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.