The wonders of Mexican ice cream

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So far, the food I’ve eaten has been very good in a way that is deeply satisfying. The polite way to say, “I’m full” is “Estoy satisfecho,” which seems particularly appropriate when it is literally true. But nothing was new or revelatory until I ate at “Nieves Chanito” in Mercado Juarez on Tuesday.

After looking longingly at the meat market in Mercado 20 de noviembre, I almost didn’t believe it when our cooking class actually stopped to eat at a stall proclaiming, “Nieves Chanito.” I didn’t even know what “nieve” meant; after all, wasn’t “helado” ice cream? Luckily, I didn’t have to wonder much longer.

The list of flavors in foreign countries is always so exciting: the thrill of ordering a completely unknown flavor. According to Soledad, our teacher, the most “tipico” flavors of Oaxaca are “tuna” (cactus fruit) and “leche quemada” (burnt milk). Since I’d never tried either, it was an easy choice.

“Nieve,” it turned out, isn’t ice cream, but more like a creamy sorbet. And “tuna,” it turned out, means “delicious.” We had just seen a ripe cactus fruit in the market, which you eat by tearing a little hole at one end and squeezing out the soft, pulpy red fruit inside. The tuna nieve looked exactly like the fruit and tasted just as fresh, perfectly balanced between fruity and sweet. It was nothing like the toxic orange sorbets I hated as a child at Baskin-Robbins, and somehow nothing like the artisanal sorbets at Il Laboratorio del Gelato either. I don’t think it was just that it was served in a plastic dixie cup, though I did love the artlessness with which it was all-natural and probably organic.

“Leche quemada” on the other hand, turned out to be an even more unique flavor. I don’t understand how they got the flavor of burnt milk into a creamy white sorbet, but they did. When I told my family what flavor I ate (everyday, I report to them what I ate), they all said, “Que rico!” I’m not sure I would agree. It’s definitely an acquired taste, the kind of taste that just doesn’t exist for an American palate, not even this well-traveled, well-eaten Korean American one. It didn’t taste bad, but I ate all of it more out of curiosity than love. With each bite, I thought, “I don’t get it,” and would eat another spoonful to see if I could.

So much to hear, eat, and taste.

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