Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Part 2: Preserving the Mexican Identity Through Prehispanic Cuisine

Adriana Legaspi is dedicating her life to the preservation of Mexican culture and identity by promoting the importance of traditional ingredients and dishes.  She runs the Gastrotour of Malinalco which offers participants hands-on cooking classes and tours of the market in Malinalco to buy organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

What follows is the second part of our interview with Adriana Legaspi.

How have processed foods affected the average diet in Mexico?

Unfortunately, the diet of the average Mexican has reached an extreme point. In fact, the problem of infantile obesity is particularly egregious; we hold the dubious title of  the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world. Fats in fried food are added to our main carbohydrate, corn. The fats add flavor to tacos, quesadillas, tlacoyos, memelas, sopes, etc. but also tons of calories to the daily diet of thousands of office workers and blue collar workers who eat out everyday.
Despite the provenance of a precolumbian diet where animal fats were practically non-existent, (as were refined sugars other than fructose and honey from bees or ants,) we cannot conceive nowadays of a life without our daily ice cream, candies of all types, sweetened cereals, commercial foods, dairy products laden with salt and other chemicals to preserve them. And the worst of it is the ubiquity of junk food and the deplorable fast-food companies that arrived in Mexico 20 years ago and have made a killing far beyond their wildest expectations. Adding to this situation is the decrease in physical activity of the average Mexican, whether it be the rural person who has come to the city or the office worker, neither of whom has the opportunity to walk or exercise.

Traditional food, on the other hand, has ritual meaning and a built-in societal code of reciprocity such as communal cooking on saints' days or for weddings. Today, all of that has been lost. Mole, for example, is eaten not just for festive occasions, but rather anytime and everywhere. In the past, food like this, as well as all manner of desserts, was reserved for important events.

During colonization, the local tradition of corn gave birth to dishes like the guajolota, which is nothing more than a gastronomic aberration. It is a corn tamal inserted into a wheat bread roll, accompanied by corn porridge.  Millions of Mexicans eat guajolota for breakfast.

The precolumbian diet was healthier than today's and the public health problem we're facing is undeniable. Schools and universities are doing their part to control the availability of junk food but the all-powerful interests of transnational corporations are difficult to reign in. Mexico is the number one per capita consumer of soft drinks in the world, over and above the consumption of the United States, despite our genetic propensity for diabetes. Health care and the cost of treating chronic disease arising from this lifestyle and diet will bankrupt us if something radical is not done soon.

If you could have an impact in what people eat in Mexico today, what would it be?

Simply that people should reconsider the native crops and integrate them into their diets in the manner of the native pre-colombian peoples: a preponderance of vegetables or food derived from vegetables, greatly reduced in protein derived from animals, the use of steam, oven, and comal as cooking strategies to eliminate fats and sugars.

What region of Mexico appeals to you most as a chef/cook and scholar?

In the mesoamerican way of thinking, life was one unit integrated with the sky, the underworld, life among the living and among the dead, nature, the seasons, the earth, biology, and our spiritual life. When you know this, you also know that all wealth and interest varies according to where you are.

To go to Oaxaca or Michoacan where the local ethnic groups are so present and their cuisine is so varied and colorful is an indispensable condition for anyone who, like myself, is devoted to this subject. But it's no less important to visit what was once known as Árido América (the desert states of the northern part of the country) where the pitahaya cactus blooms in flaming colors only after a rain, and in the same state of Hidalgo, in the Valle del Mezquital, seat of the Otomí tribe, you will find a magnificent variety of local resources related to the maguey, to insects, small animals, and cactus flowers.

Regarding the more personal, I cannot help but mention Malinalco, where I direct the prehispanic gastrotour and where I teach about this topic. Malinalco is a privileged area, a point of transition of two climates, one being

subtropical and the other  being high montain terrain. It is a microclimate in and of itself, where almost every native crop can grow, such that its market is a reflection of this in the precolombian manner: zapotes, mameys, calabaza flowers, chayotes, papaya, pineapples, nances, capulines, tejocotes, guava, quelites, wild mushrooms, cacahuacintle corn, cactus dressed for cooking, zompantle flowers, and so many more things that amaze the eyes. Those who participate in the tours tend to focus on photographing the markets more than anything else.

Here is where I hope to spend the rest of my days (although never in retirement) but, rather, having left the city, waiting for you to come and visit me so that we can walk its cobblestone streets, visiting its market and cooking a precolombian meal.

*Photos courtesy of Adriana Legaspi.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rolling Out a New Life with Tortillas de Harina

On a warm spring day of my youth, a bowl and rolling pin marked the beginning of my new life as an independent woman.  I was heading off to college and my mother took me to Woolworth's in Laredo, Texas to make the purchase.  The bowl was a sturdy green ceramic that couldn't have cost more than two dollars and the rolling pin might have cost even less, a far cry from some of the things I crave nowadays from places that sell gourmet cookware.

Through the years and through all my moves, I carried them around with me like a passport, a reminder of who I was and where I came from, until I finally lost track of both the bowl and the palote (rolling pin). But the shopping trip to buy them remains one of the fondest memories I have of my mother.

I imagine it was a bittersweet moment for her; I was her first-born daughter and the first to travel far away to study. She knew I would probably never again live at home, not to mention in the same town. Yet she didn't betray her emotions. I did not understand what she must have felt that day until I became a mother myself.  All these years later, I remember we bought the bowl and palote and celebrated the joy of the moment over a fountain coke at the drugstore counter.

We bought the bowl and the palote to make sure I would have the tools necessary to amasar, to prepare the dough for the daily morning ritual of making the tortillas needed to accompany breakfast. In time, as a busy student and later as a working mother, I would come to abandon the idea of having to make them from scratch.  The fat content in the shortening traditionally used in flour tortillas also became a reason to go without. I began to prefer corn tortillas that I bought at the grocery store. The flour ones became a special treat to look forward to when my mother visited.

Corn tortillas are the norm in most of Mexico. However, in northern Mexico and along the U.S. border, both wheat flour and corn tortillas are eaten; wheat are for breakfast and corn for lunch and dinner.

I've adapted this recipe from my mother's, cutting the quantity for shortening in half and substituting with peanut or canola oil for health considerations. Also, in my house, we didn't stack our flour tortillas.  We liked them flaky, so we separated each one, leaning them against the inside of a basket where they could cool slightly without becoming sweaty or gummy. And we would eat them like that, fresh, warm, and delightfully flaky.
Tortillas de Harina/Flour Tortillas

Author: Gilda V. Carbonaro

Prep time:

Cook time:

Total time:

Serves: 4

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup warm water

  1. In a large bowl mix the salt with the flour.

  2. Add the shortening and oil and mix thoroughly with your hands.

  3. Form a dough by adding the water slowly with one hand as you mix the dough with the other, until a soft dough is formed.

  4. Roll out the tortillas and cook on a warm griddle, turning on both sides.

  5. Place in a basket without stacking them as they come out.

  6. Serve immediately with eggs, beans, etc.