Latin American Cuisine Concentration: Travels to Mexico
Being in the Latin American Cuisine concentration has helped me develop and learn skills, techniques, and ingredients that span the many Latin cultures. We took our knowledge of products and techniques and put them to the test. We spent two weeks in Mexico exploring the cities of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Mexico City, it was fascinating, so I wanted to give you an overview of our trip.
Arriving in Mexico was something! I couldn’t believe the atmosphere, the people, and immediately, the culture and food. Our first day there, we wanted a true taste of Mexico and went taco tasting. We drove to about seven taco stops throughout the night and tried variations of tacos such as: Lengua (tongue), Cochinita (pulled pork Yucatan style), al pastor, and other foods such as posole rojo, and gorditas. It was interesting to go to these places and to not only taste but also see how they make their tacos. All the meat is braised in lard for hours to be as tender as possible. Every sauce is different as well. Some places had salsa verde, more had salsa roja along with a white habanero sauce. My favorite spot had to be Taqueria Los Cocuyos because their cow tongue tacos were incredible, and if was a first for me, so I didn’t expect how it melted in my mouth as it did!
Markets are completely different in Mexico than markets in the U.S. There are areas in which you can walk around and buy product, tacos, or other foods, meats, and even flowers. We had conchas, tacos de canasta (tacos in a basket), and mixotes (goat wrapped in parchment paper and braised in lard). One of my favorite places to eat in the markets was Carnitas Party, where we tried different parts of the pig—including the ear, cheek, jowl, liver, and more. We had the opportunity to visit a few markets and see all the different types of meat—from cattle just in an open area, chickens ,and pig. We saw variations of cultivated plantains and avocados and experienced a fruit tasting where we tried mamey, purple plantain, jackfruit, and more. I had the chance to expand my taste buds by trying chapulines (crickets) and mosquitos. That was probably the most interesting ‘snack’ I ate. It had an earthy taste and a nice meaty crunch to it. I learned a lot of things in the five markets we went to and I’ve noticed that each market varies in product and it’s all as fresh as you can get it.
Dining in one of the worlds 50 best restaurants and top 10 Latin American restaurants was amazing. We toured the kitchen and the restaurant before we experienced the full menu. We tried everything on the menu and what caught my eye the most was the octopus. Not being a big fan of cephalopods, this was an amazing dish. Grilled octopus with pickled carrots and carrot purée. This dish blew my mind because the octopus was so tender and filled with flavor and the combination with the two carrot preparations made it incredible. Pujol was an eye-opening experience as Chef Enrique Olvera blends different, modern techniques with classic Mexican ingredients.
Quintonil was another great experience. We met with the executive chef who gave us a tour of the kitchen and prep area. Personally, eating a Quintonil was a favorite for me because of their flavor combinations. It was dynamic, and each component on the plate didn’t over-power another. My favorite was the soft-shell crab with mango hollandaise and radish salad. It all worked well because it was savory and semi-sweet. What was most interesting was the nixtamalized beet that was then sous vide and seared and served with a beet glace. The flavors were smoky and tangy. It was something unlike anything I have ever tried.
During our tour of Puebla, we visited two of the most famous catholic churches in Cholula, Puebla—the San Francisco Acatepec and the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies. The San Francisco Acatepec is fully covered with gold. It is said that priests from around the world meet for mass. there. Within the church there are sculptures, paintings, and art. Everything is not only covered by gold, but the exterior is made up of the most colorful tiles. The Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies is located on top of a mountain with a view of the entire city of Puebla. Up in the church, the bells were rung in order to start service. We visited where mole poblano was first invented and toured the site Unidad Civica 5 de Mayo. Fun Fact! People confuse Cinco de Mayo for the independence of Mexico, it really is a celebration of Mexican culture, tradition,
Who said waking up at 5 a.m. isn’t fun? Well it isn’t unless it’s because you are going to Teotihuacan. We had the chance to be up in a hot air balloon and see the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon from more than 11,000 feet in the air. It’s beautiful to see the entire land early in the morning. We walked through the pyramids and around the areas, learning how the people of Teotihuacan lived and their culture through their music, language, and the paintings. Not only did we walk through the pyramids, but we climbed the pyramid of the moon. The pyramid of the moon signifies women and their empowerment. It is connected to Venus, as the moon and Venus align together making them one. I learned a lot being in this area, not just the culture and the people, but about good energy within the gods and how far the history of Teotihuacan stretches.
OAXACA: SANTA MARIA DE TULE
It was interesting to see the dramatic changes within the country as we went from Mexico city to Puebla and finally to Oaxaca. Being more south, you can see how different it is, not just with the atmosphere and the product of its food but the history around the city. Santa Maria de Tule is one of the oldest trees in the world. It’s more than 3,000 years old and is still growing. Around the tree you can see figurines that relate to the real world and animals. The tree trunks may resemble a crocodile, a deer, dolphin, the three wise men. Its diameter measures about 14 meters wide and 42 meters in height. It’s interesting to see how much life is in one tree.
HIERVE DE AGUA
One of the best places you will never regret going to is Hierve el Agua (Boiling of Water). This place is located in San Lorenzo Albarradas in Oaxaca and it is on a mountain. This mountain releases pressurized water, making it seem as if it were boiled. The water itself coming out of the mountain is not hot but it is fresh. This all happened naturally and has been like this for over 2,000 years. It was beautiful to see how nature is art of life. This had to be one of my favorite stops in Oaxaca. It felt refreshing to be at a place like this in Oaxaca. What made it more interesting is that as we headed to the Hierve de Agua, there were variations of nopales (Cactus) throughout fields. The production is one of the highest for making Mezcal. Which is another reason this area is well known.
Criollo is another restaurant owned by Chef Enrique Olvera. Located in Oaxaca, it is different from what you expect. The eight-course tasting menu changes every day. It’s pretty interesting to see the different regions Chef Enrique captures through his food. I felt as if this restaurant is more on the experimental side of trying new flavors and combinations. They served us a duck confit tamale with platano macho, crema, and sautéed swiss chard. What stood out to me the most was the dessert. I found the dessert to be the highlight of the menu. It was a soft meringue with mango sorbet and small dices of fresh mango and lime slices, garnished with nuts. It was interesting to experience a new style of menu .
We didn’t have the chance to experience Mexican BBQ in Mexico, but we had the chance to work one-on-one with Chef Cecy Gonzalez when we arrived back to San Antonio. She is a grill master known in Mexico for her Mexican-influenced BBQ. We made smoked tuna crudo with tostadas, grilled bread spread with bone marrow served with flank steak, and a pickled shallot with caper salad. We also made ribs, octopus, and corn flan that was smoked. It was interesting to work and see firsthand how a grill master works. I enjoyed everything and every method that was shown. My favorite was the pork belly marmalade hamburger. The marmalade honestly completed the burger because it was filled with so much flavor from the smoked pork belly. It was spiced with one of chef’s classic rubs.
Overall, Mexico was a great experience for all of us in the Latin American Cuisine concentration. It reinforced what we have been learning in class and gave us a bigger picture. While it’s hard to fully adapt to a different country within two weeks, we discovered so many connections through food about this important country and its culture.
By Issac Roso
Check out my previous blogs in this series if you missed them:
Part 1: Latin American Cuisine Concentration: What You’ll Learn and Experience
Part 2: Latin American Cuisine Concentration: Things You’ll Want to Know