Friday, November 17, 2006

I love tacos...

Oyster tacos!

Steak tacos!

One of my favorite things about Mexico is the prevalance of great street food – it´s cheap, tasty, extremely diverse, very “authentic” and (…the croupier spins the roulette wheel and releases the ball... ) there is always the chance of contracting Montezumas revenge! But as the recent E. Coli epedemic linked to bagged spinach showed us – there is an inherent risk in eating anything, even something that is “triple washed.” But I´m getting into another topic entirely.

Anyways, the undisputed king of the Mexican street scene is the taco. There are a number of tasty treats that fall under the umbrella term “taco”- basically a tortilla wrap (various incarnations of maize or wheat flour) around a filling. Over the course of this trip, I have lost track of the number of tacos I have eaten – around the second week I was at 40+ (these are much, much smaller than your Taco Bell taco), not including all the times I used tortillas as the vehicle to transport food from my plate to my greedy mouth.

Along our drive, we have seen (and tasted) a great number of fillings for tacos: carne asada (grilled beef steak), bistec (another steak cut), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), cabeza (“head” from the cow – I think it is neck and cheeks that are stewed), tripa (tripe), adobada (marinated pork), carnitas (pieces of pork fried in fat, then cooked again), camarones (shrimp), ositones (oysters), marlin (smoked gamefish), machaca (dried shredded beef), birria (stewed goat meat), costilla (pork ribs), al pastor (rotisserie pork).
This doesn't need a caption.

Beto and his taco stand - he starts serving at 7AM, in time for breakfast.

Some of the fancier rigs even have little stools or tables for you to sit at, and a whole smorgasbord of salsas, pickled chile peppers, chopped vegetables and limes to choose from. However, the process is more or less the same. The cook asks you what you want (say... 4 tacos with carne asada), and if you want it with “greens” aka, onion and cilantro. You then take your piping hot tacos to where there is a great variety of salsas and lime wedges to add the right touch of heat. You can always go for seconds or thirds. Don´t be shy. At about 60 cents each taco, Heather and I walk away satiated and happy for under 5 bucks every time. I absolutely love these little stands and wanted to share some of that with all of you and to encourage you to patron one of these little stands the next time you are here. Just make sure you go to one where the cook is not the same person handling money!

Tacos de Birria

My favorite so far: Tacos de Birria – this is a filling of stewed goat - a really spicy, tender, rich flavoured meat that is a speciality of Jalisco and Guadalarajara. Or... maybe the Gorditas I just had at Bernal are really my favorite..
These gorditas, made fresh with blue corn masa are then opened and filled with a number of great combinations.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back on the Chase!

After working all last week with my Mexican collaborator, Jose (aka Pepe) on various aspects of the collecting, he and I took up the chase again, this time in the neighboring state of Queretaro. While Queretaro is not thought of as a prime wild chile habitat - much of the state is at higher altitudes and is heavily farmed, Pepe had an inside source - a former Master´s student - who knew of some areas where the wild chile roamed.

I´m happy to report to all of you that we collected from 4 populations and took samples from various local markets, some of which are pictured above. In contrast to previous chile hunts, in Queretaro the local wild chile is called "chile piquin" or "chil kipquin".

Note the elongated, pointed fruit!
While the plant is quite similar in form to the chiltepines that we were collecting in Sonora, the fruit is elongated rather than round, and there is not quite the demand for these peppers as there is for Sonoran chiltepines.

Rather than recount the entire trip in all its grueling details (traveling 140 km in 3.5 hrs, through the 860 twisting turns of the Sierra Gorda, then making the return trip in the dusk), I will share some brief vignettes and some photos.

* Our first collection site was really significant. We were up in the folds of a mountain that rose up to 3500 m and were lost in tierras ejitidales (communal lands that are farmed), asking 4 or 5 folks for directions - follow that road (what road?) along the canal, take a left at the tree (which tree?) and just towards the mountain are the peppers, don´t worry, you´ll find them. After circling the same fields a few times, we contracted a 14 year old to take us to the plants - we went up a small embankment in the truck, followed the irrigation canal to the small lake where the road ended.
Just a few hoof prints to follow

We drove around the lake to the other side to find the peppers in a high-altitude chapparral environment. What surprised us was the altitude - over 2000 meters in altitude, about 6700ft+. No one would think that wild peppers exist at this altitude. We continued to find the chile peppers under the same types of "nurse" plants - hackberry, mesquite and sometimes, cacti.
Pepe picks a peck of pointed peppers

* We ended the first day in the small town of Bernal - at the base of a huge monolith that is thought channel spiritural energy. We ate the most amazing gorditas there - blue corn meal that is patted into the form of a tortilla, filled with shredded cheese and a chile sauce, heated on a hot comal, then filled with savory combinations - peppers with nopal and cheese, steak, more cheese and chile. One of the best street food stops so far. Pictures in the street food post to come.

*On the start of the following day, on our way to the far reaches of the state, Pepe says - this looks like a spot where peppers would grow, why wouldn´t they be here? So we stop and find a healthy population in the arroyo along the highway. Filled with self-confidence, we continue on. After reaching our destination, the municipio of Jalpan which is located on the fringes of the Huasteca forest that heads down to the Gulf of Mexico, we walk down an arroyo where we have been told there are plants. It is hot, humid, getting late and we do not see a single plant. We stumble across a machete wielding - grandmother (Margarita) and her grandaughter (Alicia) who are out looking for their lost goats. We ask them about the chile piquin plants and if they could help us. Margarita thinks its late to find plants in the far forest and most of the fruits are still green and they have to find their goats, and... I think then she took pity on us, 3 glasses-wearing, hot and sweaty city folk who were obviously lost in the forest. "But what about the ones you passed on your way here?" We didn´t see any the whole way and we were obviously looking for plants. She and Alicia proceed to walk with us back up the trail towards the road where we left the truck and point out about 10 plants - some of which were about an arm´s length from where we just walked! We had been looking for the bright red ripe fruit, which are easy to spot - these plants had no ripe fruits on them and were difficult to spot in the dense humid forest, a very different environment in which we had found the other populations. They had been picked over by birds and by people looking to add a bit of spice to their diets. We were extremely grateful and a bit sheepish as we accepted her help and catalogued the plants on the way up and tried to find the remaining ripe fruits for our study.
These ladies knew where to look! Notice how different the vegetation is - the peppers were no longer associated with any "nurse" trees.

The sight of Doña Margarita wielding the machete and picking the plants out of the forest made me instantly smile, as I thought how generations of people must have harvested these fruits and how easily she recalled the locations of these plants. I was shaken out of this day-dream by the sandal-clad Margarita and her grandaughter Alicia, who had gathered a handful of green fruits and insisted that we take the immature green fruits for our salsa. And so we did and took our leave as we returned to the city of Queretaro.