Archive for the ‘Chocolate’ Category

Churros y chocolate

July 31, 2007

People are so kind. I’ve met so many warm Mexicans since I got here—Soledad my cooking teacher at ICO, Hector the architect professor at the Museo de Anthropologia who invited me to tour the city with the Pratt professors he was showing around, Eduardo our guide in the mountains of the Sierra Norte in Ixtlan de Juarez—but one of my favorite memories will always involve the waitress at the Churreria “El Moro” who wanted to make sure that we knew what kind of hot chocolate we were ordering.

“El Moro” at Eje Central Lázaro Cardenas 4 in the Centro Historico is open 24 hours, so that you can satisfy your churros and chocolate craving any time of day. Open since 1935, it has a sense of worn, well-loved history, from the faded old-school menus to the stained glass window and old Mexican tiles to the baby-blue diner uniforms the waitresses wear. The menu consists of churros, slim tubes of fried dough dusted in sugar, and hot chocolate or coffee, nothing more, nothing less.

Erin and I are never perturbed by not knowing what something is, and we blithely ordered one “espanol y 4 churros” and one “frances y 4 churros.” Five minutes later, the waitress came back, anxious.

“Do you know the espanol is very sweet?”

“Uh, no. How sweet are the others?”

“Especial is a little bitter, espanol is very sweet, frances is sweeter and mexicano is normal sweet.”

“Especial is a little bitter?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll have the ‘especial,’ please.”

She smiled, glad that we understood.

Later, we realized “espanol” must be the Spanish style of very thick, almost sludgy hot chocolate, which can be very good, but I was happy with my “especial” which was made of strong, delicious bittersweet chocolate, especially since I’ve been craving
dark chocolate since I got here. Bracing and fortifying, it almost made me forget that I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.

The churros, sadly, weren’t on par with the hot chocolate, since they were too greasy. But I did love seeing them piled up in giant coils in the window, next to an equally giant pan of sugar. And at least we had been guided towards impressive chocolate!

Advertisements

Neuroticos Anonimos always feel better when they eat good food

July 7, 2007

I thought I was going to Ocotlán to check out their Friday market. I didn’t know I was going to find the solace I had been searching for.

The market was sprawling, but with arms radiating out rather than the dense block upon block at Mercado Abastos. Each arm was clearly dedicated to specific items—leather belts or fresh produce or random plastic items. My favorite was the turkey gauntlet, where people formed two long lines while holding their very placid turkeys under their arms. It felt almost stately, like a very dignified beauty pageant. I couldn’t quite tell who was buying and who was displaying, as everyone just stood there with his or her bird(s). I really wanted to take a picture, but I know most people don’t like to have their pictures taken, and I generally don’t ask unless I buy something. This was definitely something I could not take home.

I was there early enough to see the nieve, or sorbet, sellers making their ice cream. They place one bucket inside another bucket of ice and presumably salt, and they just keep turning the inner bucket to churn it to the right consistency. None of it was ready for me to eat, hence, no picture of this either.

But I did feel entitled to take pictures of everything I bought and consumed. I started with a breakfast of enfrijoladas, which are like entomatadas but in bean sauce, rather than tomatoes. It honestly tastes better than you would think. I washed it all down with a nice cup of chocolate con agua, which came with a soft bun with crumbly, sugary top and a hard little pretzel-shaped biscuit. I’ve realized that nearly all the bread in Oaxaca improves vastly when it’s dunked into some hot chocolate. Hot morning drinks, for some reason, always taste better in a bowl than a mug. I think it’s the particularly warm feeling you get when your fingers and palms are wrapped around the smooth curves of a bowl.

I then found a couple of benches full of families eating something I’d never seen before. The women ladled out bowls of dark red soup in the back, while the senora out front chopped at a soft, quivering mass of steamed meat. Chopped hot peppers, onions, cilantro and salsa were on every table, and every few minutes, a woman would walk by offering “blandas,” tortillas that are softer and tastier than their name implies. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but when I sat down and a blanda seller approached me, a young woman at the next table gave a quick, almost imperceptible smile and nod, so I bought two. It was sort of “build-your-own-picnic,” as her family had also bought some avocados and other garnishes to add to their meal.

The soup turned out to be full of potatoes, carrots, and green beans, as well as several different kinds of unidentifiable organ meat. This thing that looks like a bit of felt is flesh—I know, I ate it.

But even I had my limits. I looked at something that looked like liver, but a tiny bite revealed it definitely was not liver. There was something else that had gelatinous folds, a whole system of mountains and valleys in a bit of meat. I decided not to eat that either.

According to Lety, my Spanish teacher, I ate menudo. Hooray! I’d always wanted to eat menudo.

I bought some albahaca, or basil, since I keep thinking I’m going to make spaghetti with tomato sauce, though it looks and smells distinctly more like Thai basil than sweet basil. I watched several goats go by, bleating wildly. Perhaps they knew something the turkeys didn’t.

My heart never leaps at the thought of touring a church, but I was actually moved when I stopped at the church that had been restored with the help of Rodolfo Morales, the local boy who became a great artist. My pictures don’t capture how fresh and light it looks, or how lovely the ceilings are with their serpentine gilt vines. It was, however, slightly alarming to see mannequins dressed in cheap satin, representing Christ or saints, encased in glass. Catholicism seems sort of blithely unselfconscious about its morbidity.

And then I went to the Casa of the artist himself, which is quite a funny little place. It’s just off the main square in Ocotlan, and when I walked into the arched entryway, there was a young, bearded, artsy-looking guy just sitting on a bench. The gate was closed, but he assured me it was open, and when I approached the gate, a woman appeared with a young boy. They welcomed me in, the woman telling me I could leave my shopping bag on a bench, and the boy wordlessly leading me up the stairs to the second floor with its exhibition hall.

The exhibit showcased the collages Morales had been making near the end of his life, with ribbon, antique images, lace, even faces I recognized as having been cut-out of Benetton ads. The exhibition hall was right next to what used to be his studio, complete with rolls of ribbon.

When I wandered back downstairs, I began to realize what a strange house I was in. He only died in 2001, and you could peer into his bedroom, his kitchen, and his dining room, presumably preserved as he’d left it. On a shelf by the staircase, you could see 30 or so empty perfume bottles, just sitting there like the tchotckes of any older person. But it also became clear that his family was still living in the house day to day.

A senora, older than the woman who’d let me in, was in the gorgeous kitchen when I came in, and she began showing me around, telling me how this horse sculpture made of wood was very old, or how that baby doll in a glass case was very old. The china cabinet was filled with crystal, but it also held a plastic thermos and one antique cup with Japanese faces that the senora had hoped I could identify. As we were talking, we heard a wail come across the courtyard, rising above the birds in their cages. Suddenly, a girl with long curly hair appeared, carrying a smaller little girl who was crying. She stopped crying when she saw me, but she started again after the older girl took her into their bedroom. When I asked where the bathroom was, the senora thought for a bit, and then kindly let me use the family bathroom. As I left, the senora told me that the lady of the house had gone to the market for bread and sodas, so I was very welcome to come back and have a snack with them.

When I left the house, the bearded boy was still there and he asked me what I liked the best. “Oh, the kitchen!” I said.

But before I went back to Oaxaca, I had to eat one last thing: a molote. I hadn’t seen these before, these little torpedo-shaped fried dumplings filled with potato and chorizo. As always, I felt slightly sheepish ordering “un molote,” but the lady was so nice. She asked me with the warmest smile, “Te gusta?”, knowing the answer already. It’s in these moments that I’m glad to be a particularly freaky foreigner—an Asian AND a woman traveling alone. The novelty of seeing me eat and enjoy their food seems to make up for the fact that I can only buy 2 blandas or one molote. When I got back to Oaxaca, I found out from Lety that molotes aren’t easy to find, as they’re usually the kind of food sold in driveways of private houses on Sunday mornings. If only I’d known, I would have bought a bagful.

But perhaps as much as my memories of the food I ate and the art I saw, I think I will treasure the brochure I found at the church for “Neuróticos Anónimos.” According to the brochure, “Neurosis” is “caused by a person’s innate egoism that keeps him from having the ability to love.” It advises the reader to read and answer the quiz in the calmest possible manner, with the most honesty possible. The questions include, among many, “Do you believe the whole world is watching you?” “Do you lie without necessity?” “Do you do things that you consider stupid?” “Do you live disgusted with the entire world?”

So in Ocotlán, I ate several things I’d never eaten before, saw an artist’s home, and learned that I’m not as neurotic as I think I am.

Hot chocolate like I’ve never had it before

June 5, 2007

Oaxaca is famous for its hot chocolate, even though there are no cacao trees here. They are all in Tabasco or Chiapas, two words which have very strong and non-chocolate connotations for Americans. But Oaxaca is where chocolate is made, where it’s mixed into sweet drinks and savory sauces.

Mexican hot chocolate is one of the few things I’d tried before coming to Oaxaca. I’d first gone ga-ga over the hot chocolate at the Guelaguetza restaurants in LA, and bought a big bag at $15 a pop which I slowly worked through during a cold New York winter. Living far from LA, I’d tried switching to Ibarra, the brand that’s widely available in U.S. supermarkets, but something about its flavor had jarred me, too different from my memories. But I’d felt lucky to already have my very mollina, the special Oaxacan kitchen utensil for mixing and frothing hot chocolate, gifted to me by Lina last winter.

So when our cooking teacher told us “chocolate con agua” would be our first class, I wasn’t thrilled. When we were going to start cooking?

Our first day of class, in addition to visiting the markets downtown, we stopped at Chocolate Mayordomo, a store run by one of the biggest chocolate brands in Mexico. It was set up to look like a factory, and they had big machines that were churning out chocolate, or mixing chocolate with sugar and nuts, and a long factory runway of rolling tubes, but it seemed more like a show for tourists than an actual mill. At one end were boxes of chocolate from the floor to the ceiling, all for sale, and at the other end was a little “chocolate bar,” where cold chocolate was for sale. They brought out samples to try and little dixie cups of cold chocolate, which made me instantly suspicious. Had we been brought here with the expectation we would buy souvenirs?

By Tuesday, when our cooking was supposed to start in earnest, I wasn’t expecting much. Why would we need two hours to learn how to make hot chocolate, something I’d made on my stove so many times?

Stupid know-it-all me. When I got there, Soledad, our teacher, instantly put me and the others to work sorting and cleaning the beans and dried corn kernels. They were going to soak and simmer on the stove for use the next day. She added lime to the corn, which she said was necessary for tortillas and tamales. We were going to make tortillas and tamales? Clearly, this woman believed in making food from scratch.

She also began passing out recipes for “champurrado,” described in parentheses as “atole de maiz mezclado con chocolate,” one of those parentheticals that provides little clarification. It’s easier to describe how it’s made than what it is. I’d tried “atole” before, but not “champurrado,” a very traditional drink for weddings and other celebrations.

We began with dried corn kernels that Soledad had already boiled for about 30 minutes. These corn kernels were big, fat, and more white than yellow. When they had cooled, she poured the corn with the water into a blender, adding more water when necessary. She asked two students to stretch a cheesecloth between them, and then push and strain the pureed corn liquid through, leaving a bucket of milky white liquid and a big ball of corn mush.

The atole went back on the stove, along with a big bar of Mayordomo chocolate. More cooking, and all for a drink. While that was boiling, Soledad began preparing “chocolate con agua.” Oaxaquenos, she explained, make hot chocolate with water, not milk.

Water, not milk! Suddenly, I realized I didn’t know at all what she was talking about. I’d never had “chocolate con agua,” only “chocolate con leche.”

Soledad put the traditional one-handled chocolate pitcher straight on the stovetop and got the water boiling. She then added two big bars of chocolate and started mixing and pushing at the chocolate chunks with the mollino. This one was smooth and dark from years of use, not like my pristine blond one. She began rolling the mollino between her hands, and all of us took a turn, frothing up the chocolate before pouring ourselves a cup.

To be honest, my fat-loving heart had been dubious about the Oaxacan style of hot chocolate. Could it be tan rico con agua? Could it be as meltingly rich as the Mexican hot chocolate I’d made at home?

It was better. It was sweet but strong and straight, like a cup of great coffee. It wasn’t just the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate. It was bracing, maybe even fortifying. We dipped pieces of “pan de yema,” an eggy challah-like bread, into our chocolate. It was better than any coffee and donuts I’d ever had.

The class wasn’t even over. We still had the champurrado to drink. “Atole” is another flavor that I think doesn’t fit into an American’s lexicon of flavors. It’s nutty, corny, almost a little gritty. It reminded me a little of the nutty Korean powdered drink my mother had fed me through hot summers. It was almost as good as the chocolate con agua.