Cacao

Cacao may be Mexico’s greatest gift to the world—forever earning the favor of the human palate with its derivative delicacy, chocolate.

This picky plant prefers a narrow band of just 20 latitude degrees to the north or south of equator. The Maya commercialized the crop more than 2,000 years ago, rising above their ancestors who merely sucked the fatty, white coating off cacao nuts and discarded the inner seed. Rather, the Maya began to dry and toast the seeds for food and to be held as valuable currency. When the Spanish arrived, they knew a good thing when they tasted it. Soon, sugar and milk transformed the traditional products to the chocolate known today around the world. Yet, Mexico’s indigenous cultures still enjoy traditional cacao drinks such as tejate and sauces like mole negro and mole poblano.

Guajes (Huajes)

Guajes has many meanings. Colloquially, Mexicans have a saying, “No te hagas guaje” which means “do not play dumb.” But in Spain, guaje generally means boy. Also, guaje may refer to type of inedible gourd that has been used to make traditional household objects for about 13 thousand years B.C., including the Mexican jícara, a cup for drinking traditional concoctions such as tejate, and taza de mate in South America. But, none of those fun facts are relevant to our discussion.

Instead, we gastro-curious types should focus on the guajes (or huajes) tree that produces a type of legume pods whose nutritious, high protein seeds are used in many Mexican sauces and moles. The green seeds are consumed raw from the pod or they may be placed raw or roasted into sauces or eaten toasted as a snack. You will often encounter guajes with Oaxacan food – fitting since the very name Oaxaca is derived from the Náhuatl word for the guajes tree, uaxin.

Chapulines

Generally, you see chapulin translated as grasshopper in Mexico but in truth, the Nahuatl word chapoli, can apply to all matter of jumpy snacks including grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts. I am not an entomologist, but the little buggers we most often encounter in restaurants look a like crickets and offer a manageably bite-sized crunch.

In pre-Hispanic times most Mexican’s ate a fairly vegetarian diet making insects a valuable source of protein. Although chapulin are now commercially raised and prepared for sale, in the good ole days, children darted about the fields snatching the bouncy bugs from the air. At home, the crickets were left to defecate in a container for a day to remove any trace of pesty poo before they were boiled to a bright red and spread out in the sun to dry. The dried carapaces were then roasted to impart flavors from tasty ingredients like lime, garlic, and chile. Alternately, the shells could be oven baked in a clay pan, known as a corral, with seasonings such as salt and epazote. With great crunch and addictive seasonings, it is possible to believe that chapulines were the earliest bar snack offered up with frothy pulque and mezcal. Today, chapulines are a common accompaniment to guacamole in Southern and Central Mexican restaurants, both in taco stands and fine dining establishments.

What is it like to eat crickets? First, there are no gooey substances within the crispy insect husks. The only catch is that the little barbed legs continue to offer a posthumous hold on the throat if not chewed well. So, while you may be tempted, I advise that you not employ the swallow-them-whole maneuver your first time out.

Carrilleras

Carrilleras is the Spain Spanish term for beef cheeks. In Mexico, the word is cachetes. In either case, this is one of my favorite gifts from the bovine world. In the Basque country, carrilleras are often slow braised in a brothy red wine reduction until the results yield tenderly under modest fork pressure, while in the Americas, cheek provides one of the most succulent options for Mexico’s famed “tacos de cabeza” (head tacos).

Idiazabal

Idiazabal is a traditional, farmhouse, hard cheese made from raw sheep’s milk in the Basque and Navarra regions of northern Spain. The cheese is named after the small village of Idiazabal. The first Idiazabal makers were nomadic shepherds who pastured their flocks in the high mountain pastures of the region. During the summer, the sheep would move up the mountain to graze on the lush, new grass. Their abundant milk was used to make the cheese in mountain huts where the rounds matured in the rafters. The home fires imparted a faint smoky flavor. In the Fall, the shepherds, sheep, and cheeses would all return to the valley villages, in time for the yellow-brown wheels to go to market. Today, the producers of Idiazabal cheese imitate these traditional methods, aging the wheels for at least two months and providing a light smoking with beech or alder wood.

Chintextle

Chintextle is a thick, nourishing paste of pasilla mixe chiles, raw pumpkin seeds, camarón seco (dehydrated shrimp), garlic, and avocado leaves ground with vinegar and olive oil. This highly nutritious, umami-packed paste has been spread on thick corn tortillas to power labor intensive lives for millennia. There are many variations that incorporate regional ingredients such as almonds, black beans, and pecans to further enrich the already intense flavor.

Umami

You will see me reference this term often as it is the essence of all things I consider delicious. Remember the little diagrams of the regions of our tongues mapping out sweet, sour, salty, and bitter detection zones? Umami, a late entrant to the flavor order, appearing about a century ago, covers the entire tongue and corresponds to the flavor of glutamates, the substances that imparts savory or meaty notes to our food—think seared beef, soy sauce, ripe tomato, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and sautéed mushrooms. An example from Mexican cuisine of an umami-rich food is Chintextle, a smoked chili paste from Oaxaca made with dried shrimp, nuts and black beans. The mouthwatering spreadable paste is thick and nourishing. In a word, umami is yum.

Xoconostle

Xoconostle is a nutritious cactus fruit that grows at the end of nopales, or the tear-shaped cactus paddles. The fruit is pear-shaped and about a big as a kiwi fruit. It starts out pale green as turns pink when ripe. Xoconostle, like its prickly pear cousin, is covered in menacing minute spines that will cause invisible discomfort for days after handling the evil buggers. Still the flesh has a smooth, juicy texture and lends a sour flavor to sauces and salsas, as well as the traditional mole sauce and Mole de Olla (beef stew). The fruit can be sprinkled with chile powder and lemon juice and dehydrated for a snack. The juice is also used to make traditional aguas frescas and to flavor pulque.

Panqué de Nata

Around the corner from Mercado San Juan stands the narrow shop front of Panqué de Nata. Their dense breads, rich with nata (a thick clotted cream made by boiling raw milk), are a Mexican must have treat. Neither sandwich material nor ordinary muffin, the bread is made with flour, egg, milk, sugar and vanilla. Regionally, nuts, fruits or citrus juice may be added. The traditional bread also takes on different forms around the city, the most famous being gorditas de nata, hockey puck-like discs that waft an irresistible heavenly aroma at passersby.

Picada (Picadita)

Picadita is a regional name for a sope, a fried corn tortilla, often slightly cupped at the edges to hold salsa, that can be piled with various toppings. The term is commonly used in Central Mexico where simple picadas are popular breakfast fare topped with salsa, cheese, onion, and cream.