Imagine being in México in September when the biggest fiesta of the year comes along and you can’t go out, you can’t get together with throngs of happy strangers and no, you can’t have a drink either. All this, courtesy of our current global pandemic, is what we are faced with in 2020. How can anyone possibly celebrate under these conditions and amidst the constant barrage of bad news flung at us by a breathless media: social, mainstream, and fake?
Well, Mexicans are uniquely capable of enjoying themselves even during the worst of times. And, of course we can celebrate with food; after all, we have to eat! September in México means enjoying some classic culinary treats that are definitely worth breaking your diet for. Many you can prepare at home (recipes abound online) or you can order them from the many restaurants and kitchens now offering extensive home delivery menus. If you can, please support local restaurants.
Keep in mind that “el Quince” is a Mexican celebration and Yucatán has always maintained a respectful (some would say disdainful) distance from the rest of the republic and so, all of these dishes hail from central México. There isn’t really a typical Yucatecan dish served especially for the September holidays.
Chiles en Nogada: Poblano Peppers, Picadillo, Pomegranates
The first item that comes to mind is an absolutely classic revolutionary dish. I’m talking about Chiles en Nogada, of course. The chiles are poblanos and Nogada is a white walnut-based cream. “Picadillo” does not refer to a minor sin, but rather the stuffing, made with ground meat and bits of candied fruit, like pears, apples, and peaches. Pomegranate seeds are sprinkled on top of the chile and complete the look. With its red, white, and green elements, the dish features the colors of the Mexican flag and was created on the occasion of the arrival of the dubiously crowned emperor (there is some dispute as to whether he was “elected” or if appointed himself to the position) Agustin de Iturbide in Puebla. As in every case of a famous recipe, there is a dispute as to its origins. Some say it was first made by Clarisian nuns, while others affirm that it was the Augustinians. Something to argue about! To this day, the citizens of that city and state – both called Puebla – are very proud of their contribution to México’s gastronomy, independently of who came up with the idea.
Be aware that whether you’re feeling commercial and buy them at Costco (yes, Costco) or dine on them in-style at Hacienda Xcanatún, they are to be served at room temperature. Puebla is cool, Mérida less so, so your idea of “room temperature” may vary. Many Mérida restaurants will feature this item as a seasonal specialty during the month of September.
It seems strange that the first two dishes I write about, are not only the most popular but also both start with the letter P. As does the word popular. Interesting.
Unlike the stuffed poblanos mentioned above, Pozole can be and is enjoyed year-round, even in Mérida. But it is definitely one of those typical (hate that word) dishes that pops up at any self-respecting Mexican celebration: think Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. and 15 de Septiembre in México.
A well-made red Pozole (there is also a green version, but my favorite is red) is a beautiful thing – a soup, if you will – that features plenty of white hominy and tender chunks of pork bobbing around in a very spicy and flavorful broth. This dish will surely revive you after a night of celebrating, no matter if it was at home, just you and your cat staring at you as you watched a Cantinflas or Maria Félix movie, or with your fellow shut-ins (i.e. family). Obligatory garnishes include chopped radish, onion, and lettuce as well as oregano and additional chile powder if you require more fire to make your eyes water and/or release those happiness endorphins.
Again, not a Yucatecan dish per se, but the many people from Jalisco and Michoacán who have moved here have provided us with plenty of options to find a great Pozole. Habanero’s, a great choice for both Yucatecan and Mexican dishes for example, has it. El Cazito de Michoacán, much more casual, is another favorite.
Mole (MOH-lay) which rhymes with the Spanish expression “Olé!” (and it’s not oh-LAY by the way) is a darkly rich sauce usually cooked with or served over chicken or pork. Many kinds of mole exist, and like humans, they are infinitely complex and come in all shades (except, interestingly, white). There are black or brown moles, walnut or pecan moles, with chocolate, with bananas, with three chiles, or with six. Traditionally originating in the cool mountains and chaotically colorful markets of Puebla and Oaxaca; Moles are, again, not classically a Yucatecan thing.
Mole requires about a thousand ingredients if you make it from scratch. Each Mexican chef, household, or restaurant will have their own variation: some sweeter, some more chocolatey, some more nutty, and some more spicy. In Oaxaca one famous version is called Manchamanteles which means tablecloth stainer, also a name for an unruly dwarf in the Lord of the Rings.
If you don’t feel like having a Portland tear-gas moment in your kitchen (toasting those chiles will make you cough and weep), you can buy pre-prepared mole pastes in supermarkets. These run the gamut from super-cheap and not particularly great (Doña Maria), to somewhat more expensive and very good (La Mestiza). They are diluted by stirring in water or chicken stock and then served over chicken or pork. Before COVID, there was a small shop with foods – including some great Mole paste – along with other Oaxacan products in the tiny shopping center attached to the Chedraui Selecto supermarket near the Siglo XXI convention center. Post-COVID, I have tackled Mole preparation at home and have come up with a satisfying version that I subject my family to for days on end.
Mole is one of my personal favorite dishes, and when I find (or make) a good one I inevitably overeat, so it’s always good to have some anti-acid meds like Tums or Omeprazol on hand.
But There’s Always Room for More
The foods I have mentioned are the big three. Any list of “must-eat” September celebratory foods will have, in addition to those, a few more items that are entirely subjective and depend completely on the tastes of whoever is writing the article. Some will mention Tacos al Pastor, which is indeed very Mexican albeit somewhat Lebanese, but you could eat those all year and many of us happily do just that. Others mention Pambazo, which is a special kind of large bun, fried (be still my heart, of course it’s fried) in a chile sauce and stuffed with cholesterol-elevating potato and chorizo. Nothing a few shots of tequila can’t handle.
Tamales are another popular choice for celebrating in México. Whether it’s a birthday, a baptism, a celebration after a soccer match, or – why not? – a commemoration of independence, someone with a giant pot of Tamales will eventually appear. Steamed or baked, savory or sweet, stuffed with chicken, pork, Mole, and in 2020 with vegan options. They are wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and are accompanied by a picante tomato salsa. Tamales are almost bite-sized and one can easily devour several in one sitting, although they are usually consumed standing up.
And what about dessert? So glad you asked. As you may or may not know, México has a sweet tooth so there is plenty of Dulce to go around. You could go to the supermarket and pick up a selection of candies and nuts, many cheerfully and unnaturally featuring red, white, and green coloring. There are a gazillion options so find something you like and go with that. If you want something homemade, you could look up recipes and make some yourself!
Mazapán de Cacahuate, or peanut marzipan, is easy to make and traditional to the point of cliché-dom. You will see it in the store, but homemade doesn’t look that difficult and it could be a fun project during this shut-in time. Grind up some peanuts, add some icing sugar…a few more items and you’re done.
Cajeta, limes stuffed with sweet coconut, crunchy peanut Palanquetas, or even Alegrías de Amaranto – all these can be made at home and are all very traditional to help you add a touch of sweetness to your September holiday celebrations.
México is blessed with a sophisticated and diverse gastronomy and this comes to life even more in September, when patriotic themes abound and flag waving is not considered corny. We are privileged to live here and be able to participate in the culinary revelry. Buen provecho!
Source for Mexican sweets recipes here.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Cover photograph by Dennis Schrader.
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