Looking back at the 2012 culinary year in México, an explosion of exciting events took place in many areas of the country and young chefs and restaurants rose to national and international fame. There is no doubt anymore, México’s cuisine is hot! After becoming the first and only cuisine in the world to be designated an intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) foreign chefs from Berlin to Melbourne are paying attention and flocking to the Mexican mercados to learn more about its amazing foods. As with any new trends, there are a lot of pretentious newcomers that pick up on the buzzwords du jour, without knowing the foundation of the original that led to the trend.
I have attended many food events in México over the years but two of the most memorable events that stand out for me I attended last year. They made it very clear that all Mexican food trends and inspirations today are deeply rooted in its culinary traditions. In May at the first “Festival Internacional del Mole” in Puebla, many cooks from the state of Puebla proudly presented their moles to festival attendants. Mole heaven! And no, it is not a chocolate sauce; it is a very complex sauce with many variations that, in my opinion, leaves French sauces wanting, but more about moles some other time.
However, nothing prepared me for the impact that the “9° Encuentro de Cocineras Traditionales de Michoacán” (9th Encounter of Traditional Cooks of Michoacán) sponsored by the Michoacán tourist council, would have on me. In the past, I have attended culinary events featuring maybe 10 to 20 wonderful and exciting cooks and chefs, but at this event, 45 women cooks from numerous rural Michoacán communities participated. The festival drew a record breaking 5,000 hungry attendees!
As my taxi pulled up to the large park of the Morelia convention center, I knew I was in the right place. Smoke rose from white tents and delicious smells wafted my way. My taxi driver was ready to park his car and join me in the festivities. I told him to come back later with his family and he did.
The day was very hot. I forgot to bring my hat. My new iPhone, that I had not a clue about to how to use, took fuzzy pictures. Smoke from all the wood-fired cooking facilities burned my eyes and made my hair and clothes smell like I lived in a meat smoker, and yet, overwhelmed with this sensory input, I was in culinary heaven.
I have visited Michoacán many times during the past 20 years and have always loved the foods. Diana Kennedy, renowned Méxican food expert and my friend and idol, first introduced me to sopa tarasca (now called sopa purépecha). I love the classic enchiladas de plaza, chirupa (a special occasion rich meat soup, see recipe), corundas (the unique Michoacán three corner shaped tamales) and charales, the little delicious white fish from Lake Patzcuaro, pozole, a soup made with hominy and many condiments, just to mention a few. These familiar dishes were all served at the festival. However, this is where my familiarity stopped and now I was on new territory.
Where was I going to begin tasting all of the overwhelming variety of foods, for which I had only three days to eat my way through?
On the first day I decided to walk past all the cooks’ tents and then choose my first meal. I am a big fan of pozole and even if it is not a traditional breakfast fare, I got a bowl of pozole batido (beaten pozole), which was a pozole that I was not familiar with. It was creamy and scrumptious. No disposable dishes were used at the event (I loved it, si se puede); therefore my pozole was served in a traditional clay bowl with a “spoon” of a piece of agave that was cut to a point.
As I sat at a long communal table that was covered with a white cotton tablecloth, and marveled over the incredible taste of this dish, I realized that in the next few days I had to open my stomach really wide to be able to taste these amazing dishes.
My next choice was a taco with freshly fried charales, the little white fish from Lake Patzcuaro. When I took my first bite I thought this would be a good moment to die, it was heavenly.
I watched a small boy sitting across the table from me contently munching the little fishes, head to tail, just as if he was digging into a bag of chips. A table companion was curious and asked me why this extranjera
(foreigner) was scarfing down foods that were generally not much appreciated by non-Mexicans. A long conversation about food followed and sharing of more taste treats, such as the fried-to-a-crisp white fish, followed by endless family introductions.
One is never alone in México.
My next taste was atapacua. This vegetable and masa-thickened soup can be embellished with any type of tender cooked meats; I enjoyed the vegetable version. The cook, dressed in her finest, gold lace napped traditional dress, proudly presented my bowl to me with welcoming outstretched arms.
In Michoacán, a type of tamale, uchepos, are made from fresh corn and wrapped in fresh corn leaves. They are very different from any other type of tamales served in México. This preparation is much more common in South America, where they are called humitas. In the US they were the culinary darlings in the 80s called “green corn tamales”. Green because of being wrapped in fresh green corn husks. Here I was treated to an unusual tamale of the same preparation with an amazing taste, called chircus (this might not be the proper spelling, I could only record it phonetically) made from fresh blue corn, chile pasilla, yerbabuena (mint), cilantro, and very finely shredded meat. The taste reminded me a lot of a dumpling (Semmel Knödel) served in soups in my home of Bavaria, even if the ingredients were not related at all.
Throughout the days I revisited the tent of the cook Benedicta Alejo. I had seen her cooking demonstration at a previous culinary event in Morelia where she totally stole the show. She apologized for her poor Spanish (which it was not) that she only had learned a few years earlier. She ended the demonstration with a greeting in her native Purépecha language. She is an amazing leader whose knowledge has given great integrity to the heritage cooking of Michoacán, the state that was partly instrumental in the UNESCO designation of Mexican cuisine.
Benedicta was invited last December on the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe to the Vatican where she cooked a Mexican dinner for her namesake (tocaya) Pope Benedict XVI and 600 guests. I would have loved to see this experience through Benedicta’s eyes. Her grand, grand, grand, grand children will probably still remember this event and be showing pictures of la abuelita Benedicta at the Vatican cooking comida por el papa.
Among the smoke of burning wood, the global heat source for preparing meals since times immortal, I wanted to urge young Mexican and other chefs to learn as much as they can about these traditional preparations. This is their real heritage, this should be their inspiration, not the foams, smears and sad drips on the dinner plates that they have accepted from foreign cuisines, that seldom will be a truly satisfactory dining experience.
¡Viva la Cocina Mexicana!