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Cuetlas: Sampling One of Mexico’s Edible Insects

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Boiled and unfurled, these cuetlas are ready to fry.It probably wasn’t the smartest plan to arrive at the Grandiosa Tardeada de Cuetlas feeling absolutely famished. But we’re adventurous eaters who sometimes enjoy bugs in Mexican cuisine, particularly regional specialties like escamoles (ant eggs), chapulines (grasshoppers), and gusanos de maguey (pulque worms). So, we showed up at the 13th annual cuetlada in Puebla on Saturday afternoon ready to sink our teeth into some serious butterfly larvae.

Chiancuetlas, or cuetlas for short, are edible catepillars that grow in Jonote and other types of trees throughout south-central Mexico. The larvae are typically consumed in the Mixteca region of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, where they provide an imporant source of dietary protein. You can also buy them locally from tianguis in Atlixco—25 pesos for a sardine tinful—and at the Feria de Cholula. During the rainy season (August and September), the live caterpillars are collected from Cualagua, Cuaulote, and Pochote trees in the gullies near Huaquechula and gutted to remove their green entrails. Many cooks then boil the larvae in salt water, unfurl them by hand, and fry them in oil until they puff up and turn golden brown, and serve them as the main ingredient in tacos.

Guillermo Duque de Estrada (pictured), who invited us to the Grandiosa Tardeada de Cuetlas, has co-organized a semi-private culinary celebration with Antonio Álvarez Moran and a lively group of entomophagous friends since 2000. At previous events, the cuetleros have tried using the caterpillars as a protein in various gourmet recipes, from paella to cuetlas en nogada. They’ve even stuffed the finger- to cigar-sized larvae with tiny grasshoppers and sautéed them with garlic in olive oil.

Guillermo Duque de Estrada fries cuetlas for the taquiza.This year, Duque de Estrada—also known as “Don Cuetlo”—and crew hosted a traditional taquiza featuring fried caterpillars for tacos with eight different homemade salsas, avocado slices, black beans, and grasshopper-infused rice. Those of us who had never tried one before received our “first communion” of a single fried cuetla, so we could savor the larvae in all its salty and crunchy yet chewy glory. The experience was sort of like eating a rehydrated dried mushroom that’d been plunged into a deep-fryer. I jokingly called it cecina de árbol.

Want to try them yourself? El Mural de los Poblanos restaurant (Calle 16 de Septiembre #506 at 7 Oriente) is serving cuetlas for another week and offering them as part of a beer pairing menu this Thursday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m. (Side note: Álvarez Moran is the painter responsible for the historical murals on the restaurant’s walls.)

In the end, we can’t say that we’d routinely choose cuetlas over carne asada as a taco filling or that the larvae satiated our hunger. But the caterpillars were certainly edible. And, seeing as more than 1,000 types of insects are eaten by choice worldwide—including 67 species of butterflies and moths in Mexico—we’ve arrived terribly late to the dinner party. We’re convinced there’s a Lepidoptera out there we’ll enjoy as much as escamoles.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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“Mesas Poblanas” Touts 15 Typical Restaurants

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

The 2013 Mesas Poblanas Restaurant Guide and gastronomic calendar (in Spanish)Mexican food lovers, take note: The city of Puebla on Dec. 6 unveiled a new program for identifying and recommending local restaurants that serve typically Poblano cuisine.

The Mesas Poblanas (which translates to “Pueblan Tables” in English) distinction is awarded by the office of economic development and tourism to dining establishments “characterized by quality customer service, attention to detail, and a strong local identity.”

The 2013 list comprises 15 restaurants, which are divided into two categories: gourmet and traditional. The former denotes innovation, the latter an adherence to classic recipes. Nearly half of the restaurants in the inaugural group—Casareyna, Casona de la China Poblana, El Sueño, Mesón Sacristía, Royalty, San Leonardo—are located inside downtown hotels. A free, pocket-size booklet describing the eateries and locating them on a handy map is available around town, and you can find links to the restaurants’ websites here. The city plans to update the guide annually.

Each restaurant volunteered to participate in Mesas Poblanas and was visited once by an anonymous reviewer for quality assurance, officials explained during Thursday’s press conference at Casa del Mendrugo in the city’s historic center. “It’s the first quality club in Puebla!” That may be true, but Mesas Poblanas is by no means a definitive guide, and the federal tourism secretary’s quality standards — Distintivo M and Distintivo H — appear to remain in effect.

The guide comes at an auspicious time, given the international press coverage Puebla has received this year, nearly all of which touts Poblano food, and the upcoming Tianguis Turístico trade show, which is set to take place here in March. This is the first time the annual conference, run by the Mexico Tourism Board, is being held in an urban (vs. beach) destination.

Wny is Poblano food such a big deal? “No other city reflects the richness of Mexican cuisine as well as Puebla, a cuisine blending chiles, seeds, spices, mole paste, tortillas, cheese, insects, mescals, and a long list of native products,” the Mesas Poblanas guide boasts. “It was included in the list of Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO [PDF] on November 16, 2010. Puebla’s gastronomy is one of the most representative of Mexican cooking, folled with tradition and fusion, and it has made enormous contributions to the legacy of mankind for the past four centuries.”

To coincide with the Mesas Poblanas announcement, the city also released a “gastronomic calendar” (available only in Spanish) that describes some of Puebla’s seasonal ingredients and dishes, from huauzontles (goosefoot) and escamoles (ant larvae) in the spring to huasmole (goat hip stew) and alfeñiques de azúcar (sugar skulls) in the fall. If you’re interested in trying some of these foods, join us for A Taste of Puebla walking tour, during which we’ll discuss regional produce at traditional market.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Savoring Mole de Caderas (and More) in Tehuacán

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Mole de caderas y espinazo is a seasonal, regional dish from Tehuacan, Puebla.It took me five years of living in Puebla to visit Tehuacán, but when I finally did this past weekend, I savored every moment of it. Literally. I spent most of my time there eating: Tacos de cabeza. Mole de caderas y espinazos. Candied fig, squash, and tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn fruit). Muéganos from El Águila Real. All of these culinary treats are local specialties, the first two of which are based on goat meat from the annual slaughter.

Yes, slaughter. Every autumn since the 17th century, when Spanish settlers introduced livestock to Mexico, shepherds have driven goats from the coasts of Oaxaca and Guerrero to the Tehuacán Valley of Puebla, where they’re sacrificed in a ritual ceremony and then eaten. During the migration, the animals feed only on wild grasses and salt (to retain liquids, because they don’t drink any water), notes Enrique Aquino in a column for SDNoticias.com, a national news site. As a result, their flesh—unlike that of farm-raised animals—is very lean and flavorful.

“For more than 300 years, landowners and ranchers paid the servants [and butchers] of the killings with the bones of the goats, the hips and the spines,” Aquino writes. “With these bones they made a broth with tomato and chile, to which they added other seasonal ingredients like ejotes ayocotes (runner beans) and huajes (wild tamarind seeds), resulting in el mole de caderas (goat hip stew).”

Goat brain and head meat tacos with green salsa at La Casona de Mi Lupita.An estimated 4,500 to 8,000 goats were sacrificed this year at Hacienda La Carlota, the owners of which have participated in El Ritual Cultural y Festival Étnico del Mole de Caderas, also known as “La Matanza,” for four generations. Much of their meat will be consumed in Tehuacán by residents and visitors between now and Nov. 15, which marks the end of the 2012 season. The annual celebration, which since 1784 has taken place on the third Thursday of October, includes prayers and folkloric dances and brings together people from across the Mixteca. It is recognized by both the state and federal governments as part of Puebla’s cultural heritage. Although previous festivals tended to be a bit gory, as one might imagine, the knife used to kill the first goat has been replaced with an air gun, to avoid what members of the Humane Society dubbed “a vicious and bloody spectacle.”

Food lovers should note that the wildly popular mole de caderas isn’t the only dish made with the organic carne de chivo. At least two dozen delicacies can be had, based on pretty much every edible part of the animal. These include ubre a la plancha (grilled utter with garlic and milk), riñones encebollados (kidney with onions), and other bits prepared in mojo de ajo (oil, garlic, and spices).

House-made candied fig, squash, and Mexican hawthorn fruit at La Casona de Mi Lupita.All of these dishes are offered at Mi Lupita (5 Sur #307), where Doña Lupita and her family have cooked up goaty goodness since 1956. In fact, her version of mole de caderas is so popular that the restaurant opened a second location last October on the city’s main square. It’s there, at La Casona de Mi Lupita, that my husband and I tucked into a plateful of tacos de cabeza (five head meat and brain tacos) and a piping-hot bowl of mole de caderas y espinazos with ejotes acoyotes.

“This was worth the drive from Puebla,” declares my Poblano other half, tucking a napkin into his white shirt and licking his fingers. “This is the best mole I’ve ever eaten.”

It is not, however, food for reluctant carnivores or the faint of heart: Enjoying this dish to its fullest requires using your hands and teeth to pick and suck the flesh off cracked goat vertebrae and broken leg bones. If that sounds appealing to you, it’s totally worth the trip and the 300 to 400 peso price per (very generous) serving.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Tehuacán is located 82 miles southeast of the Puebla capital. ADO operates regular bus service from CAPU to its station a few blocks from the main square in Tehuacán for about 100 pesos. By car, it’s about a 90-minute drive via toll roads (about 200 pesos round-trip) en route to Oaxaca.

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Chiles en Nogada Season Arrives in Puebla

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Chile en nogada, by Mesones de la SacritíaChiles en nogada are so important to Puebla’s gastronomy that their arrival each year draws an impressive crowd. The official 2011 season kickoff, held July 14 by the national restaurant association at Hotel Camino Real, attracted scores of restaurateurs and various dignitaries, including Mayor Eduardo Rivera Pérez, celebrity chef Patricia Quintana, and a Mexican archbishop (the dish was invented by nuns). Nineteen different restaurants served their takes on the traditional recipe, sales of which are expected to bring in 10 to 20 percent more patrons into dining rooms statewide between now and the end of September. The state secretary of tourism says Puebla is allocating 7 million pesos for the promotion of regional cuisine.

It’s been a tough year for cultivating two of the dish’s key ingredients, walnuts and Poblano chile peppers, in the state of Puebla. Bad weather (hail, frost, landslides) and competition from importers have cut supplies and driven up prices. However, purists continue to use only local products, and restaurateurs remain optimistic and anticipate diners will consume some 3 million chiles en nogada, or 25 percent more than they did in 2010.

Dignitaries at the 2011 season kickoff included the mayor and celebrity chef Patricia Quintana.Visitors to Puebla can sample chiles en nogaga at eateries all around the state and its capital city, including these official purveyors promoted by the restaurant association. Expect to pay 100 to 350 pesos per plate. In addition, at least two festivals that celebrate the nearly 200-year-old dish are scheduled to take place in the neighboring towns of San Andrés Calpan (August 12 to 14) and San Nicolás de los Ranchos (August 6 to 29). To learn more about the history and preparation of chiles en nogada, check out All About Puebla’s previous post, “Puebla’s Patriotic Dish: Chiles en Nogada.”

Sources: Intolerancia and Milenio newspapers

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7 Places to Dine Like a Poblano in Puebla

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

This huge entree at Fonda La Mexicana includes chalupas and mole poblano enchiladas.You haven’t really experienced Puebla until you’ve eaten the food here — and lots of it. From quick bites prepared curbside to slow-cooked meals elaborated in formal kitchens, the region’s gastronomy is an integral part of state and national culture. One dish, mole poblano, is so important to Puebla’s identity that restaurateurs recently began lobbying to have its ingredients and production regulated and, like tequila, given protected status.

The ideal place to try the local cuisine is in somebody’s home, because family recipes lovingly passed down for generations are likely to trump the restaurant experience every time. If you ask the average Poblano where you can find the best mole, his reply is likely to be “En mi casa,” which means “At my house.” Visitors who aren’t fortunate enough to have relatives in the area can instead buy meals at one of the dozens of restaurants in the capital city that specialize in comida poblana.

There are so many inviting places to chow down around town that we have yet to try them all — but we’re working on it! The list below features our top seven picks of late, in no particular order. We chose each restaurant for its varied menu, overall quality and consistency, and generally pleasing customer service over the course of our visits.

La Casita Poblana

16 de Septiembre #3912, Col. Huexotitla, (222) 243-2210
It’s hard to resist ordering everything on the menu at La Casita Poblana. The house mole poblano, which won an award as “tastiest fast feast in Latin America” in 2014, does the dish proud, striking the perfect balance between spicy and sweet. When available in the spring, the huauzontles en caldillo de jitomate are a must-try: The broccoli-esque wild greens are served relleno-style in an onion-infused tomato broth. Adventurous eaters should also try the sopa de médula (spinal cord soup), tostadas de pata (pickled beef cartilage on a fried corn tortilla), and escamoles (ant eggs) and gusanos de maguey (fried caterpillars) in tacos.
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Credit cards accepted.

Fonda La Mexicana

3 Poniente #316, Col. Centro, (222) 242-2837
Stick-to-your-ribs home-style cooking served in a casual, family-style atmosphere makes Fonda La Mexicana stand out. The extensive menu includes all the typical must-try farechalupas, mole poblano, and pipián verde — plus a few more exotic and seasonal dishes, such as cecina (dried beef), mixiotes de carnero (lamb in parchment), and chiles en nogada (pork and fruit stuffed peppers in walnut sauce). Entrees typically cost 70 to 160 pesos; expect huge portions, like those a Mexican mom might heap on your plate whenever you start looking a little too thin. If 3 Poniente is packed, head for the restaurant’s other location nearby at 16 de Septiembre #706-A, which opens at 10 a.m.
Open daily 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted.

Los Manteles

Calzada Zavaleta #3913, Col. Zavaleta (222) 130-9899
It’s hard to find a tastier, less expensive full breakfast in town than Los Manteles. For 40 to 55 pesos, you can order plates of, say, huevos a la Mexicana (eggs scrambled with pico de gallo), huevos enmolados (eggs over easy in mole poblano), or a three-entree combo accompanied by café de la olla (coffee with cinnamon), freshly baked bread, and orange juice or a fruit plate. After 1 p.m., Los Manteles serves a menu of the day that usually includes three soup or pasta choices (11 to 18 pesos) and five traditional main dishes (33 to 52 pesos), from arrachera (flank steak) to pipián verde (chicken in pumpkin seed mole).
Open daily. Breakfast, 8 a.m- 1 p.m.; lunch, 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Cash only.

Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía

Callejón de los Sapos, Calle 6 Sur #304, Col. Centro (222) 232 4513
Nestled inside a Colonial-style boutique hotel, Mesón Sacristía takes diners back in time. Its indoor patio and intimate dining rooms are appointed with traditional pottery and antique books, statues, and furniture. The moderately priced menu features everything from popular street foods, such as chanclas (a small sandwich smothered in a sausage-tinged salsa) and zucchini-flower quesadillas, to formal fare, such as mancha manteles (pork in a spicy, fruity, tablecloth-staining sauce) and milanesa de res (chicken-fried steak). Save room for dessert: Mesón Sacristía offers a mouth-watering selection of sweets, including cremitas estilo La California, a tribute to a legendary local establishment’s pudding-like indulgences.
Open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Credit cards accepted.

Mi Ciudad

Avenida Juárez #2507, Col. La Paz (222) 231-0277
Although this mid-range chain operates in several locations, we prefer the Avenida Juárez restaurant, which features a colorful mosaic of local cathedral domes and does the best job of separating smoking from nonsmoking diners. You’ll find all of the poblano entrees you’d expect on the menu, as well as a wonderful selection of fish and seafood dishes. When in season, the whole huachinango al mojo de ajo (red snapper in garlic and spices) is fabulous and worth every peso. The shrimp molcajete (served in a hot stone vessel) is tasty, too. Like almost everywhere in Puebla, the service here can be a little slow, so order another tamarind margarita and chill out.
Open Mon.-Thu., 1 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 1 p.m.-1:30 a.m.; and Sun., 1-7 p.m. Credit cards accepted.

El Mural de los Poblanos

16 de Septiembre #506, Col. Centro, (222) 242-0503
El Mural de los Poblanos initially lured us in with its wide selection of Mexican wine, tequila, and mezcal. The upscale restaurant keeps us coming back with its excellent cuisine and customer service, such as accommodating vegetarians. Whether preparing escamoles (ant eggs fried in butter), huasmole de caderas (goat stew) or enchiladas de tres moles (cheese or chicken, with three different sauces), the kitchen takes tremendous pride in its original recipes, artisanal cooking techniques, and use of regional ingredients. The cozy dining room, which occasionally hosts live music, is typically a tranquil space, with a working fountain on one wall and a giant mural of local historical figures on another.
Open Mon.-Sat., 1-10 p.m.; Sun., 1-6 p.m. Credit cards accepted.

Nevados Don Hermilo

Andador Pasaje del H. Ayuntamiento #1, Col. Centro, (222) 211-0624
For nearly century, this family-run operation has drawn locals to the city’s historic center with tasty regional fare. The restaurant is perhaps best known for its namesake adult beverages, or nevados, which come in more than a dozen flavors. (Our favorite is the Iztaccíhuatl, which combines tequila, pomegranate, and hibiscus liqueurs with a tiny scoop of lime sorbet.) Don Hermilo’s wide selection of tortas (sandwiches) and platters of decoratively cut cheeses and cold cuts are also wildly popular.
Open daily. Credit cards accepted.

A couple of dining-out tips: The wait staff is unlikely to bring you the bill until you ask for it (say “La cuenta, por favor”), and a gratuity of 10 to 15 percent is appreciated. If you’re pressed for time, we suggest heading for the Mercado de Sabores Poblanos, where you can sample the handiwork of myriad cooks in one convenient location. What this food court-esque site lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in authentic, affordable good eats. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Puebla? Please tell us where you go for mole and more in the comments section below!

Post updated May 3, 2014

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Puebla’s Patriotic Dish: Chiles en Nogada

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

An enormous chile en nogada served at Mi Ciudad restaurant.From late July to early October, all forks in Puebla seem to point toward one entree: chiles en nogada. This labor-intensive dish, an icon of local gastronomy, consists of a poblano pepper that’s stuffed with ground pork and dried or fresh fruit, batter-fried, and then covered with a walnut cream sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley leaves.

The first recipe for chiles en nogada was developed at the Santa Monica convent by Augustinian nuns (although some historians credit the Claristas). Whatever their religious leanings may have been, the sisters got caught up in the fervor surrounding the Mexico’s independence in 1821. When Agustín de Iturbide — the liberator who co-wrote the peace treaties signed by Spain and later became Mexico’s emperor — passed through Puebla, a huge banquet was held. The nuns, seeking to demonstrate their national pride, presented Iturbide with an entree they’d concocted to display the red, white, and green colors of the new national flag.

“It is a very patriotic dish, because it has the three colors of the Mexican flag: green from the chile [and the parsley], white from the walnut sauce, and red from the pomegranate,” Luis Alberto Martínez Álvarez writes on the state’s website. “August arrives, and with it the typical chiles en nogada, which each year you can find in every home in Puebla.”

Chiles en nogada means peppers in walnut sauce. The word “nogada” comes from “nogal,” or “walnut.”

Although some people serve the rich, sweet-and-savory dish served at other times of the year, most chefs prepare it when its key ingredients — apples, pears, peaches, walnuts, and pomengranates — are at their peaks. In Puebla, both seasons coincide with el mes patrio, or the patriotic month, here in Mexico. Independence Day is Sept. 16 and, with the nation celebrating its bicentennial this year, kitchens all over Puebla are churning out chiles en nogada in epic proportions.

Of course, most locals will tell you that the best chiles en nogada they’ve ever eaten were made by one of their family members. Tip: They’re always right. But you’ll also find tasty renditions at nearly every traditional eatery in town. Try chiles en nogada at Mi Ciudad (Av. Juárez #2507, La Paz), Fonda La Mexicana (16 de Septiembre #706-A, El Centro), or any of these 13 local restaurants, which have devoted a website to the dish.

Want to make your own? Try this step by step recipe from Lesley Tellez, who runs a culinary tourism business called Eat Mexico.

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