin American breakfasts – it is a favorite in istmeño cooking (the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca). You can enjoy patacones in Huatulco at the restaurant Bladuyu at the entrance to Bahia Chahue. For dessert they can be fried with a liquor, honey and/or cinnamon additionally dribbled/sprinkled on top and accompanied with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Yum.

And for a real treat, try molotes de plátano, Macho pulp dough stuffed with quesillo, the lovely Oaxacan cheese (alternatively with black beans), fried, and bathed in condensed milk (or not), frequently offered at Playa San Agustín. The women walk up and down the beach with rectangular plastic containers filled with these tasty, filling units. Don’t pass them up!

Tomatoes: Q & A

By Randy Jackson

Here’s a question that will brighten anyone’s day: “Hey, do you want a toasted tomato sandwich?” Of course you do, everyone does.

Ah, the tomato. We love them, but take them for granted. For example, when we listen to the lyrics of Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes” –

Only two things that money can’t buy –
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes –

we think, “Yeah, that’s true.” Nobody would sing about true love and an onion or bok choy. When you take something you love for granted, like the tomato, one day you wake up realizing you know almost nothing about it, and curiosity is aroused.

Questions abound: Where do tomatoes originate? Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable? How many tomato varieties are there? Are tomatoes the most consumed thing ever? How big can a tomato get? What’s the weirdest shaped tomato ever? And the perennial question: Where could I go for a really good tomato fight?

The tomato is thought to have originated in pre-Inca Peru. Back then it was the size of a garden pea. Over the hundreds of years of pre-conquest Mesoamerican civilizations, a variety of types and sizes of tomatoes were cultivated. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for the green tomato was tomatl (Spanish, tomate) and this is the word that stuck. Good thing too, because the Nahuatl word for the red tomato was xitomatl, which seems less marketable.

It was the Spanish who spread the tomato around the world. In Europe, documents mention the tomato as early as the 1540’s. For about 200 years, the tomato was seen as an ornamental plant for gardens and fruit-bowl displays, as it was generally considered poisonous in Europe. The first tomato recipe we have on record is 1692. But it took another 100 years before the Italians created the tomato sauce for pasta. The rest, as they say, is history.

Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable? Both really. Botanists classify it as a fruit. Nutritionists consider it a vegetable. This is because it is more savoury than sweet, and is often used in salads, not in desserts like most fruits. In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes. Back then vegetables were subject to import duties, while fruits were not. It seems that the US Supreme Court changes its mind on some things, but has never re-addressed their tomato decision.

My guess was that the tomato would be the most eaten fruit/vegetable in the world. What with salsa, pasta and pizza sauces, ketchup, BLT’s, salads, soups, and on every hamburger ever eaten, what could top that? Well, potatoes. At least by weight and acres cultivated. However, before the potato can gloat over its top spot, we should recognize that most potatoes are used for French fries – and what is most often put on French fries? Exactly. Incidentally, potato chips are the second biggest use of the potato, and in Canada we have ketchup-flavoured potato chips – so there, potato!

There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world. Most of these varieties are cross-breeds. About 3,000 varieties are considered “heirloom” tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a sort of “purebred” tomato, traceable to a single genetic plant line. When it comes to the most popular tomato, beefsteak tomatoes seems to top most lists followed by the Cherokee Purple (heirloom tomato), and then Roma (paste) and cherry varieties.

The Guiness World Book of Record has the largest tomato weighing in at 4.9 kilograms (10 pounds 12 oz), with a circumference of 84 centimetres (33 inches). It was grown by Dan Sutherland in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2020. This tomato was the variety Domingo, which is a type of beefsteak tomato. And speaking of records, 121 is the largest number of tomatoes grown on a single vine. Possibly more interesting are the photos of weirdly shaped tomatoes that can be found on the internet. Often tomatoes grow pointed appendages out of their mostly symmetrical shapes. As a result, noses, pointy ears and penises are easily imagined. One tomato found in a British garden looked like the head of Adolf Hitler.

This off-beat aspect of tomatoes is topped by a festival in the town of Buñol, Spain, which holds an annual festival called La Tomatina. Forty to fifty thousand people crowd into this Spanish town for the world’s largest food fight. The only food thrown is tomatoes. You need a ticket to participate in La Tomatina, and only 22,000 tickets will be sold for the 2022 event (a ticket is 12 Euros or 250 Mexican pesos). The event will be held on August 31, 2022. About 100 tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes are provided for throwing at other participants in the town square. There are a few rules – most important is to squish the tomato before you throw it. Two words come to mind: stupidity and messy. As for being messy, the city is well prepared for the cleanup with street washers and fire-hoses all pre-stationed and ready to go after the event. Because tomatoes are acidic, the streets, buildings, statutes, and benches all gleam in spectacular cleanliness after the cleanup.

No longer will I take the tomato for granted. Already I am on the hunt for a Cherokee Purple. Of course, there are Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Gold Medal, Big Rainbow, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey, White Beauty … No luck yet, but I picked up some Yellow Pear tomatoes yesterday and tried them in a toasted tomato sandwich (lovely).

Hints for Reheating Your Take-Out Meals

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We are definitely snobs in regard to restaurant dinners. We’ve always preferred long leisurely meals in places known for their excellent cuisine and gracious service. We’ve rarely thought about take-out meals; maybe once a year, pollo rostizado crossed our minds and our lips.

COVID changed all of our lives and our dining habits. During the 2020 lockdown, the retirement community where we live in the U.S. began delivering both lunch and dinner to our homes. And, during periodic surges of new COVID variants throughout 2021 and 2022, we’ve returned to receiving delivered dinners. Even when we are in residence in Huatulco during winter months, we now occasionally have picked up bagged dinners, especially from restaurants that have shifted primarily to take-out menus.

The dilemma faced with take-out lunches and dinners that were originally hot is whether or not to rewarm the food. If reheating, how do you do that without destroying the flavor and texture? Many people opt simply to use their microwave oven. But the executive chef in our retirement community, Chef Valeriy Borodin, received complaints about flavorless, mushy food. He then realized that the ubiquitous use of microwaves was ruining his carefully prepared creations. Chef Val held an online forum to provide instructions for reheating specific dishes. Here are some of his hints:

· Pasta in red sauce. This is one dish that can be microwaved, but first add more red sauce and just microwave for a very short time until warm.
· Pasta in white sauce. Request the sauce separate and heat it in a frying pan, stirring until hot; then add it to the pasta. The sauce will reheat the pasta.
· Pasta in oil-based sauce. Reheat the pasta in a frying pan and then add the sauce to the pan.
· Baked pasta such as mac and cheese or lasagna. Reheat it in oven.
· Meat chops/roasts. These are better if ordered when dining at a restaurant. But if they are to be taken home or delivered, order them less cooked than you usually enjoy eating them, and when they arrive, sear them on high heat in a frying pan for just a few seconds on each side. Never microwave meat.
· Fish/seafood in red sauce. This dish can be reheated in a microwave, but just until warm.
· Fish/seafood pieces other than in red sauce. Order them “undercooked” and rewarm them in a frying pan
· Roasted vegetables. Reheat them in an oven.
· Steamed vegetables. Microwave covered just until warm.
· Sauteed vegetables. Pan fry until warm.
· Broths. Reheat in microwave.
· Soups that are creamed or contain pasta. Reheat in a sauce pan.

There are some takeout dishes that Chef Val didn’t address – dishes that even the least experienced consumer would never rewarm in a microwave – such as pizza. Of course, our grandkids are happy to eat leftover pizza for breakfast right out of the refrigerator. But for those of us who yearn during lockdowns for freshly prepared dishes served piping hot right from the restaurant’s grill or kitchen, properly reheating take-out dishes is a passable substitute. ¡Buen provecho!

Slow Food 2.0 in Huatulco

By Alfonso Rocha

I’m pretty sure you’re already familiar with the “slow” concept that’s been tossed around for a few years in reference to sustainability, and maybe also you’ve already heard about a movement called “Slow Food,” which usually goes along with a shiny red snail. But have you ever investigated it? Or formed part of the international network that represents this movement? Now you have the chance to do so from Huatulco or any other part of Mexico.

Even though I have been formally a part of the organization Slow Food International since 2012, headquartered in Italy, I am still amazed at how this philosophy can grow and adapt to any circumstances or themes that surround the food sustainability and justice movement worldwide.

The official textbook definition of Slow Food is “a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” Since its beginnings in Italy, Slow Food has grown into a global movement involving millions of people in over 160 countries, working to ensure everyone has access to good, clean and fair food.

Slow Food believes food is tied to many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture, and the environment. Through our food choices we can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced, and distributed, and change the world as a result.

The Slow Food international headquarters are located in Bra, Italy – the town in the Piedmont region where the movement was born. It is from here that the association plans and promotes the development of the network and projects worldwide. In Mexico, the Slow Food network began around 1999 among the chefs of Mexico City, but it didn’t expand much beyond that urban scenario of high-class kitchens and restaurants until 2012, when Slow Food´s governing body decided to move away from the “old ways” of Slow Food 1.0, the main activities of which were dinner events around the table in an expensive restaurant, drinking fine wines accompanied, of course, by local and seasonal foods of high quality.

During the International Congress of Slow Food in 2012, the association promoted a shift into a new era, Slow Food 2.0, going outside the restaurant environment and involving farmers, indigenous communities, young members, and food justice/sustainability activists who are not involved in the restaurant or chef scenarios.

Slow Food 2.0 – a Good Fit for Mexico

Since then, Slow Food in Mexico has grown and is now present from Tijuana to Chiapas, with a very diverse network that includes academics, indigenous communities, chefs, students, and more people interested in promoting this philosophy in the country. It is an honor for me to have formed part of the great journey and growth of Slow Food in Mexico. As an International Councilor I have been lucky to have traveled to different countries like Italy, Colombia, Costa Rica, China, Kenya, Turkey and USA to learn about the diversity of the movement.

And now I am lucky enough to be in Huatulco where a new Slow Food Community has been founded with local actors. Soon you can join – and enjoy – activities that promote good, clean and fair local food in Oaxaca.

Alfonso Rocha is an International Councilor for Slow Food Mexico. To connect with the local Slow Food Huatulco community, contact him at alfonso.rocha@slowfood.mx or look for “Slow Food Huatulco” on Instagram.

Fish farming in Mexico

By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken

Given the thousands of kilometers of coastline and the great quantity of fresh lake water in Mexico, it is not surprising that before the Spanish arrived, indigenous people were heavily involved in ocean and inland fishing. It is notable however, that the pre-Hispanic residents also engaged in farming of fish. For example, the extensive inland lake that once surrounded the Aztec capital (now Mexico City) was used to farm fish at that time. Today Lake Texcoco has mostly vanished, along with the pre-Hispanic fish farms.

The 16th-century Spanish conquistadores forbade the indigenous population to fish or raise fish for their own use, as they were trying to develop this market for European consumption. Although fishing as an individual occupation was gradually reintroduced in Mexico and later commercial fishing became a major industry, it was not until the 1970s that any perceptible amount of aquaculture re-appeared.

The term aquaculture (in Spanish acuacultura or acuicultura) refers to the rearing of aquatic animals and cultivating aquatic species for food, including not only fish but also crustaceans, mollusks, and seaweed. Fish and other aquaculture products are raised in floating tanks through which lake or ocean water flows naturally, and are fed controlled diets. The practice of aquaculture was in part prompted by potential financial reward, but also by environmental concerns. A controversial aspect of marine fishing is called “by-catch” – the unavoidable capture in fishing nets of animals and plants that are not used for human consumption. By-catch is not only fiscally wasteful but is responsible for wreaking havoc on marine environments. Aquaculture, on the contrary, results in close to 100% of production being sold for food or other uses. Eighty percent of aquaculture products are used for human consumption.

Mexico now ranks around 23rd in the world in the annual production of its aquaculture economic sector. Most countries ranking higher than Mexico are in Asia, especially island nations with extensive coastlines. Mexico ranks higher in annual aquaculture production than, for example, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, New Zealand, Peru, and Australia.

Mexico’s lengthy coastline is a competitive advantage in two ways: first, tanks for commercial growing of marine animals are located close to shore in the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California, and the Gulf of Mexico; and, second, ports on the coast provide easy access for delivery of harvested product to the interior of Mexico or for export to the Americas and Asia. Mexico experienced an increase in aquaculture of 27% from 1986 (the first year statistics were collected) to 2010 but then suffered a three-year sharp decline because of a widespread virus infection in the types of food that are fed to fish.

In recent years the growth of aquaculture has exceeded its earlier vigor in Mexico, with a 34% increase in five years. Currently Mexico is one of only five countries showing sustained growth of inland aquaculture. Baja California and the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Veracruz are the most important locations for offshore marine aquaculture in Mexico. Inland aquaculture (primarily trout) is found mainly in Sinaloa, Sonora, Tabasco, and Tamaulipas.

The aquaculture companies pride themselves on crecimiento azul, which is the watery version of a “green economy,” namely one that is sustainable, resource efficient, and environmentally sound. Around the world, the proportion of naturally occurring wild fish stocks that are biologically sustainable decreased from 90% in 1974 to under two-thirds in recent years, which means that a third of the seafood produced by commercial fisheries comes from fishing locations that will not survive into the future. By contrast, seafood purchased from aquaculture will continue to be available or increase over time. Aquaculture also provides safe, well-paying jobs and is a boost to the local economy wherever it is installed.

The main types of seafood produced by aquaculture in Mexico are mojarra (the species varies, most likely a bream or tilapia), oysters, huachinango (red snapper), trout, and tilapia, with lesser amounts of camarón (shrimp), abalone, and tuna. (Worldwide, the most important aquacultural product is tilapia.) Shrimp account for under 10% of Mexico’s aquaculture production, but the amount of shrimp production is increasing rapidly from year to year.

There is a debate about whether farmed fish are as nutritious and as tasty as fish that are wild. The commercial fisheries would have you believe that farmed fish are full of toxins and dangerous. The actual answer is based on local aquaculture practices. Farms that frequently test their water and fish food to be sure there is no toxic contamination are likely to produce wholesome fish and seafood. That is one reason fish farms are not promoted as tourist attractions and are off-limits for water sports – the companies want to avoid pollution. The only visitors likely to be found at a fish farm are scientists, technical consultants, potential investors, government inspectors, and participants in conferences of aquaculture organizations.

In addition, by being raised on feed that is high in omega oils, farmed fish actually are more likely to promote good health in humans than are wild-caught fish. But what about the taste? We have friends who swear they can distinguish farmed fish from wild fish by the taste. However, judging by the way they snarf down fish they do not know were farmed, we have our doubts.

For more information, check out the website of the Mexican government agency that supports aquaculture (among other things) – the Center for Studies in Sustainable Rural Development and Food Sovereignty (Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Rural Sustentable y la Soberania Alimentaria, http://www.cedrssa.gob.mx). And ¡buen provecho!

The Many Quelites de México

By Julie Etra

Do you ever wonder about the romeritos in the produce section of Super Che (the Chedraui supermarket in Huatulco), or wherever you shop for produce? How are they are cooked? Or served fresh? As an ingredient in a particular dish? They are one of many Mexican edible wild greens (think of young dandelion greens, which by the way, are not native to North America), known as quelites. The name is Nahuatl in origin, from quilitl, which means “tender edible herb.” They are vital in Mexican cuisine, their use predates the Conquest, and they are recognized for their high nutritional value.

These greens typically grow wild, like dandelions, and can be found in fields of other crops. Over a dozen plants, not all of which are native to Mexico, are considered quelites. Some of these plants are classed as weeds or pests in the United States, as we have not learned how to appreciate them. For hispanoparlantes, this video offers the best explanation and description of quelites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OSFM5dy_2Y (it is fun to watch even without knowing Spanish!).

The following is a list of some of the most popular quelites, and examples of their preparation.

Romeritos (Suaeda torreyana), known as sea-blight in English, grow in tidal wetlands and salt flats, and likes salty soils. It is known by many other names in the indigenous languages of different areas in Mexico (as are the other quelites). It is prepared as a traditional Christmas dish, or Romeritos Navideños, which includes mole paste, nopales (cactus paddles), potatoes, and garlic, but can be more simply simmered and served with nopales and shrimp.

Huazontle – the name is shortened from the Nahuatl huauhzontli – is also known as quelite cenizo (Chenopodium berlandieri). It is frequently found in somewhat salty soils, and is considered a weed in the western United States. It is related to another “weed,” lambsquarters (Chenopodium alba), which is actually quite tasty as a leafy green when it is young. Although huazontle is bitter when eaten raw, it is highly nutritious and can be prepared in a variety of ways, including with battered eggs (capeado), fried, simmered, in soups, and stews; it is bitter when eaten raw. (See “Mexican Vegetables: How about Huazontle?” in The Eye, August 2014.)

Verdolaga, Portulaca oleracea, or common purslane in English, is another quelite that shows up in irrigated pastures and vegetable gardens, including mine, and is highly nutritious. A common recipe is to sautée it in oil with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and chilies, but it is also eaten raw and in salads and tacos.

Alache, Halache or Vilota (Anoda cristata) is malva cimarrona and is in the same family with the hibiscus, the source of the delicious jamaica tea, and hollyhocks. These greens grow rapidly, like a robust weed. The tender leaves are used in the preparation of soups and broths, in combination with garlic, onion, pepicha (Porophyllum linaria, in the sunflower family. another quelite) and served with serrano peppers. It is also prepared as a medicinal tea.

Chepil (Crotalaria longirostrata), also known as chipilin, is an attractive quelite in the pea family. Once you recognize this plant and its pretty yellow pea-like flowers, you will see it growing everywhere around Huatulco. The leaves are used in traditional Oaxacan tamales in the masa, or dough. They are also used in the Oaxacan soup called espesado de chepil, which includes squash blossoms, zucchini, corn, lime, and salt. In Chiapas they make a soup with corn dough balls mixed with chepil. Sometimes you can find the tamales de chepil in the Mercado Organico de Huatulco, and it is very popular in Oaxacan cuisine.

Hoja santa or momo (Piper auritem). Hoja santa means “holy leaf”; a favorite Mexican recipe, quesadillas de hoja santa, uses the leaf of this plant as a substitute for the tortilla, with quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), mushrooms, onion, garlic, epazote (another Mexican herb), salt and pepper. YUM. There are recipes for chicken in hoja santa, and aguas (beverages) made with hoja santa. This is a versatile plant, with the leaves used to wrap all sorts of ingredients, and is an essential component of the green mole of Oaxaca.

Pápalo (Porophyllum ruderale). This leafy green is said to taste somewhere between arugula, cilantro and rue, and is used in salsas (salsa verde, guacamole) and to season meat. It is also used in tacos, and soups, and should be served raw. Also known as quilquina and papaloquelite, the root of the word, so to speak, comes from papalotl, the Nahuatl word for butterfly.

Quintonil, also called bledo (Amaranthus spp). This quelite is well known from its seeds, but preparation of the greens varies, and it is used in several dishes. The leaves can be boiled with salt and combined in stews with chilis, onion and tomato. Sometimes they are also steamed and sauce is added. In the municipality of Naupan, Puebla, the greens are used in tamales with pork.

Hierba mora (Solanum nigrescens). This plant has good company as it is in the same family as potatoes, chilis, and tomatoes, all edible, and the nightshades, which are poisonous. It has medicinal value, for pain relief and for cleansing of the liver and kidney. The leaves, flowers, fruit and even the root are used. It is also used in stews and soups and is a vegetarian alternative for Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays. The tender leaves are boiled; sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and onions are added. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpdFRAyVzgk

Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). I first learned about this plant in Merida, as it is very popular in the Yucatan, but I have also enjoyed delicious agua de chaya at the Saturday Huatulco Organic Market, which is especially tasty with cucumber (pepino). Chaya leavers make an excellent soup an a great torta with potatoes, like a potato pancake. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHE3XKWludM

Flores de agave. Also known as galumbo, agave flowers can be simmered until tender, and with, guess what, sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and garlic. Add a pinch or two of salt and bicarbonate of soda, then add the drained flowers. Serve with tortillas de nopal. Although not directly related, yucca flowers (Yucca spp.) can be fleshy in texture, almost like endive, eaten raw and in salads.

Flores y cogollitos de Colorín (Erythrina coralloides). Flowers and flower buds of the colorín tree – yes, we do have a Calle Colorín in la Crucecita, where the streets are named for native trees. This beautiful tree attracts lots of hummingbirds. They can be prepared with beans to make pancakes. In the Nahua region of Mexico state, they are eaten cooked or fried; scrambled with eggs; mixed with a chili sauce, garlic, and epazote; served with beans and flavored with chili and cumin.

Lengua de vaca, or cow’s tongue (Rumex mexicanus). This quelite is used as a condiment due to its sour and slightly bitter taste. It is related to dock and sorrel, both foraged and grown in the U.S. Its use varies with location, of course, as Mexican cuisine varies enormously by region. In central Mexico, ground stems and leaves of lengua de vaca is used to flavor the mole de olla broth; they are also used in salads and sauces, steamed or stewed in tomato sauce.

Malacate, Malacote (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides) is an aquatic plant. Known as floating pennywort in English, the plant has naturalized to the point of being an invasive species in Europe. A relative of carrots, celery and parsley, the young leaves and stems of malacate are used in salads – the fresh flavor is reminiscent of celery. Older leaves are bitter, but can be cooked.

Okay Eye readers, you have enough to digest. ¡Buen provecho!

Tortillas y Más …

By Randy Jackson

As a bread lover, it’s of little wonder that wherever or whenever I tried my first tortilla, I loved it at first taste. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for tortillas is tlaxcalli (pronounced PLUX-cal-a). The Spanish name for this delightful flat bread is tortilla (“little round cake”). Maize tortillas emerged in early Mesoamerica and almost single-handedly enabled the flourishing of successive advanced civilizations in Mexico and Central America. The maize tortilla provided a stable source of calories and nutrients for millions of people across centuries.

Mexico remains the world’s largest consumer of tortillas. The Mexican per-capita tortilla intake, mostly in the form of corn tortillas, is 85 kilos per year (a little more than 187 pounds). In some parts of Mexico, this consumption is as high as 120 kilos per person, per year (just over 264 pounds). Checking in our fridge, 1 pkg of 10 whole wheat tortillas is 340 grams, so doing the math; 120 kilos of tortillas per capita per year = 9.6 tortillas per person per day. Global sales of tortillas in 2012 was estimated at $12 Billion USD, while tortilla chips and other corn snacks accounted for a further $10 Billion USD. Eso es mucho!

As a tortilla consumer – I’m a flour tortilla guy. And, although I’m OK with the reasonably healthy tortilla wraps, there are other, some might say, less healthy tortilla options too. I’m referring to a category of tortilla recipes called “stuffed tortillas.”

I would define stuffed tortillas as a baked or fried dish where some sort of filling is encased in tortillas. Enchiladas, chimichangas, and quesadillas are the most recognizable versions of stuffed tortillas. Of course, there are many more. One recipe I can speak to is something I call Mexican Deep Dish Tortillas. My version of this dish is made using an air fryer, and you can see my YouTube recipe video for it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJtCC9OSsiM.

Of course, there is Tortilla Lasagna too, a dish that is right up my alley. Unfortunately, the current (July) heat wave in Western Canada has kept me from using the oven to make and report on this delectable stuffed tortilla dish.

Beyond food, for the real tortilla lovers the Internet has plenty of tortilla-themed items. In wearables I’ve found women’s dresses and skirts that look like tortillas. Something that caught my eye was a tortilla-style baby blanket. This could allow young parents to wrap their newborn up like a burrito. There are tortilla/burrito blankets for adults too – as you might imagine, they are round. I’m putting one on my Christmas list. And what about tortilla car air fresheners to hang from your rearview mirror? Yup, that too is just a click away.

In 2003, the state of Texas, proclaimed tortilla chips and salsa to be the official state snack (who knew – Texas even has an official state cobbler – Peach). NASA has used tortillas for astronaut meals in space since the 1980’s. Unlike bread, tortillas don’t leave crumbs to float about the space station. Scientists at the University of Houston have been working on extending the shelf life of tortillas for long-duration space missions. Tortillas now remain fresh tasting for up to 18 months on the ISS (International Space Station).

In 1977, in southeast New Mexico, in the kitchen of Maria Rubio, the face of Jesus appeared on a tortilla. This event became known as the Tortilla Miracle. The apparition became an international curiosity. Over the years thousands of people came to see the tortilla. The Tortilla Miracle changed the lives of the Rubio family. There were several TV appearances for Maria, including one on the Phil Donahue show. A movie titled “Tortilla Heaven” was made (starring George Lopez) based on this tortilla story. Through it all, Maria Rubio remained a devout Catholic. She believed in the divine origin of the Jesus image on the tortilla. It arrived at a critical time for the Rubio family. They were facing severe poverty and Maria’s husband was an alcoholic.

Unlike the Rubio family, few lives are changed by a tortilla. The virtue of tortillas is that they do represent an important food staple for the peoples of the Americas. And, I believe, eating a stuffed tortilla while wrapped in a tortilla blanket, can only be a good thing.

Tejate Today: Oaxaca’s Pre-Hispanic Drink Was Reserved for Royalty

By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

Gloria Cruz Sánchez holds a jícara (half gourd), high above her head while in a ritualized fashion she pours water down into a large green glazed ceramic bowl containing a beige doughy mush, creating foam. She’s in the Oaxaca Sunday market town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, completing the last phase in making tejate, just like her forebears thousands of years earlier. If you’ve been to a Oaxacan market you’ve likely seen it being served to locals, and may have been afraid to imbibe; it looks like spent shaving cream that surely would make you ill. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Tejate is a nutritious pre-Hispanic drink which was reserved for Aztec high priests, and Zapotec rulers before them. It’s still consumed today by Oaxacans of every station in life. Tejate is made exclusively by women, using virtually the same ingredients and methods employed over millennia. It dates to more than 3,000 years ago.

Tejate’s components are corn, cacao (sometimes substituted with coconut), purified or mountain spring water, seeds of the mamey fruit, dried aromatic “funeral tree flowers” (from the Quararibea funebris bush), lime mineral, sometimes a seasonal nut, and ash from burnt wood. As distinct from many other traditional Oaxacan delicacies (i.e. mole negro), all of tejate’s ingredients are native to Mexico; and all but cacao are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. There is, however, one exception: for the asking the tejatera will add sugary water as a sweetener, whereas in pre-Hispanic times she would have used bee honey or baked caramelized agave.

Preparing tejate is an extremely laborious task. In fact in order to have it ready to serve in markets by about 9:30 am, women must begin the process at roughly 4:00 am. And so Gloria awakens at her home in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola while it’s still dark, long before roosters have begun to crow, so as to have her tejate ready for market sales. She toasts the flowers, mamey seeds and cacao on an earthen comal using dried pencas (agave leaves) as firewood. She does the same with peanuts. She keeps the mixtures segregated from one another.

She then washes the corn in a clay colander, gingerly removing any small stones. Thereafter she boils spring water in a terracotta cauldron on a stone base, again fueled with leaves of the succulent. She adds powdered lime, strained ash, and the corn. The mixture simmers for about 40 minutes. The flames die down. The corn is strained once more to cool and to remove excess ash.

Gloria now reaps the benefits of the modern age; she walks to a mill to have the cacao mixture and then the corn, separately ground. She used to do all the grinding on a metate (primitive grinding stone), but when the mill opened in her village she decided to take advantage of it. She then ambles back to her homestead. While the mixtures are again cooling, breakfast preparations ensue. It’s about 6:00 am, and time for a small drink of mezcal.

Gloria spends the next two hours grinding the roasted peanuts on a metate followed by painstakingly combining that puree with the corn and cacao mixtures. It all gets blended together in an orderly, almost ceremonial manner. This most delicate step must be done by hand.

After breakfast, in the back of a covered pickup along with others from the village, Gloria travels to Tlacolula, where she erects her stall. She begins the pièce de résistance, holding the jícara high above her head with one hand, the other mixing the almost buttery thick concoction with the water from on high. She repeats the process until all in the ceramic bowl has been transformed into tejate, the cacao-nutty-maple frothy drink of the gods.

Gloria has her regular customers, those who attend the market on a weekly basis; but many are infrequent visitors, including both foreign and domestic tourists. Some drink Gloria’s tejate alongside her stall, in a painted jícara she supplies. Others buy it in a plastic cup “to go.” Usually by mid-afternoon, typically no later than 4 pm, she’s completely sold out. Gloria will then shop for more ingredients in the market, readying for the next Sunday’s preparations before returning to her village in the back of that same covered pick-up. It’s been a hard yet rewarding, long day’s work.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). For the past three decades he’s been a regular imbiber of tejate; and he’s still standing.

Ten Gifts from Mexico

By Brooke Gazer

December is the month that many of us associate with exchanging gifts, so I thought it would be a good time to remember some of the scrumptious gifts that Mexico has given the world. I’ve wrapped each gift in some interesting bits of history and trivia.

Popcorn
This may be the world’s oldest snack. Next time you go to the movies, thank Mexico when you order a tub of popcorn, called palomitas in Mexico. The people of Mexico domesticated corn some 10,000 years ago, but even before that, a hard variety of corn called teosinte grew wild. These kernels were too hard to eat or to grind into flour but could be popped; some form of popcorn existed a millennium before the domesticated corn used for tortillas came into being.

Avocados
Archaeologists have found evidence of avocados growing in central Mexico 12,000 years ago. Due to the shape of the fruit, the Aztecs called them ahuacatl from the word huacatl, meaning “testicle,” and they were thought to be an aphrodisiac, possibly due to this shape.

Chewing gum
Ancient Mayans chewed a sticky substance from the Manilkara sapota, or the chicle tree. Later, when the Aztecs adopted the practice, they established firm social rules surrounding its use. Only children and single women could chew it publicly, while men and married women could only chew it in private. It was used to stave off hunger and to freshen their breath. In the 1850s, a New Yorker named Thomas Adams was working as secretary to General Antonio de López de Santa Anna, the exiled former president of Mexico. Santa Anna was a chewer of chicle, which Adams had imported as a possible substitute for rubber. When it proved unsuccessful, Adams adapted it as the base for chewing gum and the popular brand Chiclets was born.

Chili Peppers
Chili peppers may have been the world’s first introduction to fusion cuisine. When Columbus discovered America, he found chili peppers growing on the Caribbean islands. However, the word chili comes from the Aztec language. and this plant was originally domesticated around 5000 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley, which lies between the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. The word pepper was combined with the name chili, because of the hot taste. Columbus was seeking a similar plant; black pepper corns were known in Europe as “Black Gold” and before long chili peppers were grown around the world.

Beans
If you are on a budget, these could be your best friends. One cup of cooked beans equals 14 grams of protein, the same as 2 ounces of lean meat, which only provides 9-13 grams of fiber. While a few varieties are from Africa or the Middle East, most beans originated in Mexico, with evidence of their cultivation dating back seven thousand years. Some 200 different varieties of Mexican beans have been identified, but the most commonly known are kidney, pinto, black, red, and white beans.

Papaya
Some people associate this exotic fruit with Asia, but it originated in southern Mexico and Central and South America. Spanish explorers spread its cultivation; papaya was the first crop to be genetically modified for human consumption.Aside from its mildly sweet flavor and soft buttery texture, this tropical fruit contains enzymes that aid in digestion and protect tissues that line the digestive tract. And without papaya, New York City would have been bereft of its beloved combo, papaya juice and hot dogs. Purveyed by Papaya King, Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Frank’s Papaya, etc., etc., from the 1950s on (Papaya King lays claim to another two decades, 1932), the combo had its heyday in the 70s. No less than Julia Child declared the hot dog served at Papaya King the best in New York, better even than Nathan’s Original! After many ups and downs and franchise failures hither and yon, you can still get a Papaya King drink and a dog on St. Marks Place downtown and on East 86th Street (the original) uptown in Manhattan.

Tomatoes
Some say that tomatoes grew wild in the Andes, but the Aztecs had domesticated and cultivated them by 500 BC. Cortez brought them to Spain and tomatoes became popular in southern Europe soon after the conquest. In some parts of Europe, however, they were considered poisonous. This was because acidity from tomatoes caused the lead in pewter plates and flatware to leach into food. Over time, lead poisoning is fatal. It was not until the time of the American civil war that tomatoes became a common part of our diet. Thank goodness they did, because without tomatoes from Mexico, there would be no pizza today!

Tequila
Compared to some spirits, tequila is a fairly modern development. The Aztecs fermented the juice of the agave cactus into a drink called pulque somewhere around 300 BC, but the Spaniards found it a bit rough for their tastes. Using the same plant, they distilled something called Vino de Mezcal. Later, copper stills were introduced and they enjoyed an even more refined product. In the 17th century, the town of Tequila in Jalisco developed a reputation for the fine quality of mezcal they produced from a variety of blue agave.

Soon people began referring to all distilled agave spirits as tequila. However, in 1902, an official distinction was made and only blue agave spirits from this region in Jalisco could be labeled “tequila.” All tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals can be called tequila. (See many articles in The Eye by Alvin Starkman on the making and enjoying of mezcal.)

Vanilla
This delicious flavoring is from the pod of an exotic orchid of the genus Vanilla. It grew only in what is now the state of Veracruz and the Totonacs were the first to cultivate it. The flavor quickly became popular in Europe, but until the 1840s, Mexico had the vanilla market cornered. This was because the orchid needed to be pollinated by hummingbirds or bees specific to the region. Then a French entrepreneur discovered how to pollinate the plants by hand, and production of vanilla expanded to other countries. Like saffron, vanilla is a labor-intensive product, making it an expensive flavoring regardless of where it is produced. However, many experts agree that Mexican vanilla is smoother, darker, and richer, with more floral notes. So, if you are going to spend the money – wouldn’t you want the best?

Chocolate
Cacao trees grew wild in Mexico for nearly10,000 years, until the Olmec people began cultivating them. Mayan glyphs suggest that a beverage made with fermented cacao pods was reserved for only the most elite members of society. The dried beans from the cacao pods were so prized that the Mayans used them as currency to trade with the Aztecs. The Aztecs mixed them with chilis to make a bitter drink that no one today would recognize. Our English word “chocolate” derives from the Aztec word chocolātl, or xocoátl, but it was not until 1590 that cacao began to gain popularity. This was when Oaxacan nuns had the brilliant idea of sweetening the beverage. From that simple innovation, chocolate spread across Europe becoming the world’s favorite flavor.

Thank you, Mexico!

Brooke Gazer runs Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Octopus: Intelligent and Agile, But Also Tasty and Nutritional

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Octopus (pulpo) is a boon for the economy of Mexico. The country is the third largest producer worldwide, with most of the boneless invertebrate mollusk shipped to Spain, Japan and Italy. While there are about 300 species of octopus, most of the Mexican fisheries harvest only two types; Maya (red) and Vulgaris (patón). Almost all (±95%) the nation’s octopi (plural is also octopuses and octopodes) comes from three states – Baja California, Campeche and Yucatán, the latter boasting over 65% of the nation’s production. It’s no wonder that pulpo is such a popular menu item throughout the country.

Inhabiting every ocean, the octopus is really quite a fascinating sea creature, so much so that I occasionally question whether or not I should allow it to continue to be my go-to restaurant dish in high-end eateries. But my taste buds typically trump all.

Octopi are the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Some scientists believe they actually have individual personalities. We know for certain that they are predominantly solitary animals, with uncanny problem solving and survival mechanisms that would make Darwin proud, yet their lifespan is no more than five years, and at times as short as six months.

Octopuses have been known to play with toys, unscrew lids, solve puzzles, interact with human caretakers, display different temperaments including opinions about people, build dens out of rocks for inhabiting, and even place a rock on the entranceway once safely at home to preclude entry by predators (e.g., depending on the particular oceanic region, they include seals, eels, halibut, other fish and even larger octopodes).

While octopi are deaf, their other senses are finely honed. Its head (mantle) contains all vital organs including three hearts, one of which pumps the blue blood through the entire body, and the other two through the gills. The suckers on its arms move independently of one another, enabling the mollusk to grip, taste, smell and manipulate. Each arm is therefore akin to an army of brains. The octopus jet-propels itself seemingly backwards head-first through the water, at a speed of up to 25 MPH. This allows it to easily both avoid predators and catch its meal (crabs, shrimp, young small octopi and other mollusks).

While the octopus is an invertebrate, it possesses a hard beak capable of breaking through the shells of its prey. The octopus’ soft body enables it to contort itself so much so that it can hide in between seemingly inaccessible areas of rock crevices, serving it well as both as hunter, ready to pounce, and hunted, out of sight sound and smell.

Octopuses are venomous, though almost none of the species are so much so that they can be fatal to human beings. However, the venom does serve an important purpose. The venom is contained in its ink; when the octopus is avoiding predators or seeking prey, its release of the dark liquid provides a smoke screen and temporarily freezes the predator/prey.

While everything about the octopus is impressive, its ability to camouflage is perhaps its most incredible feature. On the turn of a dime, the mollusk uses its sharp eyes to match the patterns, colors and textures of its surroundings. Given that it is colorblind, this ability is even more mystifying.

For the seafood aficionado, pulpo contains a large amount of protein, is a rich source of vitamins B3 and B12, and is packed with with potassium, iodine, selenium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus.

We tend to relish the opportunity to steam lobster and spice up our lives frying up a plethora of shrimp recipes, but typically omit pulpo from our repertoires that impress house guests. Despite the attributes of octopi noted above, perhaps it’s time to try your hand at a recipe. While pulpo is usually rather expensive in restaurants, it’s much less so if prepared on a grill at home.

RECIPE FOR GRILLED OCTOPUS

For those residing close to the coast, of course it’s advisable to buy your octopus fresh from the fisherman. Do try to get him to clean it because it’s messy and time consuming doing it yourself. Mexican seafood retailers tend to sell them cleaned, frozen and ready to cook. This recipe assumes you are using a cleaned, frozen octopus.

1. Defrost, slowly in the fridge if possible.
2. In a large pot of boiling water, while holding onto the head dunk the body (arms) into the water three times before then fully submerging it and leaving to boil about 40 minutes (theoretically, that makes the tentacles curl up restaurant-style). You can add herbs, spices and/or salt to the water, but it’s not necessary because (a) it’s salty by nature, and (b) seasoning will subsequently be added.
3. Allow to cool for up to a couple of hours.
4. Cut off the arms where they meet the body.
5. Separately cut off the upper portion to close to where it meets the head, and cut into pieces an inch or two in size.
6. Marinate for an hour or so in olive oil, fresh minced garlic, salt, pepper and fresh chopped parsley.
7. Clean and oil the grill (use olive oil), and pre-heat to a high temperature.
8. Turn down the grill to 50% heat and immediately place each piece on it, in the case of the arms for 3 – 4 minutes each side, longer for the upper body portions.
9. Place the nicely grilled pieces on serving dishes, sprinkled with salt, pepper and chopped parsley, then lightly drizzled with olive oil.

Try it this way the first time, then for subsequent preparation experiment with different herbs and spices to taste.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca
(www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).