I just got back from Day of the Dead in Mexico and now I’m having nightmares. Not of all the skeletons I encountered, nor the graveyards I visited, but of one simple thing: Getting onto my bathroom scale. This is a terrifying prospect.
Over the last several months, I’ve been working on reducing my total shipping weight so I don’t have to pay overweight charges when I mail myself anywhere. It’s been a slow but steady process and I’m proud to say I can now save myself at least 87 cents in shipping costs.
The problem is that every time I go to the city of Oaxaca (wa-ha-ca) in Southern Mexico, all my fine resolutions fly right out the door. This city is known for its fabulous cuisine, and I don’t mean burritos and enchiladas dripping in cheese.
“What?” some of you are demanding. “No burritos? That’s not Mexican food.”
See, here’s the thing: Here in Gringolandia, most of what we call Mexican food is actually Sonoran food. Sonora is the Mexican state just over the border from Arizona that’s known for its beef, cattle ranches, flour tortillas and cheese, which were introduced by Jesuit missionaries after the Spanish conquest.
I don’t exactly know how that became enshrined in our consciousness as our national version of “Mexican,” especially because we’re a long way from Sonora. But that’s why you’re going to find in most every Mexican restaurant here: quesadillas, cheese enchiladas, chimichangas, burritos and the like.
Around Southern California, you’re also going to find a smattering of Baja cuisine, mostly involving fish tacos and shrimp, since we’re so close to the coastal border.
Other than that, yeah, not so much.
This is like a foreigner visiting the U.S. for the first time, ending up in New Orleans (admittedly never a bad place to end up) and chowing down on gumbo and po’ boy sandwiches. And then going home assuming that this food is representative of the rest of the country. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find a lot of gumbo or po’ boys on the menus at my neighborhood joints.
So, here’s the thing. Mexico is a really big country. I mean, like really big. The 13th largest country in the world. With deserts and mountains and oceans and all that stuff. As you can imagine, this diversity has spawned a lot of regional cuisine that has nothing to do with burritos or even gooey cheese.
Stop frowning, this is a good thing, once you start to grasp the concept. Just like you’re not going to get a good New York-style pizza in every tiny town in the middle of nowhere (and believe me, New Yorkers will let you know this, endlessly and at the top of their lungs), your average Mexican joint is not going to serve you cochinita pibil.
This is a delicious specialty from the Yucatan region that involves roasting pork wrapped in banana leaves for 24 hours with bitter orange and achiote paste. Yum.
Over in Veracruz, a state on the Gulf of Mexico, you can find my favorite white fish dish laden with stewed tomatoes, green peppers, onions, olives and capers.
Baja California isn’t just known for tacos, but also octopus, lobsters, shrimp and wine.
All I can say about this is wear your stretchy pants.
The state of Oaxaca (it’s both a city and a state) is particularly known for its moles (mo-lays), which are essentially just elaborate sauces made with dried chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and a variety of other extremely tasty stuff.
You can find mole in some Mexican restaurants here, but it’s nearly always so-called black mole, or mole negro.
Black mole contains not only slow-roasted chiles but also bitter dark chocolate. Generally, the chiles have been burnt a bit, which creates the dark color and also a little bitterness. This dish is descended from the great Mesoamerican empires that existed in Mexico before the Spanish invasion.
We can thank ancient civilizations such as the Mayans and Aztecs for cultivating the cacao trees that led to today’s chocolate, as well as avocados and the corn that feeds corn tortillas and tamales.
The area around Oaxaca is famous for its – not one but seven – different moles, including red, green and yellow deliciousness, usually spread on chicken, but also other foods.
It’s also known for its fried grasshoppers, called chapulines, but I’m not really a fan. Ask me about the banana-leaf-wrapped tamales, though, filled with all sorts of yumminess, And plantain dumplings. Squash blossom soup. And tlayudas, which are sort of like pizzas, with beans and stringy, tangy Oaxacan cheese.
Then there’s Cafe de Olla, which is coffee made with cinnamon, brown sugar and grated chocolate. Don’t get me started. And then there’s mezcal, the heavenly drink made from agave of which tequila is one variety.
That doesn’t even count the many gourmet restaurants that put their own spins on these traditional foods. But I have to stop writing now, because I’m making myself hungry and I need to get a snack.
I’m not sure how long I can avoid getting on that bleeping bathroom scale, but I’m pretty sure there will be a blood-curdling scream when I do.
Want to email me? Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org
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