The Many States of Mexican Cooking
When we think of Mexican food, we may not realize that there is much more to it than the border food and Americanized versions (or even creations)* that we find in most Mexican restaurants and taquerias in the U.S. Even more than American food differs in the South, Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, the cuisine of our neighbor en El Otro Lado varies greatly by region.
While there are 32 States in Mexico, they can be grouped into 7 culinary regions.
The North. Food from this region is what many of us in the United States think of when we think of Mexican food: flour tortillas, beans, rice, dried chiles and lots of beef and pork dishes. This is an arid region not good for growing much. Foods that can be preserved like beans, corn and chiles are widely used. The small grasses that do grow are good for raising cattle and once cows and other livestock were brought by the Europeans, meats and cheeses became a very important part of the diet here.
Puebla / Oaxaca. The birth place of the famous seven moles, this is another region that many Americans are familiar with. Chocolate, black beans and corn are staples of the region, as well as unique varieties of chiles.
The Yucatán. Mayan and Caribbean cultures influence the foods of the Yucatán, where achiote (annatto seed) and the use of banana leaves are hallmarks. These two are combined in the famous dish, cochinita pibil, pork rubbed with an achiote paste, wrapped in banana leaves and then (traditionally) cooked buried in a pit in the ground. Near the coast seafood and sauces with brighter flavors prevail. It is also home to one of our favorite sauces, mole pipian, made from pumpkin seeds, herbs and chiles. (If you live in or are visiting Half Moon Bay, check out Café Capistrano just two blocks from our store, where they specialize in Yucatán cuisine.)
Mexico City. Centrally located, and the oldest capital city in the Americas (and built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan) the city is a melting pot when it comes to foods. Foods from all regions are imported here, and the food scene is very cosmopolitan.
Western Mexico. West of Mexico City the states of Michoacán, Jalisco and Colima including a coastal area along the Pacific form the next food region, which features tropical fruits and Pacific seafood. This is also the region that gives us posole, birria and tequila.
Veracruz. The Afro-Caribbean influence is seen in the foods here as the slave trade introduced yucca, plantains, sweet potatoes and peanuts to this region on the Gulf of Mexico. This is also the region that gave us the orchid flower that was developed into vanilla.
Chiapas. The tropical rainforests in the Chiapas region are lush with fruits and unique herbs, while the highlands are great for cattle and cheese production.
*When dining in a small café in Sayulita a few years back, I was shocked to see wet burritos on the menu. I had always emphatically told people that wet burritos were not “real” Mexican food. After the meal I asked to speak with the chef who explained to me that he had learned to make wet burritos when working illegally in a restaurant in L.A. My suspicions were confirmed! --Charles
When Bay Area Chef Laurence Jossel (La Follie, Kokkari, Gary Danko) worked at Kokkari one of the dishwashers asked if his son could have a job. He consented, and very soon when a job as a prep cook opened up he gave the kid, who had impressed him with his hard work and intelligence, a shot at the position. When Jossel opened his own place soon after, he took the kid, Gonzalo Guzmán, with him, and he quickly worked his way up the ranks. Fast forward some more and Jossel brought Guzmán to help him open NOPA, where Guzmán worked up to Sous-Chef. When the idea came to Jossel to open a higher end Mexican restaurant, Nopalito, he knew exactly who should be in charge.
When buying cookbooks, they usually fall into one of the following categories: 1) Reference. These are books that remind us of a technique we have forgotten or need to learn, or have some historical context that we are interested in. 2) Inspiration. Often books from chefs with complicated recipes, these books give us ideas but we usually don't cook from them much, 3) Everyday cookbooks. These are the ones we use recipes from a lot.
Good cookbooks will fall into two of these categories. Nopalito is one of the rare few that falls into all three. Guzmán's recipes are based in tradition yet have a slight modern flair. Despite this, they are not overly complicated and his voice in the book is one of a teacher guiding us. Nopalito deserves a spot on your bookshelf that is easily accessed.
A comal is a griddle, great for making and warming tortillas, roasting vegetables for salsa, quesadillas and carne asada. The proper plural for comal is “comales,” though you’ll more often hear people say “comals.” (One tomal, two tomales; one comal, two comales.)
One of the secrets of Mexican cuisine is the toasting of ingredients. One of our favorites is toasting garlic cloves still in their skins in a dry fry pan or on a comal. This brings out a nice toasty flavor to the garlic without all the strong, harsh flavors that crushed garlic usually has. Simply break up the head of garlic into cloves, but leave the papery skin on. Toss onto a pre-heated comal and turn occasionally till all the cloves have dark brown to black spots on the skin. (Silicone tipped tongs work best for this.) Remove to a cutting board and let cool slightly before peeling. Use as desired.
Tortilla Press. Available in 6’ or 8” Diameters, this tool makes quick work of getting evenly-pressed tortillas ready to cook on the comal!
Bean Pots. The Chamba 3.5 qt SS3 is our favorite bean pot, perfect for a pound of beans simmering away on the stove. The small surface area on the bottom and the rounded sides help keep things moving while cooking. The flavor and texture of beans cooked in Chamba is unmatchable! If a pound of beans isn’t enough for your family, move on up to the 6 qt SS4.
Molcajete. This mortar and pestle made out of basalt has a rough texture that has been used to grind herb, spices, fruits and vegetables for thousands of years. The resulting foods have a coarseness to them that can’t be replicated when using a blender. The use of this ancient tool can also offset therapy costs.
Bean Masher/Avocado Masher.If you don’t have a molcajete, this smaller version of a potato masher is great for making guacamole and refried beans.
Mexican Oregano. Related to lemon verbena , Mexican Oregano has a high volatile oil content. It is used in flavoring many dishes of Mexico and Central America. Mexican oregano is stronger and less sweet than Mediterranean oregano and is suited well for spicy, hot, dishes. It is a key flavoring for bean dishes, burritos. taco fillings, and salsas.
Posoles. -- We are pleased to have an exclusive with some rare posoles from Rancho Gordo, made from Blue Corn, Red Corn and a white variety called Cacahuazintle that has a bit larger kernel than the rest. According to Chef Guzman at Nopalito, the color differences are due to small variations in the starches, sugars and protein that each variety contains.