Tag Archives: mexican food

Al Pastor and the Lebanese Influence on Mexican food

By Julie Etra

Yum! One of my favorite Mexican dishes is Tacos al Pastor, layers of marinated meat, slow-cooked on a spit with a vertical flame, slivered up and served on a warm corn tortilla with all the side fixings. The spit, called a trompo (“spinning top”) in Spanish, slowly rotates as it cooks the al pastor, which in Mexico is usually pork. Marinades vary, but can mostly be classified as “adobo,” which includes achiote and ground red guajillo chilies, resulting in the reddish colored meat. The pastor part, which means “shepherd,” is derived from the verb pastorear (“to herd”), as this fixture in Mexican street food is actually Lebanese in origin and the corresponding meat was lamb (pigs are not herded). In the Middle East, the dish is called “shawarma,” and originally consisted of spiced lamb roasting on the slow-turning spit and served on pita bread; when it arrived in Mexico, the pita eventually became a wheat flour tortilla (as in tacos árabe). This method of cooking on a rotating spit is also customary in Greek food, e.g., the gyro (think gyroscope), a meat sandwich of beef, veal (oh no, not a fatted calf), lamb, pork, or chicken.

Lebanese Food Comes to Mexico

Records show that the first Lebanese arrived Mexico in 1892, initially concentrating around Puebla and to a lesser extent Mexico City and the Baja. At the time, Lebanon was not a distinct country but part of the immense Ottoman empire. The immigrants were largely Christians fleeing political persecution, and they rapidly assimilated in Mexico.

The first Middle Eastern restaurant in Mexico was opened in Puebla by Yerbagues Tabe Mena y Galeana in Puebla in 1933. Called “La Oriental,” it was located at Avenida 16 de septiembre, #303. Since lamb apparently was difficult to find and expensive, and since the Mexicans preferred pork, the family quickly adapted. Traditional Lebanese spices, such as caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger were gradually replaced with Mexican spices but tacos árabes are in part defined by the wheat flour tortilla, not corn.

The restaurant moved to its current location near the zocalo in 1942; it’s at Portal Iturbide, #5. The sign reads “La Oriental: la cuna del taco Árabe” (“The Eastern: the birthplace of the Arab taco).

Speaking of spices, there are numerous spices not originally Mexican but over the centuries and decades have found their way into Mexican cuisine, e.g., cumin (comino in Spanish) and cilantro.

Cumin, which seems indispensable in so many Mexican dishes, is in fact from the Mediterranean, introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores. Cilantro (called coriander when you are referring to the seeds) is related to cumin, as they are both in the carrot/parsley/celery family. Although its origin remains uncertain, it is also most likely from the Mediterranean and it has been in use as a spice and as a medicinal plant for about 5,000 years. There are references to the use of coriander in the Old Testament (in Exodus) and The Arabian Nights. Coriander, too, arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards, along with cinnamon (canela) and cloves (clavos).

Lebanese Culture in Mexico

Who are some famous Mexicans of Lebanese origin?

Number Uno has to be Carlos Slim Helu, better known as Carlos Slim. I have to assume, dear readers, that most of you know he is the 5th-richest person in the world, the wealthiest Latin American and worth about $68.9 billion US dollars, but did you know he is of Lebanese descent? Slim is the son of Julián Slim Haddad (born Khalil Salim Haddad Aglamaz) and Linda Helú Atta, both Maronite Christians from Lebanon. Slim’s father emigrated to Mexico from Lebanon at age 14, apparently to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army, making Slim first generation on his father’s side. His mother was from Chihuahua, but both her parents were also Lebanese immigrants. The Soumaya Museum in Mexico City – and most of its contents – are the gift of Carlos Slim.

The actress Salma Hayek Jiménez, aka Salma Hayek, is also of Lebanese descent. She was born in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Her father, Sami Hayek Domínguez, is Lebanese, having emigrated from the city of Baabdat, Lebanon. Her mother, Diana Jiménez Medina, is Mexican/Spanish (her maternal grandmother and great-grandparents were from Spain).

The supermarket Chedraui, aka Super Che, is one of the two big box stores in HuatuIco and is part of a chain of super stores founded by the Lebanese immigrants Lázaro Chedraui Chaya and his wife Ana Caram in 1927 in Xalapa, Veracruz. First known as Port of Beirut, this highly successful chain now includes stores in the United States in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, under the names El Super and Fiesta Mart.

A Brief History of Cooking

By Randy Jackson

Today, perhaps more than any other time in human history, food has been elevated on a cultural pedestal of reverence. The depth of knowledge and appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines among so many people seems to be a cultural characteristic of our times. Celebrity chefs, food shows and food networks, never mind food pictures posted on Instagram, are only a few of the many indicators of this interest. The term “foodie” was first coined in the 1980s and is now in common use. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a foodie as “a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby.” Travel, immigration, and the abundance of food and ingredients from all over the world have all had a hand in this current cultural obsession with food and cooking. However, today’s modern hipsters of cuisine are only the most recent green sprig of growth in the long history of cooking.

Our evolutionary record shows the harnessing of fire coincided with the growth of the human brain relative to body size. This development took place roughly 1.9 million years ago. Harnessing fire had multiple benefits to humans, but chief among them was that it allowed the cooking of food. Cooking food increases the caloric value and reduces the energy required to digest it. Cooking food also enabled early humans to eat certain tubers and roots that were otherwise inedible.

I think it safe to assume that grilling was the first cooking method. Studies of primitive tribes, even today, show how an animal is cooked (it’s estimated that there are more than a hundred “uncontacted peoples” worldwide, half of them in the Amazonian jungle). The entire carcass is thrown onto the open fire. The fire, along with some scraping, removes the fur. Then as bits of the animal are deemed cooked, they are cut or torn from the carcass and consumed. It’s easy to see the direct lineage of this form of cooking to the tossing of a piece of meat onto the barbeque today.

The earliest dishes beyond grilling were probably soups and stews. There is some evidence from Japan dating back 10,000 years of a type of stew made by putting flesh and water into an animal’s paunch and boiling it over a fire. No doubt soups and stews were being made much earlier than this. Once mankind had figured out how to cook in a container of some sort, it only made sense they began boiling up bits of almost anything they could find.

There is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca – still practiced – of making “stone soup.” National Geographic has a documentary showing this
(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2010/10/04/mexicos_stone_soup/). The cooking method consists of putting water, vegetables, and fish into a smooth rounded depression in the rocky ground. Then a stone is heated on a fire before dropping it into this natural cauldron, and the soup is cooked. It’s easy to imagine how different flavors were discovered by experimentation or by chance when something new was added to the soup or stew.

Let’s not forget about bread. Archaeologists in Jordan have found the remains of flatbread made with wild barley and plant roots – about 14,000 years old, it predates agricultural practices by thousands of years. Societies all over the world have independently found ways to make bread. Mash up grains, add water to make a paste, fry on a hot rock – and presto! For example, the original inhabitants of what is now California developed a complex procedure to make flour for flatbread out of acorns. Source material for bread was everywhere once man learned to harness fire.

Harnessing fire and cooking required greater social organization and division of duties – there had to be fire tenders, wood gatherers, hunters, etc. A central fire also brought people together for longer periods, especially at night, which increased social complexity and likely helped in the evolution of language.

A New Relationship with FOOD in the New Normal of 2020

By Susan Birkenshaw

My connections to food have never truly been what would be considered logical, happy, or even healthy. At times I ate because I had to, at others because I absolutely adored what was presented to me on a beautifully created plate, and then others … was I having an “emotional” set back?

This less than normal or consistent relationship with food has led me to be one of the laziest cooks that I know. My grandmother would be horrified! BUT – that finally changed in later years when timing and urgency were no longer factors in how or what I cooked and ate. Add to this, I led myself to believe that I do not like to shop. The truth is, since I do not really know what to do with food beyond the basics and the fact that I absolutely detest waste, cooking has not been a creative outlet for me.

Now we are in are in the middle of 2020 and our world has changed. Since leaving our home in Huatulco, we have been isolating as much as possible in lake country in northern Ontario, Canada, and this has given me ample time to think about many things that I have ignored until now.

I am blessed to live basically two snowless seasons, and this means fresh seasonal fruit, veggies and all the good local things year-round. And surprise, surprise, I am taking the time to learn how to cook!

Three months into this process, this is what I have learned: creating delicious is a combination of Chemistry, Creativity and Courage – all of these mixed with a big dose of patience and willingness to stick to the process and do-over if necessary!

Let’s consider chemistry. I know now that it was a mistake for me to have dropped chemistry class in high school as early as I could, but I remember the only thing I found useful about Baking Soda happened in my geography project.

My dad helped me mold a mess of flour, salt, water, and food colouring into anactive volcano! Baking soda and vinegar created the inner boom to move the “lava” up – what a mess! And now after my first baking experiment, I absolutely know I must have baking soda in my pantry.

And as I moved on, I learned there are many common substitutions in the kitchen. Use 1 tsp of lemon juice for ½ tsp of vinegar, ½ a banana for 1 egg, 1 cup corn syrup = 1¼ cup sugar + 1/3 cup water, and 1 cup self-rising flour = ⅞ cup all-purpose flour + 1½ tsp baking powder + ½ tsp salt – see, it’s Chemistry!

Now, on to my Creativity! Creativity is accepting differences and stepping outside the boundaries of whatever you are doing. Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that creativity is in part “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

So, taking these definitions to heart, I decided that I wanted to put my own spin on this thing called “cooking.” Obviously, this goes beyond simple taste and temperature. I realized the first thing I need to learn was the way each of these ingredients tastes and the way each cooks. This requires experimentation – and failure.

And failure takes Courage. But failure breeds its own kind of courage. Over time, the creativity involved in experimentation becomes a fearless activity. The act of creating a new flavour, new textures and combinations, leads to fascinating taste tests and carefully considered do-overs. Once I threw out the preconceived notions I had absorbed from my grade school Home Ec teacher, I was free to brave the mysteries of cooking!

Berry, Berry Good!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you’ve ever driven across the high plains of central Mexico, you’ve seen the signs. FRESAS con CREMA, FRESAS con CREMA, until you come to a weather-beaten shack that shades baskets of strawberries and coolers with crema on ice. Those strawberries used to make their way down the mountains to Huatulco, to be sold in the streets from impeccably arranged pyramids on wheelbarrows. Thinking “I’m too old for this,” I once chased one up Carrizal, against the traffic, to get a kilo weighed out on the scale that magically appeared from beneath the wheelbarrow. Well worth it.

Now we go to the Carrizal produce markets to buy Driscoll’s strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries – the “everyday” brand in American groceries. The berries come in vented, hinged, “tamper-evident” plastic containers called “clamshells,” stored in the commercial coolers on the back wall at Fruver or Hermanos Lucas.

What Happened to the Wheelbarrows?

They went big-time. Global big-time.

Mexico is now the world’s fifth-largest producer and the third-largest exporter of frutas rojas – “red fruits,” the category for straw-, rasp-, blue-, and blackberries; sometimes cranberries, sweet cherries, and grapes are included in the group (Mexico has begun to produce and export all three of these, especially and surprisingly cranberries, which boast a 50% return on investment.)

In 2019, the “true” berry exports were valued at US $800 million, employed about 100,000 people in – for the most part – stable, well-paid jobs, many of them year-round. Direct employment and another 100,000 “spillover” jobs (jobs indirectly related to the berry industry) were valued at US $900 million, for a total industry impact of US $1.7 billion. In 2016, more than half (53%) of the fruit in America’s markets was imported, and Mexico supplied 100% of those imported strawberries, 98% of the imported raspberries, 95% of the imported blackberries, and 9% of the imported blueberries.

The berry trade basically did not exist 25 years ago. One winter in 1995, J. Miles Reiter, now CEO/Board Chair of Driscoll’s, came to Mexico to attend the wedding of one of the company’s migrant pickers in California. Reiter looked around and thought strawberries would grow well in that environment. He did some testing and trials; when tensions over labor, immigration, and water supply soon started rising in California, Reiter realized that Jalisco could be the solution.

The growing fields of Jalisco are located above 4,000 feet, as they are in neighboring Colima and Michoacán, thus avoiding the severe heat at sea level; since they border the Pacific Ocean, these three states also have ready access to the “cold chain” (refrigerated storage and transportation) necessary to export fragile berries. The volcanic soil in the “fruit-belt” produces sweeter strawberries from the same varieties grown in California. It wasn’t long before acreage used for lower-profit crops, e.g., sugar cane, was being converted for strawberries, then for blackberries and raspberries, and most recently, blueberries.

Berries are also grown in Baja California, with climatic differences allowing for year-round fruit production, although growers in the two regions tend to use different cultivars. Strawberries are still grown all across the high plains, but production has begun concentrating in the fruit-belt states and Baja.

The Berry Biz

Driscoll’s is a good example of how the U.S. berry industry became Mexico’s most profitable agricultural sector – exports of tomatoes, avocados, and hot peppers may be bigger, in terms money and quantity, but profit-wise, berries are the winners.

Starting with strawberries in the 1880s, J.E. (Ed) Reiter and his brother-in-law R.F. (Dick) Driscoll are credited with starting the “Strawberry Gold Rush” in Shasta County in northern California. Ed and Dick got together with a marketing guy, Thomas (no doubt “Tom”) Loftus and developed a sales strategy that included a paper banner wrapping every last crate they sent to market. Voilà, Banner Berry Farm’s Brand incorporated in 1904.

The California strawberry business imploded in the 1940s when Japanese residents, the primary growers, were forced into internment camps during World War II. Next-generation Ned Driscoll and Joe Reiter kept planting strawberries when no one else did, so when the war was over, they were in a position to hire the released Japanese as sharecroppers. They started calling themselves Driscoll Strawberry Associates; the sharecropping model, along with hiring breeders from the University of California’s about-to-be-dropped strawberry program, represent key pillars of Driscoll’s current business model: contract growing and state-of-the-art research and development.

When they had to fend off takeover assaults in the late 1980s, Driscoll’s decided to go bigger, getting out of production and into organizing the industry. They worked on building their brand, developing the clamshell package largely so they could slap a big label on it. They did the R&D to create new varieties of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries that suited the Mexican climate. They adopted the eminently suitable name of Driscoll’s, Inc.

Still a private, family-owned business, Driscoll’s has over 400 growers in 21 countries on every continent except Antarctica (their berries are probably served on polar cruise ships); they market their wares in 48 countries. Their major competition is half a dozen or so major berry-producing companies (e.g., NatuRipe, WellPict, Dole, SunnyRidge, Sunbelle), which also practice contract growing.

How It Works in Mexico

The Mexican berry business has been profoundly shaped by Driscoll’s (and their competition) – it is a world removed from what Miles Reiters saw when he went to that wedding in Jalisco. Growers are licensed by Driscoll’s, provided with plants developed by Driscoll’s, and required to return all berries from those plants back to Driscoll’s. Growers must meet federal, state, and local food safety regulations for their country, as well as additional U.S. requirements; performance is monitored.

Berries are handpicked, “decanted” into the clamshells, moved into coolers and chilled to 33°F, palletized, and moved on to the “cold chain” serving that location. According to a case study for the executive agribusiness seminar at the University of California at Davis, payment to the grower is based on a quality evaluation of 4 clamshells from every pallet. Under Driscoll’s Pay for Quality program, growers get paid by the tray (8 one-pound clamshells), according to their average quality score over a week’s worth of evaluation. Let’s say the tray sells for $12, Driscoll’s knocks off $2 for the clamshells and takes 18% as its share – that leaves $8.20 for the grower. But it’s not that easy – in order to make growers in a local area compete for quality, the $8.20 goes into a pool for all the area growers, and growers are then paid based on their evaluation score: $8.20 is for average quality, top quality gets a premium price of $8.50, low quality gets $7.90.

Very American business school, pairing pay with worker-generated quality improvement. And very American ag-tech university, all the innovations in “controlled environment agriculture” (CEA).

Using drip irrigation with filtered water and white plastic protective tunnels, strawberry growers in Zamora, Michoacán, have achieved a remarkable increase in production per acre – going from 60,000 pounds per acre to 160-200,000 pounds per acre, as opposed to 54,000 pounds per acre in California. The tunnels protect from the weather – too hot, too cold, heavy downpours, heavy winds – and most pests. A double layer of plastic mulch around the plants prevents soil-borne pests from damaging the roots.

In the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, growers use raised white plastic troughs lined with coco/coir fiber (the “substrate”) to grow their strawberries hydroponically, under screen houses for insect protection. The substrate reduces water use – always in scant supply in Baja – and lets growers reuse and regenerate the hydroponic solution, and of course eliminates soil-borne pests and pesticides to kill them.

Trough production is often called “table-top,” since it puts the plants at a height that eliminates “stoop work” for pickers. (If Baja berry production is to continue, it needs even more technology – current efforts to support wide-spread desalinization will have to come to “fruition”!).

Small is Still Beautiful

But it’s not all Driscoll’s (or Naturipe or Sunbelle) all the time. Alejandro Olvera manages Productores Qzar, a cooperative that grows certified organic blackberries (zarzamoras) in San Juan del Río in the state of Querétaro. There are four members – families or groups of friends – in the cooperative. Qzar’s website (http://qzar.mx/) emphasizes its outreach to the community through eco-agritourism (including U-pick visits), tours by school groups, and support for entrepreneurs. Olvera, in a 2016 interview with the online trade magazine Fresh Plaza, points out that as long as “more and more people want to eat healthy,” they will want to eat berries, and blackberries are a more economical source of antioxidants than blueberries.

Although Productores Qzar is a very small company, with perhaps more interest in social benefits than commercial success, Olvera is well versed in the industry, noting that Mexico’s status as a major exporter of berries requires “dependency on many foreign companies investing in Mexico.” For smaller producers, however, exporting doesn’t really work as their reason for being. “The exporting culture is not widely spread throughout the Mexican population … it is difficult for Mexicans to see themselves as exporters.”

Nonetheless, Productores Qzar does export its berries, on its own scale. “We are growing for companies that are our size, regardless of which country they are in. We love working with family businesses that don’t need a container, but a pallet.” The Querétaro location puts Qzar close to three airports, so it provides its own cold chain for exports.

When Qzar started growing blackberries, the crop was unknown locally. Their success has started other blackberry operations; their focus on community outreach had already brought 6,000 U-pick visits to the fields, and Olvera was predicting 10,000 visits within two years.

Future plans include setting up a hundred acres for new families to join the cooperative. “Just like we did when we started,” he said. “We don’t want to do it through large companies or for large supermarkets. What we want is for families here to work for families in other countries, … knowing other countries and getting other countries to know us.”

The Cheeses of Mexico

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The United States in the mid-20th century was not a place where children developed a palate for cheese. Our families’ forays into cheese-tasting extended not much further than Philadelphia cream cheese, which was liberally smeared on bagels, and some soft substance called American cheese that was grilled between two slices of white bread. When well-travelled cousins introduced us to exotic cheeses imported from France, or even just purchased in Wisconsin, we quickly created the name “stinky cheese” for them.

Although in the following decades small US dairies began experimenting with and producing some wonderful cheeses, by savoring them, or visiting France and Italy, we still weren’t fully prepared for the varieties and differences of the cheeses we learned to love while living in Mexico. Even the mass-produced cheeses that one finds in the supermercados are wonderful for snacking or cooking. Our weekly supermarket shopping in Mexico is never complete until we toss into our basket a block of manchego, a ball of Oaxaca cheese, and a round package of panela. And, in the enormous Chedraui near our favorite condo in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, the huge cheese department tempts us with varieties from virtually every state in Mexico and beyond.

But in our opinion the very best cheeses are found in small specialty stores or from sellers in outdoor markets. One such store was in La Crucecita in Huatulco, Oaxaca, and offered a wide selection of cheeses: La Cremería Costa del Pacifico. Unfortunately, the shop recently closed due, in part, to the economic effects of the pandemic. Last March, the owner, Rebeca Barboza, was gracious enough to discuss their cheeses with us.

Most of the cheeses available at such specialty cheese stores are made from cow’s milk, but each type has a distinctive taste and properties. Fresh, crumbly Ranchero, made in the State of Mexico, is a great addition to salads. Panela, also fresh from the State of Mexico, is the delight of nutritionists since it contains no fat or salt. We sometimes grill panela, and since it has no fat, it softens into a spreadable consistency but doesn’t melt.

Quesillo, the pride of Oaxaca, is also a fresh cheese made without salt. But because of its fat content quesillo can melt. If we don’t immediately snarf it down, we use it in omelets or other dishes calling for a taste of melted cheese. An alternative to quesillo for cooking is Mexican mozzarella made using the same process as mozzarella in Italy – but the Italian process uses buffalo milk while mozzarella in Mexico is made from cow’s milk. While mozzarella is traditional on pizza, quesillo is everyone’s favorite on the Oaxacan alternative to pizza, the delicious tlayuda.

The manchego that was available in La Cremería Costa del Pacifico came from Guadalajara after being aged two or three months. Originally made in Spain from sheep milk, it is perhaps the most versatile of cheeses. Whether from specialty stores or supermarkets, we grate manchego for a variety of dishes, melt it for others including queso fundido which sometimes is served with tortillas or vegetables for dipping, or sometimes we simply cut up the manchego into cubes for a snack. The best cheddar (yes Mexican not Wisconsin cheddar) is aged 12 months and comes from the mountains of Jalisco where, according to Senora Barboza, “milk is cheaper than water.”

Both specialty stores and supermarkets also carry goat cheeses. One of the best is the crumbly feta that is made in Guanajuato. And our favorite queso de cabra is spreadable and is sold in many stores in small logs, often covered with black ash which gives the cheese a delicious smoky flavor.

For the very freshest of cheeses we head to the organic market which is held outdoors on selected Saturdays in Santa Cruz Huatulco. According to the cheese seller, Isabel Ramos, all their cheeses are made from cow’s milk the day before the market on a ranch located twenty minutes north of Puerto Escondido. The organic designation requires that no chemicals be used in the cheese preparation, just milk from free-range cows.

We can heartfully recommend all their cheeses. The queso de prensa is firm enough to slice. Chiles and epazote are integral to the queso botanero and different batches range from mildly tasty to moderately picante. The queso ranchero and quesillo are on a par with the same types of cheeses found in specialty cheese shops – but we like buying local and knowing that the cows producing the milk were free to wander around pastures. The requesón is sold under the name of ricotta since foreign frequenters of the organic market are more familiar with that term. But whether one calls the cheese ricotta or requesón, it is great heaped on toasted bagels with tomato slices – much better than cream cheese.

While at the organic market, it is worthwhile searching for the vendor who sells Gouda cheese from Quesería La Pradera in Tilzapotla, Morelos. The cheese maker is originally from Holland. More information about the production of this Gouda can be found at
https://www.facebook.com/queseria.la.pradera/.

During these weeks of sheltering in place to avoid COVID19, we miss our friends and our wonderful view of the ocean in Huatulco. We also miss the cheeses. We will miss La Cremería and hope that the owners and staff of the other little shops and market tables that sell our favorites are safely weathering the earthquakes and the virus. Provecho!