Tom and I recently spent a week in Puebla, a colonial Mexican city that charmed us with outgoing people, Parisian-inspired architecture, a low key vibe, and above all – food. After growing accustomed to a fairly narrow spectrum of culinary choices, the sheer abundance and diversity of cheap street food in Puebla kept us eating…and eating…and eating. So much so that we began to draw skeptical looks from our CouchSurfing host Alma and fellow guest Markus. Before long, we were warmly christened “the crazy fucking cyclists” and met with a resigned shake of the head each time we scampered over to the next food stand to sample any novel nibbles on display.
Unsurprisingly, our bike adventure has served to unlock (or perhaps just encourage) our natural eating abilities. Had we stayed in Seattle, the prevalence of artisanal goat cheese and ironic cocktails would surely have continued to lure us towards the endemic legions of foodie aficionados. In Mexico on the other hand, one can’t help but embrace a sort of food egalitarianism. The sheer multitude of dishes that the beloved market grannies routinely concoct with corn, beans, and chiles alone stand as a testament to Mexico’s proud culinary history.
Like good cyclists, we are doing our best to support said market grannies by eating anything and everything we can. The pesos we save by camping and avoiding the big tourist attractions are inevitably spent on eating ourselves into a food coma at every opportunity. Accordingly, the following is an overview of our week in Puebla, as told by our stomachs. Enjoy!
Corn, most often in tortilla form, is the basis for all Mexican food. White corn, blue corn, yellow corn, red corn – you name it. According to the locals, more than 200 varieties of corn are grown in Mexico. We regret to inform you that we have only tried a handful. The slap-slap-slap of corn tortillas being made has been called “the heartbeat of Mexico,” and a rolled up tortilla and a spoon are considered the only two utensils you really need.
Beans are the traditional complement to corn, and when combined these two staples constitute a whole protein. This may explain why it is fundamentally impossible to go a single day without chowing down on some corn tortillas with black beans, and more often than not having them as a side dish at every meal. According to one man we spoke with, “Without beans, the people have nothing.”
The paramount moment in any food ordering experience arrives at the deliverance of one simple question: “Es picante?” Forget to ask and it’s entirely possible that your otherwise tasty meal will be slathered in fiery hot salsa that renders it all but inedible. Chiles come in innumerable shapes, sizes, and spicy factors, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the market grannies are engaged in an underground competition to create the most mouth-scorching yet edible salsa. Luckily they expect us güeros to have the tolerance of babies, and with a chuckle will usually pull out the weakling salsa upon request.
It all starts with the taco. This so happens to be an example of the rare meatless taco, which is not particularly representative of the very meaty taco tradition here in Mexico. The hundreds of tacos that we have consumed have taught us that the greatness of the taco is not to be judged by the taco itself (which is usually presented as a tortilla with a slab of meat on it). Rather, the greatness of the taco is to be judged by the quality and variety of the sauces and toppings that accompany the taco. Our favorite taco stand in La Paz – aptly named SuperTaco – offered hot salsas, mild salsas, pickled vegetables, guacamole, cole slaw, limones, and more with which to decorate this otherwise humble snack.
The gordita. Literally, the “little fatty.” Like a taco, but one which takes the pocket concept to a whole new level of perfection. To prepare, the market grannies slap masa (corn flour dough) into the appropriate size and thickness, pop it on the comal to make a thick tortilla, and ask you what you want inside. You ask what they have, and one by one they remove the lids of their many magical clay pots to reveal a plethora of options. Mushrooms! Eggs in salsa verde! Zucchini! Huitlacoche! You make your selections, and once the tortilla puffs up a little on the comal, the market grannies slice an edge open and spoon in your fillings of choice. For some reason, many vegetarian fillings that are considered appropriate for a gordita are wildly beyond reason for a taco.
The molote. Extra thin tortilla stuffed with fillings al gusto, then slid through a wok of scorching hot oil and garlic to achieve the perfect level of crispiness. Warm, a little greasy, and liberally topped with salsa, crema, and cotija cheese.
The tamale. A breakfast or dinner treat consisting of masa wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. Filled with sweet things, meaty things, saucy things, herby things, and vegetable things – whatever is locally available. Sold on every corner out of a large metal vat, in which vendors inexplicably keep track of which type of tamale is where. Delicious, but clearly not the most photogenic of Mexican delights.
The torta. The Mexican take on your average American sandwich, with a base of beans, tomato, and avocado topped by any number of meaty bits. The average market granny keeps all of the available pig or cow parts in a big metal pan on the counter, often heaped around the head, and the hungry customer can point to exactly which parts they would like to eat. Puebla seems to be big on heaping mounds of quesillo – a tough, stringy cheese – on top of each and every torta. In most other towns adding cheese to your torta will double the price, but here it comes standard.
The cemita. An extra grande sandwich which differs from the torta in type of bread and level of local enthusiasm. As evidenced in this photo, the Poblanos really, really love their cemitas. All of the ingredients are unceremoniously heaped on the comal and grilled together – veggies on top of cheese on top of meat – and then flipped to achieve even toastiness. In our experience, cemitas are best when made by this guy and sliced with a machete.
Puerco en mole and chiles rellenos. These are our respective go-to dinner options when we’re sick of street food and/or need a corn break. (And this is Tom’s go-to face when he’s sick of me taking photos and would like to just eat already.) It’s a fairly common occurence to sit down at a hole-in-the-wall comedor and order something that is on the menu but not actually available. In Mexico, no big deal – our market granny takes the order and sends one of her helpers to go buy whatever we just ordered from the market granny in the next stall over. We’ve seen this happen with anything from a Coke to a whole plate of food.
Chilaquiles. In my mind, chilaquiles are hands down the world’s greatest breakfast food. They are essentially a meal of leftovers: day-old tortilla strips slathered in hot enchilada sauce for a slightly soggy crunch. (You’ll have to take my word that they taste better than they sound.) The good ones are topped with cheese, avocado, and thinly sliced onion. A fried egg on the side makes for a happy cyclist.
The panaderia. According to Tom, the one thing that Mexico gets right without fail is the bakery. So much so that the bakery has perhaps eclipsed the candy store in its allure, filled with cheap sugary carbs to replenish our energy stores at the end of a long day’s ride. In addition to satisfying sweet cravings, every good panaderia cranks out batch after batch of bolillos, small loaves of bread that cost a whopping 1.50 pesos (10 cents) each and make for easy on-the-go snacking. But mostly, we go there for the sweet stuff.
The churro. For reasons we have yet to determine, churros are considered outside the domain of the otherwise trusty panaderia. Rather, they’re a lucrative side business for the cemita man or the molote lady. These fried dough sticks are doused in sugar or cinnamon or, best case scenario, both. If you want to cough up a few extra pesos, you can get them smothered in chocolate or cajeta, a smoky caramel sauce. You can’t have just one.
The pitaya. We pulled a U-turn when we saw these for sale in the side of the road simply because they look so strange. The rind is hot pink with bright green spikes, and gives way to white flesh peppered with small black seeds. The consistency is similar to a kiwi. In certain circles, pitayas are known to give cyclists dragon powers for early morning rides.
The platano. Unlike in the United States, Mexican platanos (bananas) come in all different shapes and sizes. There is a preponderance of national pride for the little ones – platanos dominicanos – which are the sweetest. Our routine breakfast food is banana-Nutella tacos, and the little ones enable us to just roll the tortilla right around the whole banana, no slicing required.
The guanabana. Another strange product of Mexico, and purported to have mystical healing properties for anything from indigestion to cancer. Its white creamy flesh is sweet and tasty, perfect to eat with a spoon or to drink as a juice on a steamy tropical day. The big black seeds inside are the size and shape of kidney beans. I’m considering smuggling some back to the States to see whether they can be coaxed into growing in more temperate climes.
The tuna. Not a fish, but a fruit! These cactus fruits come in many varieties – green, yellow, red, and white. Tunas are so prevalent that if not for their evil hairlike spines, they would be easy to harvest straight from the side of the road. To eat, chop a thin slice from each end and peel the skin right off. The fruit inside tastes similar to a honeydew melon, but is laced with small rock-like seeds. Local wisdom says not to think too much about the seeds as they go down, and definitely don’t try to chew them.
Chickens. Poor little chickens. Bare naked, upside down, necks over the counter and legs in the air seems to be the preferred display. A rather humiliating way to go if you ask me.
Bread with a head. This cropped up everywhere in the week preceding el Dia de los Muertos, and has since disappeared. Unfortunately we never got around to asking about the reasoning behind baking angelic baby heads into each loaf.
Chapulines. Otherwise known as grasshoppers, and aggressively hawked by the bug ladies camped out in front of every market entrance. Chapulines are dried and seasoned with any number of spices, presumably to help cover up the bug taste. These go for cheap, so customers are freely encouraged to pick up a crunchy handful and sample the wares.
Candied fruits and roots. We justified a hearty sampling of these goodies because…vitamins. Right? The fact that the whole assortment had been rolled around town in a wheelbarrow all day meant that it probably did wonders for our digestion.
Candy of the more traditional variety. Sold by the bag, by the bucket, by the kilo, or out of the back of the gas truck. You know that the good gas truck is coming when you hear a hearty baritone voice over the megaphone announcing “GAAAAAAS! CAAAAAANDY!”
And last but certainly not least, atole. This thick, warm, creamy drink is easy to find on chilly mornings and evenings, but once the sun is up and the day begins to warm the atole vendors disappear. The best atole is, without question, chocolate atole. The only thing that could enhance the overall excellence of atole is the addition of caffeine. Maybe we’ll just start throwing in a shot or two of espresso to kickstart our mornings.