Friday, December 14, 2007

Birria for breakfast?

While the chile chase is in transition mode (and currently compiling a retrospective), I wanted to take this time to share with you some of the more interesting and tasty regional fare that can be found here in Aguascalientes. While the cuisine here (and more broadly speaking in Northern Mexico) pales in comparison to the more tropical flavors found in the South, there are some dishes that merit attention. Given the region's history as the pastures of Mexico most of these prominent foods focus on meat, often with little to no vegetables as an accompaniment.

One of my favorites is birria - a slowly roasted meat (goat, rabbit, cow, sheep) that is then shredded and served with a slightly piquant sauce. This is served with more salsas and tons of freshly made corn tortillas.

In Aguascalientes, birria is a breakfast (!) item. You can find it on the weekends at many comedores, or in birria specific locales, called Birrierias. The one that I have been frequenting - it is on the way to the School of Agriculture - is only open from 8 to 3, or when they run out, whichever comes first. It is usually the latter.

The birria at this joint is made from sheep (borrego in Spanish) which has been roasted for over 5 hours in a brick oven. In the last picture, this is a medium size plate, served with (from L to R), a red salsa, dried chile de arbol, fresh jalapeños, dried oregano and limes. Just out of sight is the pile of freshly made corn tortillas. All of this for just 37 pesos, or about $3.41.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

the chile chase at “home”

After 11 weeks on the road - through 25 states, 4 in the US and 21 in Mexico - the chile chase has landed in its’ temporary headquarters of Aguascalientes. Here Kraig will be working with faculty and students at the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes (UAA) on the next phase of his dissertation research. This involves 1) analyzing genetic data obtained from chile samples from last year’s chile chase...

K hard at work, analyzing data from home

...and, switching gears, 2) working with chile pepper producers from the region to understand seed selection and maintenance of commercial pepper varieties (more on this in an upcoming post). I am aprovechando the opportunity to check out the departments of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health at the UAA and see about collaborating on a zoonotic disease “literacy” project with both ag and health extension agents (more on that soon too!).

As temporary “Hidrocalidos,” we’ve found a small apartment in the Primo Verdad neighborhood in a conveniently located area of the city. The apartment is part of a complex of buildings that were originally constructed as housing for federal government workers in the 1980's following a move to decentralize government agencies after a disastrous earthquake in Mexico City. They've since been sold and rented at VERY reasonable prices to non-government employees.

Here's a quick photo-tour of our semi-furnished home:

El saloncito: 2 folding beach chairs, a few pareos, our "library" and a Yucatecan hammoc to decorate the wall...

...cocina, complete with minifridge, stove, sink and the basics of cookware...

...comedor AND oficina: our first homemade meal in a long while: vegetable soup, dark bread and Mexican wine (from Baja)...

...our new water heater...

...and laundry facilities.

We've made a few modifications over this last week as well...

the apartment came with the bare minimum! A wire hanger, scotch tape and some crape paper later...

...the best we could do for a menorah on short notice...

...a PVC+scarf shelving system... ironic touch (from Chiapas)...

Of course, friends and family is what makes “home” home for us, so we’ve been lucky enough to have been adopted by several wonderful families that we’ve met through the university. We’ve been invited to share meals...

pozole with all the fixins the finals of the Mexican national fútbol league, partake in the Christmas tradition of posada...

Singing during La Posada: Here's the reenactment of José and Maria looking for a place to have their baby. Half of those gathered stay inside and half outside, asking for entrance (the song is a call and response). Sparklers are lit and toasts and hugs all around when the pilgrims are finally let in!

Posada piñatas: H taking aim at Santa.

...and head out on the town with our friends, and their extended families, almost every day since we’ve been here.

We watched the Cancun team Atlante play the local favorite, Guadalajara's Chivas in a semi-final game at the bar/restaurant Merenderos San Marcos (all lit up for Christmas...taco stands out front).

Templo San Marcos in Aguascalientes' Jardin de San Marcos neighborhood.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A tale of 2 Bajas

Heather and I traveled to Baja to find wild chile peppers in collaboration with CIBNOR (a biological research station) and to celebrate thanksgiving with the rest of the Kraft clan. We traveled to the same majestic peninsula that entranced Alexander von Humboldt, John Steinbeck, Edward Abbey and other lesser luminaries.

Unfortunately, the peninsula is no longer as these gentlemen found it. Rather, the southern tip of the peninsula is no longer recognizable as “México” – as it is awash in luxury condominium developments, private golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and row after row of kiosks selling T-shirts that have brilliant witticisms like “save water, drink beer” and “Baja – I came, I saw, I got drunk”. Unlike other parts of Mexico that receive international visitors, Cabo is characterized by a huge gulf between the two worlds – one can live there for years and not meet a Mexican or speak Spanish. The Mexican part of the cape has been subverted and moved further inland, replaced by a more tropical version of Orange County.

It is truly a tale of 2 Bajas, never to meet in the middle.

One Baja has…

• Folks up early on a weekend morning fishing from the beach with a handline for their breakfast

• …and who are happy to show a gringo how to do it and will leave you with a lure and line.

• Simple, earnest fare of machaca (dried shredded beef), tacos of carne asada, camarones o pescado.

• Cardón cactus and mesquite trees dotting rugged mountains that crown the peninsula and descend into an azure sea.

• Empty beaches to camp on with the echoing sound of the surf.

• Cowboys and ranchers rounding up cattle through the brush and thicket astride their horses.

The other baja has… (sorry no pictures -you can look these up on the web)

• Chartered boats starting at $500 a day to hook marlin and sailfish.
• Sales pitches like this – “For $100 a person, we’ll go and kill it!”
• Surf and Turf that starts at 80 dollars, or cheaper fare such as McDonalds, Burger King or Applebee’s
• Impeccably landscaped guarded gated entrances with names like “Rancho del Mar”, “Villa del Mar”, “Vista del Mar” and the surreal glimpses of clover green golf fairways ringed by the brown, dry desert.
• $400 dollar a night resorts with balcony views of the beach.
• Real estate salesmen rounding up the cruise ship tourists through the hawkers and vendors rolling in their Hummers.

Which one would you like to visit?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The high road or the low road, but never the middle

Mexico, more than anywhere else in Latin America, is known for it's amazing culinary diversity, both in the range of ingredients used and the regional identities associated with different dishes.

On the chile chase, we are very in tune with these variations in local and regional cuisine as we move between states, even more so if a peppers are somewhat featured in the preparation. Our ganas to eat authentic, local cuisine is balanced with the need to keep disastrous gastrointestinal distress at bay, and is also dictated by our budget. While the Fulbright is generous in their branding, they are a bit tighter with the actual funds allocated to their grantees. Given these constraints, Heather and I tend towards unpretentious mom and pop restaurants and comedores that keep it simple.

However, in our travels, we are finding that there is a distinct lack of quality "middle of the road" restaurants. What I mean is that there are plenty of places to eat in any given city, but few sit-down restaurants that actually serve authentic comida regional, or local specialties (or they do so really poorly). There is a plethora of tacos, sopas, and chilaquiles (standard fare throughout the country), but in our experience, it's rare that traditional regional dishes and beverages are offered at these places. You can always find Coca Cola, for example, but rarely can you find atole or unsweetened agua de jamaica. The homogenization of "Mexican" fare outside of the home means that salsas come in a bottle and tortillas from a bag - both often produced in a different time zone and both often lacking in taste.

For a couple of hungry folks on a budget however, this leaves us with the daily challenge of finding healthy, authentic regional food on the cheap - made in someone's home kitchen and sold on the street or prepared in front of you on a portable grill or comal. By far, we've had the most interesting dishes this way.

Here are a few photos from some of the best.

In Mérida, we found a delicious sweet dessert that is essentially a crispy crepe filled with cheese and your choice of nutella (!), cajeta (scalded milk+sugar paste), or jams in a variety of flavors.


Taco stand outside of the city cementary on Dia de Los Muertos, San Cristobal de Las Casas - a display of the cuts of pork available for taco fillings. From left, lengua (tongue), buche (stomach), nana (?), oreja (ear), pierna (flank), corazon (heart) and intestine (on the chef's fork). I went with pierna, lengua and corazon (my favorite).


Here we found taco stands in the plaza of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca (in the Isthmus) that all served tacos de cabeza (head meat) off of the steamed cow head. The meat was cut off of the bone (to order), sauteed with oil and onions and served on handmade tortillas.

In Juchitan, Oaxaca this atole was served by several ladies in the main plaza on a Sunday night. There are two layers to this delicious beverage - first, steaming hot water with diluted corn masa is poured into a ceramic bowl, then a sweet foam of frothed water and piloncillo (crystallized sugar cane molasses) is added to the top. As you drink it, you swirl the bowl so that with each sip you get a bit of the simple, hot corn base along with the sweet cold foam. This is one of Heather's new favorites!

In Oaxaca, Oaxaca, we found a weekly street market that featured organic products and local, regional cuisine - El Pochóte. Here we tried 5 varieties of aguas (passionfruit juice, horchata with fruit, a stewed sweet squash juice with cinammon, gunabana juice, and unsweetened jamaica juice), blue corn tortilla tacos with grilled rabbit meat, tamales with beans and anise leaves, and locally grown and roasted coffee.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pepper Panacea

As my interests on the chile chase lie more towards the medicinal/preventative health end of things, AND there seems to be an endless list of ailments that chiles will help to prevent and/or cure, I wanted to offer the following as an introduction to the amazing power of the pepper!

To begin with, all peppers are high in vitamins A, C and K, are a great source of fiber, and red peppers are well endowed with lycopene. Most of the beneficial medicinal properties in chile peppers come from the capsaicinoids found in all species in the genus Capsicum.

It is, as you loyal readers will of course know by now, the capsaicinoids that give chile peppers their heat. The hotter the chile pepper the more capsaicinoids and the greater the potential benefit (or harm!) of a given pepper. It is always possible to overdose of course, so it's no surprise that pepper power must not be over-used or abused when doing a body good.

To understand the amazing versatility of the chile pepper as a remedy or ingredient in a remedy, one must distinguish between the health benefits of eating (ingesting) peppers and the use of peppers in various forms as a topically applied curo - pultices, creams, gels, shampoos, powders, etc.


Research indicates a diet regularly including hot chile peppers may:
- help to reduce the negative effects of LDL cholesterol (Woo Hoo! Heather can eat butter again!!!)
- help to increase the efficiency of insulin production and use by the body
- help to protect AGAINST stomach ulcers caused by the bacteria H. pylori (by affecting the chemicals the stomach secretes in response to infection)
- help to reduce the risk of food-borne diseases caused by microbial contamination in foods that go unrefrigerated (another "Woo Hoo!" for Heather's endless cause to keep street tacos from wreaking havoc!)
- cause cancer cells to grow more slowly and even die
- increase the capacity to lose weight and therefore reduce obesity
- promote the production and efficient use of insulin, helping to prevent and maybe even combat diabetes

Capsaicin in various topical forms can provide relief from chronic joint pain and arthritis, increase blood flow and promote localized pain reduction at the site of a cut or wound, and help to ease the pain of cluster headaches (a type of migraine) when applied to the head as a cream.

As an ingredient in shampoos, Capsaicin is thought to help promote hair growth. We've consistently found chile shampoos all over Mexico anywhere that hair products/shampoos/soaps are sold, specifically targeted at those who want to have fuller, thicker hair and prevent hair from falling out!

When ground-up, hot chile powder is used to promote localized blood clotting (when applied to the site of a cut) and when applied to the gums on a cotton ball, can reduce the pain associated with some kinds of tooth aches.

As a frostbite preventative, sprinkling hot pepper powder into shoes and gloves can help to increase (and maintain) blood flow to the digits in cold weather.

To induce sneezing and help advance labor during childbirth, some midwives in Northern Mexico suggest inhaling chiltepin powder. In the same region, indigenous women of several tribes will rub chile powder on their nipples to help wean their little ones when the time is right.

Hot chile peppers, when eaten, are well known to be a pick me up. The pain response to eating/ingesting the phytochemicals (capcasianoids) that make chiles "hot" causes the body to release endorphins, having a similar effect as a "runner's high." This might explain Kraig's joie de vive!

In some parts of the Americas, pepper tinctures are drunk to keep the memory sharp and to maintain the proper balance of "hot" and "cold winds" in one's constitution. And gents, in Mexico in particular, it is well known that the more chile you eat and the hotter the pepper you can handle, the more macho and, eh hem, "fiery" you'll be with the ladies. We had an 80+ year old sesame farmer from Southern Oaxaca tell us about a "pepper shot" of chile del monte, garlic and lime juice that he drinks every single morning to "maintainer un hombre muy hombre" (to keep a man very manly)!


  • "The Healing Powers of Peppers: With Chile Pepper Recipes and Folk Remedies for Better Health and Living" (1998) by Dave Dewitt, Melissa T. Stock and Kellye Hunter. Three Rivers Press, pp224.
  • "Bush Medicine: Fold Cures with Chile Peppers" by Dave DeWitt ( with some great "recipes" for various kinds of pepper remedies
  • Billing J, Sherman PW (1998). "Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot". The Quarterly review of biology 73 (1): 3–49
**DISCLAIMER: Try all remedies/preventative uses at your own risk! ...and careful not to touch your eyes or other sensitive skin areas (!) after handling hot peppers, unless of course you're looking for a rush of pepper pain!!!

From the web...

I came across this video during some procrastination. This unsuspecting sideline reporter tries to eat a Bhut Jolokia, the world's hottest pepper, for a special interest piece to play during a telecast of a New Mexico State football game. His reaction when he asks how low long the hellacious burn in his mouth will last is priceless.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Chile Chase Nearly Stumbles Into Guatemala!

Its funny how things work out...

Last Sunday, we left the Yucatán peninsula for Oaxaca, where we had arranged a meeting with a chile researcher form the area. As we headed South and West from Tulum (on the Caribbean coast), the driving conditions rapidly deteriorated as rain fell steadily throughout the state of Tabasco. When we reached Villahermosa, streets were flooded, farms were under water, and the storm was in full force. This was to be the beginning of the worst floods in the region in 50 years( over half a million people are homeless and all the crops are lost). But back to the chase… once in Villahermosa and back in cell phone range, I get a call that our meeting had been canceled and that we would be on our own for tracking down wild peppers in Oaxaca. Rather than push through the bad weather, we decided to taka a small detour and head to San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Because of the rain, we made it to Tuxla Gutierrez, Chiapas, that night. After dinner and checking email, I found that my collaborators in Aguascalientes had tracked town some potential contacts in Chiapas after all. What great timing! Following this lead, the next day we walked into the state botanical and ecology museum and to the herbarium, where dried plant samples from all over the state are kept and catalogued. After a look at their Capsicum specimens and taking note where the plants had been found, the director of the herbarium volunteered to take us around Chiapas on a wild chile hunt, leaving the next morning. We spent the rest of Monday in the public market, learning about some of the local cultivated chile varieties and how chiles are used (and stored) locally. Here is a brief photo interlude…

Chile blanco in the market
Chile mira para arriba - literally looks up - a description of how the fruit grows on the plant.
In Chiapas, the pickled chiles are made with pure lime juice rather than vinegar. 
The ladies of the market love the chino loco who asks about chiles. 

Tuesday morning, we were off “on the chase” again. The director of the herbarium wanted to aprovechar (take advantage of, but in a benign way) this trip to run some papers to various offices around the state! Off we go to Comitán, near the border, and using the local name for wild chile, tempenchile, we ask about whearabouts. Down that road another 40 minutes – and we’re redirected again, further on.... another 40 minutes and we are 5 km from the border of Guatemala! Here we finally find what we’re looking for in the ejido of San Caralompia. A friendly older farmer takes us to his milpa (across a river on a great suspension bridge!) and offers us as many of his tempenchile as we can fill sample envelopes with.

Heather tests out the suspension bridge with apprehension!
These are the chiles we are looking for... after a long chase to the border. 

Over the next day and a half, we made a few more collections in Chiapas, seeing much of the state’s central valley in the process! And to think, none of this would have happened had the weather and a cancelled appointment not forced us to detour. Its hard to plan these things…

Guatemala is to your left, just off the picture.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The chile chase is in ruins!!

The chile chase was literally in ruins... the ruins of great Mayan and Toltec cities. A recent chile addition to the collection came from Palenque itself, where "managed" wild chiles grow in the shadows of temples constructed over 1500 years ago.

Here is a photo of the largest plant we found - just along the edge of the forest in moderate shade. This one was clearly saved from "weeding" by the grounds crew. When we asked about this, it was clear that the useful plants were maintained - there were avocado trees, orange trees and several pepper plants that the vendors (selling souvenirs, etc) knew about and would harvest from.

Here, Kraig is kneeling at the site of a small chile plant at the base of a small temple.

...and here's a close up of the plant itself. While it is the same species found in other places in Mexico (see previous post on chile pequins) it has a different local name, tepenchil.

Of course, chile hunting at Palenque was a bonus. We were there to learn about the amazing history of the region and take in the sights! Here is the famous temple of the inscriptions in Palenque. When we arrived in the morning, howler monkeys provided a loud and very boisterous soundtrack for our wanderings.
While on the chase in Mexico, we are often obligated to stop by at some of Mexico's famous roadside attractions. In comparison to those found in the United States, those in Mexico are invariably more historic, more grandiose in construction and more photogenic! I will share a few of the best photos from these paradas:

This was the first one - El Tajín en Veracruz - a Totonac (Tutunakú) word that means thunder, this is a major ruins site on the central East Coast. Pictured is the temple of the niches - which has 365 niches around its facade.

Here is the El Castillo temple in Chichén Itzá - where on the spring and fall equinox, the light casts a shadow along the staircase that forms the shape of a serpent.

Here is the Toltec/Mayan port town of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast.

We'll leave you with a shot of one of the most impressive temples - the top of the largest pyramid in Uxmal - 12 Mini Chaac-Mul faces line the staircase on its way up to the central Chaac face at the top of the temple. The structure at the top is meant to mimic the face of Chaak Mool (the all important the rain god) - you can see the two eyes, the nose (broken off) and the gaping mouth, in which sacrafices were practiced...