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February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
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World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Ensenada is a low-key fishing town just over an hour from Tijuana and the U.S. border. A jumping-off point for a tour of Mexico’s growing wine region, the food scene has exploded in recent years. Dozens of street stalls and small restaurants prepare freshly fried fish, shrimp tacos, seafood ceviches and cocktails. The central fish market tempts with a spectacular array of aquatic bounty. And upscale restaurants proudly present heretically creative variations on regional dishes, making this an ideal destination for the discerning gastronome.
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Mexicans eat a lot of meat. In most parts of the country, the concept of a fancy meal out might include a big hunk of Argentine steak. Taco stands in the central regions feature meat based fillings, almost exclusively. Although the central fish market in Mexico City, Mercado de la Nueva Viga, which provides fresh fish and seafood to all of central Mexico, may be one of the world’s largest, even beating out Tokyo’s Tsukiji, Mexico’s annual per capita consumption of fish is low relative even to the United States. But not on the Pacific coast. There, residents can’t get enough of the oceanic bounty and even make fun of capitalinos: “All they eat is chicharrón [pork skin] in Mexico City,” one local, 18-year-old Juan Carlos, scoffed as he downed a mouthful of fresh ceviche from an outdoor pushcart. Coastal residents seem to know their fish as well as their Japanese brethren on the other side.
Fish tacos are Ensenada’s ticket
Fish tacos are the specialty of Ensenada. Everybody loves them and corner puestos – stands — as well as hole-in-the-wall locales open early in the morning and are often surrounded by customers by 10 or 11 a.m. Hand-cut strips of fish, usually cazón – a type of small shark — are dipped in a flour batter, sometimes lightly spiced with garlic or cumin, and deep-fried, tempura-style.
Legend has it that visiting Japanese fishermen taught them this trick although it is a dubious theory — the Japanese themselves learned it from the Portuguese traders. Served in white corn tortillas, they are garnished to taste with an array of salsas, pico de gallo (chopped tomato/chili/onion), a sour cream-mayo mix and crispy shredded cabbage or lettuce.
I start my search for the best at Tacos Floresta, a simple white metal shack perched auspiciously at the corner of Avenida Floresta and Juarez in the residential part of town. The empty, straight, interminable, impossibly wide avenues of Ensenada remind one of a forlorn part of L.A. where a James M. Cain novel might take place. But Floresta, staffed by three gregarious ladies, breaks the ice — the atmosphere is jovial, cheery mariachi music wafts overhead, along with the aroma of fresh fish frying in clean oil. It’s immensely popular, and is one of the best venues for these fried morsels of goodness. The tacos are an exercise in harmony: The steaming hot fresh fish itself is crispy on the outside, and almost melts when you bite into it. Carefully selected spiky sauces augment but don’t overwhelm, and the crunch of cool cabbage, shredded fine, provides the perfect contrast to the oily bits. Subtle aromas of roast dry chili, the sea, lime and corn weave in and out of one another like a Bach fugue. Parroquianos (as return clients are called, referring to members of a church) banter, discuss the game, the weather, one another’s girls, their no-good husbands, all the while downing icy horchata and more tacos.
Not far from the ticky-tacky strip catering to tourists, Lily, who operates Tacos Lily around the corner from the central fish market, multitasks. Preparing for yet another day, she’s methodically chopping, stirring and testing the temperature of her oil. Lily appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s travel/food show a couple of years ago, but TV stardom and the proverbial slews of tourists eluded her and her humble locale. She continues to toil over a hot stove, preparing fresh fish to order while her son serves a few small cafe tables. Lily’s tacos are tasty, giving new meaning to the word “fresh.” Only fish and shrimp are ever prepared rebozado, i.e., deep fried in batter. Mexican street food, in its infinite variety, is not innovative, which is why, perhaps, it remains impervious to outside influence. When Lily was queried as to whether she might do, perhaps, clams or mussels, which are abundant in the area, she shrugs. “No,” she replies, no longer surprised by this foolish question. “Someone even asked if I make pulpo [octopus] tacos once; a cada quien [to each his own] … .”
Ensenada’s costero is the curvaceous seafront thoroughfare that looks to the harbor and marina. Unlike in the overly commercial southern tourist center Acapulco, development here is low key and traffic light.
Near the corner of Avenida Alvarado, at 11 a.m. on a brilliantly sunny Sunday, a crowd, with many reeling from the partying the night before, gathers around a spread-out street food complex known as Mariscos el Güero. This busy gustatory circus proffers seafood so fresh it practically dances. And the crowd knows it. “La Especial,” which almost everyone orders, is a seafood salad comprising three kinds of clams, oysters, shrimp, octopus and fish, perhaps cazón, more likely corvina, discreetly dressed with the liquid from the oysters, lime juice, salsa and garnished with avocado slices. It comes on a plate accompanied by little round tostadas, or in a cup with a spoon. The salty essence of each creature stands on its own. Cheerful employees shuck clams and oysters conversing jocularly all the while. The party’s not over until the last oyster is slurped.
A few blocks down, Don Fidel’s small pushcart rests at the corner of Miramar. Don Fidel has set up here almost every day for 27 years. He serves nothing but giant sweet pismo, sometimes called reina, clams. Each one, weighing as much as a pound, is opened to order, the meat chopped and lightly dressed with salsa mexicana, lime and a touch of Tabasco. I take a spoonful of the clam ceviche, which is served in its own shell. It’s sweet, surprisingly tender and renders not the least hint of pungency. “Do any gringos ever eat here?” I ask, as the few who pass by look curiously but move on. “Never,” he replies. “They’re afraid of fresh seafood on the street.” But Don Fidel assures me that he knows whether there’s a bad clam in the bunch and will not risk alienating a faithful customer. I have become one of those.
Top photo: A view of Ensenada’s shore. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Cuban food in Cuba? A cinch, I thought. But common wisdom was that restaurants there were poor and served only passable versions of familiar Cuban dishes done better in Miami or New York. And it was, for the most part, true.
Paladar Doña Eutimia: Callejón del Chorro 60-C, Habana Vieja. Phone: 861-1332.
Nao: Calle Obispo 1, Habana Vieja. Phone: 867-3463.
Mamá Inéz: Calle de la Obrapia 60, Habana Vieja. Phone: 862-2669.
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As we barrel ahead into the 21st century, the exuberant citizens of Cuba struggle to come to terms with a regime that has barely budged in over 50 years of ironclad rule. Small freedoms have been won recently, cracks in the walls have appeared. People are freer to leave. Dissidents are left in relative peace. Gays are no longer jailed and even have their own beach. And the restaurant scene, from a visitor’s perspective anyway, is blossoming.
The Cuban government has allowed the private ownership of paladares (the word paladar means palate or taste), privately owned small restaurants, since the 1990s. At first, home cooks opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. But restrictions were placed on the number of tables as well as the menu. Seafood was strictly under the counter, for example, keeping restaurants at a basic level.
Rules have been relaxed somewhat in the last couple of years as a concession to the call for free enterprise, or perhaps better said, reality. There is more tourism now: new, sophisticated visitors who come for music, food and culture — not just cigars and the beach. So some paladares have blossomed into full-fledged professional operations: maître d’s, wine lists, reservations accepted.
Some aim for the international hipster. Le Chansonnier, for example is set in an old mansion where black-clad staff serve contemporary cuisine to the likes of visiting Spanish royalty.
More interesting are several new venues that celebrate traditional Cuban cuisine. These places see fit to rescue and restore classic cooking. Recipes that languished in books or in the memories of grandmothers who lived before the revolution are being revived. Nowadays a wider variety of raw ingredients is available, and chefs, as well as the home cooks who can, are taking advantage of this wealth while exploring the rich lexicon of criollo cooking. Lobster, fish, lamb, even venison can be procured with some effort — indeed, most materia prima is produced on the island.
The view from Havana
A case in point is Restaurante Mama Inéz, named after a famous folk song (“Ay mamá Inéz, ay mamá Inéz, todos los negros tomamos café“). It’s one of the best of this new breed.
Located in the heart of restored Habana Vieja, the décor is homey, like an old-fashioned Italian trattoria, and the menu is classic, with dishes that would make any Cuban mama proud. Chef Erasmo meticulously prepares an artisanal version of arroz con pollo, the iconic Cuban dish. It’s made to order and served in a ceramic cazuela. Like a good risotto, the rice is al dente, little chunks of boned chicken are tender and the sauce fragrant, well balanced and made more complex by the addition of tomatoes, white wine, beer, green pepper, garlic and achiote (annatto). This is home-style cooking at its best; no corners are cut.
Another popular spot near the cathedral, Doña Eutimia, serves Cuban food, traditional albeit gussied up. The menu includes many well-known classics, such as ropa vieja and picadillo. The mariscada del chef, sautéed seafood served in a lobster shell, is somewhat reminiscent of a New Orleans-style étouffée. This is Caribbean cooking at its best.
Nao, which recently opened in Habana Vieja, is yet another venue for highfalutin Cuban cuisine. Its food is unpretentious and doesn’t turn its back on tradition. According to the chef, dishes are similar to those that would have been prepared during the colonial era in which a profound mix of African, Spanish and French influence can be detected. Case in point is deep-fried whole pargo, a meaty fish, whose crust is fragrant with cumin and garlic. Or the stuffed tostones, fried mashed plantain “boats” with four different fillings, both surf and turf, which are imaginative and modern but steeped in tradition: after all, tostones accompany almost every meal in every table in Cuba.
This is not to say that everything is smooth sailing. Like everyone else on the island, a restaurateur’s life is not easy. Shortages of taken-for-granted goods as tomatoes and onions are commonplace, sudden blackouts frequent. But, in keeping with the positive spirit of the people, these handicaps are overcome. And it mustn’t be forgotten that in Cuba the majority will never enter this kind of restaurant and will barely scrape by on beans and rice. So it’s a small miracle that this gastronomic revival, supported by visitors and the privileged few nationals who can afford the price of admission, is taking place.
I will now return on one of my frequent sojourns with light-headed gustatory expectation. I know I won’t be let down.
Top photo: Stuffed plátanos (plantains) at Nao. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
The transformation of Mexico City’s historic center from abandoned and tawdry into an exciting nighttime glamor spot is astounding. New bars clubs and restaurant have opened right and left, beckoning upscale revelers who until now have seen this, the oldest part of the city, as dangerous and unattractive.
Limosneros, a new restaurant, is emblematic of the change. It’s located in a colonial building near the site of the original Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán.
MEXICO CITY LINKS
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The creative force behind the place is handsome Juan Pablo Ballesteros, great-grandson of the founders of Café Tacuba, a venerable 100-year-old institution just around the corner.
Proudly knowledgeable about every aspect of Mexican food and drink, Ballesteros is enthusiastic and ready to expound. His bar is his pride and joy, and in keeping with current trends serves only Mexican products.
Ballesteros insists that wine pairs well with Mexican, a cuisine famous for being spicy. He elaborates: “You have to separate the idea of spicy from picante or hot. Yes, a lot of our dishes are made with complex spice mixtures, but few are truly hot. We leave that to the salsas, which are served on the side. So robust or fruity wines go with these dishes.”
While Mexican wines are little known outside national borders, fine vintages are being produced in Baja California and Querétaro. “We’re correcting the mistakes we used to make with wine,” Ballesteros explains. “If you look at the history, wine came with the Spaniards. In fact, Cortés ordered a quota of vines to be planted and the first vineyard, Casa Madero, was set up in 1579. But later, Spain forbade the production of wine for all but religious purposes so it wasn’t until the 20th century that vineyards started to reappear. Ten years ago there were only a few and most were producing low quality wine. Now there are over 60. People here are beginning to appreciate wine and to buy national wines — they’re supporting our own products.”
Famous Mexican beer ‘mediocre’
While Mexican beer is known around the world, little, according to Ballesteros, is any good.
“They make a mediocre product,” he laments. ”They add starches from things like beans and rice to give it body. It’s nice to drink, goes down easy, like water. But not well-made like European beer. For example, it has to be very cold to taste good. So I found a craft beer maker here, met with him. Together we developed new products that’re not generic. You can add flavorings to beers, but it’s a sin to have a good beer then just pour some mango on it — it has to be done during the process. So we base our beers on European models and add flavorings that make them special, local.”
Mezcal, not tequila, is the ticket
And, finally, there’s the libation most associated with Mexico: tequila. But at Limosneros, tequila is eschewed in favor of mezcal.
Ballesteros explains that tequila is actually a kind of mezcal. While there are 55 types of agave — the cactus mezcal is brewed from — tequila only uses one, agave azul. The first tequila producer in the 19th century was José Cuervo. Their plant was called Fábrica de Mezcal Tequila, then it was shortened to just tequila. They sold it all around the country and it became popular, emblematic of Mexico — good marketing.
Until recently mezcal was thought of as a rotgut tourist souvenir, a bottle with a worm in it.
Ballesteros insists that most mezcal drunk in small towns has always been a superior product. “Normal mezcal is refined, it’s great! Mezcal has existed for a long time, since colonial times. Today, many mezcals are produced by small distilleries, often in the hands of families. These guys learned from their fathers and grandfathers. They’re incredible artisans. You should see them at work! They’re like old-fashioned wine or cheesemakers in Europe.”
There’s a boom going on now in Mexico: local corn, national drinks, pulque, mezcal are celebrated. Ballesteros is part of the new generation that no longer carries a chip on their shoulders about being Mexican. “We have a word here, malinchista,” he says. “It means someone who thinks non-Mexican things are inherently better. But new generations are finally letting go of that. In a culinary sense, the Slow Food movement has made us realize it’s good to be local. So we’re taking back our country.”
Top photo composite:
Juan Pablo Ballesteros, next to Conchas from Limosneros restaurant in Mexico City. Credits: Peter Norman
Entering by foot through the main gate, the aura here is clean, fresh, like the docks of a Spanish port. But the sea is hundreds of miles away, and airplanes buzz overhead in this flat, nondescript part of the megalopolis that is Mexico’s capital. This is one of the biggest fish markets in the world, larger than Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji, and it satisfies the oceanic cravings of all of central Mexico. It’s the Mercado de la Nueva Viga, Mexico City’s central wholesale/retail fish market.
The interminably long parallel aisles, at least 10 of them, present about 150,000 tons a year of the fish and seafood, proffered by small vendors whose wares lie in a seemingly disorderly array of size and type.
MEXICO'S LARGEST FISH MARKET
Central de Pescados y Mariscos la Nueva Viga
Location: Prol. Eje 6 Sur No. 560 Piso 1, San José Aculco, Iztapalapa Mexico City
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Noble silvery blue tuna come in all sizes and lie neatly stacked. Next to them are gigantic glowing warm red snappers, the king of Mexican fish, from little gold-striped jewel-sized ones that can fit in the palm of a child’s hand to enormous mammas the size of a seal. Silver mackerel, here called sierra, are long and fat: Their black eyes, which appear to stare in a fixed, knowing gaze, are crystal clear as if they just jumped out of the sea. And then there are squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish. The purplish calamari comes from cold waters afar; it’s been thawed, but smells clean and fresh. Mounds of deep magenta octopi have been boiled and are waiting to be sliced into ceviche de pulpo by the vendor. For those who want to take them on, slimy, grey blue fresh pulpos — all eight legs attached — are available as well.
The hazy morning rays of sun enhance the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh. That light highlights the silvery glitter of the smaller ones’ skins, in varying shades of cool metallic blues. Long narrow cintilla are an astonishingly brilliant chrome, as shiny as the bumper of a restored ’57 Chevy. There are trout, fresh and from the sea; besugo; bonito; ferocious sharks called cazón; and innocuous whitebait named charal. Sting ray are splayed out, their dangerous tails now stilled. Velvety gray pámpano tempt almost as much as the lenguado (aka sole) whose skin is luminescent like a natural pearl.
The aisles become congested with shoppers and vendors. A portly, besmocked porter beseeches the crowd to part so he can wheel his barrow of gigantic whiskered catfish. Another swarthy monger, bare arms muscled and tattooed, holds up a fat 10-kilo (22-pound) extraviado (a type of bass), whose scales glimmer like a set of polished medieval armor.
The eye passes more rapidly over the heaps of severed fish heads with melancholy deep eyes — good for broth. There are low-cost oysters, barrels, sacks and piles of them, big ones and small. They can be shucked on request. Unattractive dirty grey clams, ostensibly for soup, and beautiful rust-colored large ones, called chocolates, for ceviche. Giant white Pismo clams, rare in these parts, weigh upward of a pound, and should be eaten raw, or as a simple ceviche. Blue-black mussels come in neat mesh bags. Live crabs, also scarce, are sold by one proud purveyor. Almost anything that swims in the sea can be found at the Viga, although the best is fresh and comes from the warm waters of the Caribbean or the cooler Pacific.
Seafood empanadas near Mexico’s biggest fish market
Around the corner and along the sides, dozens of merchants prepare seafood empanadas to eat here or take away. They roll out dough, fill it with crab, fish, octopus or shrimp and deep-fry to a flaky golden crisp. Bought by the dozen by hungry shoppers and sellers alike, they can be eaten at the stand: the warm pastry is pried open and filled with avocado and salsa, cream or mayo for those who need.
Meanwhile, in a large open area, workers will patiently and expertly clean, carve and fillet anything for a small gratuity. The slam of cleavers on block, the whoosh of scales being stripped and the murmur of instructions being offered are set to a background of old-fashioned Cuban son emanating from someone’s transistor radio. This is a serious place; nobody has time to fool around or loiter. But proud vendors will pose jauntily with a marlin, offer a taste of smoked sierra, pull some flash-frozen sardines out of the cooler to show them off.
At mid-morning closing time, unsold fish are tossed into ice-filled bins and trucks, buckets of water are emptied onto floors and swept off with large wide brooms, trails of ruby fish blood running off in every direction. The tables, stands, counters and tubs are cleaned and refreshed for this never-ending bounty, always and forever to be replenished.
Top photo: The assortment is endless at Mexico City’s la Nueva Viga fish market. Credit: Nicholas Gilman