"Mexican food is wonderful, fascinating indeed. It is the product of the coming
together of two very different culinary traditions: that of the Mediterranean
and that of Native Mexico. This process started in the 1520's and continues to
this day. Mexican cuisine varies widely from region to region of Mexico (and
from one end of the Border to another), but at the same time has certain general
characteristics that give it unity.
these unifying factors is the tortilla. (The Mexican tortilla, that is; a
tortilla in Spain is a kind of potato omelet.) Tortillas are flat cakes of masa
-- corn that has been soaked, cooked with lime or ashes, and then ground. (The
lime-cooking process, which goes by the wonderful name of nixtamalization,
greatly enhances the protein value of the food for humans. Corn never caught on
in Europe, partly because the process did not travel across the Atlantic along
with the seeds.) Tortillas are seldom eaten alone, but are rather an ingredient
in a whole repertoire of foods. They even can serve as eating utensils in their
Take a tortilla
and fold it around any sort of food, and you have a taco. Tacos in Mexican
culture can be hard-fried or soft, folded or rolled around the food. Larger hard
rolled tacos are often called flautas (flutes) and are usually served in Arizona
with guacamole, a paste made of chiles, onions and avocados. Fry the flat
tortilla till it's crisp and heap goodies on it, and you have a tostada.
If you cook your
tortilla lightly in a red chile sauce and roll it around meat or cheese and cook
it in more sauce, and you have an enchilada -- the name refers to the process of
cooking and serving in chile. However, things immediately start to get
complicated in southern Arizona, because what are locally called "flat
enchiladas" or "Sonoran-style enchiladas" aren't really like other enchiladas --
they are thick cakes of corn masa, red chile and often cheese which are fried
and then served in a red sauce! That's what one gets for letting people be
people -- we never seem to look at the rulebook.
Let those same
tortillas get slightly stale (after all, they are a staple food and made in huge
quantities -- one can't expect to eat them all at one sitting) and cut them into
strips. Fry them ever so slightly, and serve them in any one of several kinds of
sauce, and you have chilaquiles -- a favorite breakfast dish. Let them get
really stale, fry them crisp, and you have tortilla chips.
This holds true
over much of Mexico, but there's a special wrinkle here in the northwest. Our
region has been wheat growing country ever since Father Eusebio Francisco Kino
introduced wheat seeds and beef cattle into the area in the late 1600s. And in
Sonora and southern Arizona, people make tortillas out of wheat as well as corn.
Not just tortillas, but huge regional tortillas, often well over twenty inches
in diameter. Wrapped around some sort of filling, they are called burros or
burritos, depending on the size. Burros can be filled with anything -- teenagers
in the upper Santa Cruz Valley have for years made and consumed them with peanut
butter and jelly.
If you deep fry
a burro, it becomes a chimichanga -- a truly local dish from southern Arizona or
northern Sonora. There are many legends concerning the origin of the chimichanga
its apparently meaningless name (some folks insist it's a chivichanga). I don't
know which, if any, might be the truth... I'd honestly rather eat the things
than argue about their origin.)
crisp, flat flour tortilla with something on top of it becomes a tostada, just
as a corn tortilla does. Often topped with melted cheese, they are called
"cheese crisps" in English, and even, Heaven help us, "Mexican pizzas!" (But not
by me, thank you.)
That just about
exhausts the possibilities of the tortilla, to whatever extent it is possible to
categorize and circumscribe such a versatile folk food. It's time to move on to
Father Kino's other great introduction to our region -- beef.
southern Arizona are truly beef country, and the traditional Mexican diet to
this day includes a lot of beef. You can cook your beef over a grill, and it
becomes carne asada. It is even said that a high Mexican government official in
the 1920s described Sonora as the place "where civilization ends and carne asada
begins." Chop your beef into cubes and cook it with red chile sauce and you have
carne de chile colorado, a dish that has been a mainstay of the local diet since
at least the 1750s, when the German Jesuit missionary Ignaz Pfefferkorn tasted
some and thought he had put hellfire into his mouth. You can cook it with green
chile too, but that isn't as popular here as it is in New Mexico. If you cut
your beef into thin strips, dry it, shred it, and cook it up with chiles,
onions, garlic and some tomatoes, you have machaca, a wonderful dish also called
carne seca or "dry meat."
families traditionally use every part of the beef critter except perhaps the
moo. The head can be cooked and turned into wonderful taco filling, and the
marrow guts or tripas de leche, are slowly grilled as a wonderful picnic treat.
And the tripe and sometimes the feet are prepared in a kind of a stew along with
hominy. This is called menudo, and merits a paragraph all to itself.
There are no
halfway measures about menudo -- folks either like it or they don't. Menudo is
typically served for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday, and many restaurants will
only prepare it on those days (including Mi Tierra). It is a wonderful, hearty
dish, especially after you add cilantro, bits of chile, and perhaps some lemon
juice to it, and accompany it with a toasted and buttered split Mexican roll.
Although menudo in Arizona and Sonora is traditionally a whitish color, Texans
prefer to cook it with some red chile, changing the color to a deep red. Many
restaurants serve both kinds.
considerable reputation as a sovereign hangover cure, and is sometimes jokingly
referred to as the "breakfast of champions." In fact, menudo seems to be one of
those foods that just naturally attracts jokes -- a Chicano friend once
explained to an inquiring tourist that it was really nothing but "cow guts and
menudo leads us into the wonderful topic of Sonoran soups. These household
staples have only recently started appearing in many restaurants, but they are
well worth seeking out. Called caldos or sopas in Spanish, there are several
popular kinds, each capable of being given a slightly different turn of flavor
by whatever cook is assembling it. Some of the most popular are: caldo de queso
(cheese and potato soup), sopa de alb?digas (meatball soup), sopa de tortillas
(tortilla soup), cazuelas (made with machaca), pozole (a hominy and meat stew),
and cocido (a vegetable soup). Try them all -- they're wonderful.
Now for a few
important entries that don't fit so easily into the framework I've been using.
Tamales are a truly ancient food in Mexico -- they were being made and eaten in
great variety long before Columbus ever crossed the blue ocean and ran into
places he didn't know existed. Tamales, quite simply, are some sort of doughy
mixture, usually based on corn, that have been wrapped in corn husks or leaves
and steamed. They vary from one end of Mexico to the other. In the southern
state of Oaxaca, for example , they're wrapped in banana leaves; in coastal
areas, they can be filled with seafood. Here in Tucson, many tamales are filled
with... you guessed it, beef. These are the tamales that are made in huge
quantities in so many homes at Christmas time, and are often called "red
tamales." Shredded beef, cooked in red chile, with perhaps an olive added before
they are wrapped in corn shucks. But there's another kind of tamal that's made
at a completely different time of year. This is the green corn (read "fresh
corn") tamal, consisting of ground fresh white corn, with some cheese mixed into
the masa, and perhaps a bit of green chile laid down the center. They are
wrapped in the fresh shucks and steamed... and eaten. Don't forget that last
part -- it's the most fun of all. You can order tamales at Mi Tierra for any
(and there are several in Tucson) give us another bit of Mexico's history,
served up and ready to eat. If tamales remind us of Mexico's Indian heritage,
baked goods let us know that Europe is an important part of the equation as
well. A legacy of Spain (and perhaps of 19th-Century France as well), the
bakeries produce a wonderful, traditional variety of breads and cookies.
What have I
forgotten? Beans, by golly! Frijoles can be served in a number of ways. Frijoles
de la olla are cooked in a broth with onions and other wonderful things.
Frijoles refritos are usually translated as "refried beans," but are perhaps
more accurately "well-fried beans." They vary greatly in quality. Some I have
eaten seem only fit for sticking pages of books together; others are delicate,
almost crisp in places, with wonderful additions of cheese, milk, and other
ingredients. Pinto beans are the most common bean in this region; elsewhere in
Mexico there is a wide variety used and enjoyed.
something wet to wash it all down with and something sweet to top it off. Try
some of the wonderful refrescos naturales (also called aguas) or natural soft
drinks that many restaurants now serve. The most common are horchata, made of
rice water and cinnamon; tamarindo, made of tamarind squeezings; and jamaica, a
sweetened decoction of hibiscus flowers. Wonderful drinks for a Tucson summer.
And for dessert, what better than almendrado, a tricolored almond confection
that was invented, according to one story, right here in Tucson in the 1920s.
You can try another known desert: Flan. How about some of Mi Tierra's
trademarks: Chimichangas filled with fruit (cherry, apple or blueberry) and the
new introduced Mi Tierrita. This one we can't describe, as you have to witness
Of course I
haven't really looked into all the sorts of Mexican food available here in town.
I haven't even called the roll of all the different kinds of chiles that are
used in Mexican cooking, much less embarked upon an analysis of the myriad
variations of the salsa that you find on your table at the beginning of the
meal. Nor have I mentioned Mexican beer, tequila, and mescal. That, as Mr.
Kipling used to say, is another story. But whatever else I've accomplished, I
have certainly managed to make myself hungry. Buen provecho, y hasta luego. And
remember...Mi Tierra Es Su Tierra."