Mexican Recipes: Local Identity versus International Ideals.
The association of certain countries with particular foods has been understood as a means by which cultures distinguish themselves from each other (James 1996: 78). The differentiation of cultures by virtue of the foods they consume contributes to stereotypical constructions of the Other and what is considered to be “foreign”. Within a culture, the consideration of particular foods as traditional or authentic reflects an aspect of identity within that society. Culinary preferences may be related to resource availability, religious ideology, rituals, taboos, and used as a means to define local identity more generally (Reference pending - library research needed). With the global movement of products and services across cultures local foods are sometimes adapted to become more desirable within diverse cultural settings. The transformation that foods undergo when they cross into new environments highlights gustatory preferences and differences between the cultures involved. The creolization of diverse recipes to make them more homogenous in character and suitable for global consumption draws attention to the issue of cultural integrity involved with the global diffusion of cultural services and products.
In order to explore the transformation that Mexican food undergoes for export and transnational consumption this chapter begins by looking at some of the most popular dishes that are available in Mexico. Afterwards, these finding will be compared to the way Mexican food is presented and consumed abroad. The role that consumers play in creolizing Mexican dishes to fit in with culinary preferences outside of Mexico will be examined by looking at conceptions of Mexican food in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Speaking with Mexicans about their taste preferences and exploring their ideas about how to make their food appeal to foreigners reveals some of the reasons why local dishes are altered for international consumption. Interviews with people visiting Mexico reveal impressions about Mexican cuisine and provide insight into the way Mexican food is prepared in their home country compared to the way it is made in Mexico. The changes local dishes have undergone for consumption abroad are notable.
This discussion concentrates specifically on food from the state of Yucatan and reveals that each of the 32 Mexican states have distinct culinary preferences and boast different regional dishes. Details about the most popular foods consumed in Merida, the capital city of Yucatan, set the stage for exploring the way Mexican cuisine is experienced by tourists compared to the way it is presented in their home countries. Information gathered during preliminary research in Montreal, Quebec forms the starting point for exploring variation in the way popular items (such as tacos and salsa) are consumed outside of Mexico. Accounts of Mexican food in Montreal weave into the discussion about Yucatec cuisine to draw out some of the more striking differences between the food available in these contexts.
THE STATE OF YUCATAN
The Yucatan region of Mexico is covered with hundreds of agricultural Maya communities whose traditions and culture form a basic structuring principle of cultural life. Citizens living in Merida (population 700 000) are considered Mestiza (feminine) or Mestizo (masculine), a term which denotes the mixture of Spanish and Maya descent. Much of the comida rica (delicious food) one encounters in Merida, and in the rural communities across the Yucatan peninsula, is of Maya origin. Typical meals consist of ground corn (called maize, served in the form of a tortilla or a tamal) beans, chicken, pork, beef or egg cooked with pork lard and prepared with tomato, coriander, onion, garlic, lime and chile (jalepeno pepper). Historically, a process called nixtamal has been used to treat maize so that it becomes enriched with niacin, one of the essential B vitamins which is naturally lacking in maize. Without the addition of white lime during the cooking process of maize it has been assumed that no settled life would have even been possible in Mesoamerica (Coe, 1993: 12). To date, the reliance on maize as a staple of the diet in Yucatan attests to the importance of Maya cooking traditions to sustaining the population.
Even though the Yucatan region is a popular tourist destination Maya cuisine is not well known among foreigners, or outside of Mexico, since the food consumed by local people is not generally made available to visitors. Mexicans cite their use of “mucho condimiento y chile” (lots of seasoning and spice) as the primary reason they do not offer many local dishes to visitors and explain that the use of a good deal of grasa (oil or lard) makes the food difficult for foreigners to digest. Interviews with local families reveal that the ritual of sharing food is a central aspect of family life and considered to be a sacred part of the Yucatec culture. I was told that the reenforcement of family ties through shared food preparation and consumption dates back to antiquity and may have been significant in the maintenance of cultural identity during colonialism and through the Caste Wars of the late 1900s. In some cases people are hesitant to share symbolic recipes that hold familial significance with outsiders who are not accustomed to Yucatec cuisine. There is a great deal of pride and pleasure associated with being the host of a family meal and the event of illness resulting from sharing in the dining experience causes anxiety and disrupts the usual flow of appreciation that characterizes such family gatherings. Therefor it is not until someone has been accepted into a family circle that they are offered to partake in home cooked local meals, and by this time their stomach has often adjusted considerably to the local cuisine. For people not accustomed to eating chile it may be difficult to digest certain foods and of course it is important not to drink the tap water. Due to a bought of cholera about 10 years ago it was realized that the tap water is not potable and people are now encouraged to drink purified water. Middle class homes and most public places have 20 gallon bottles of purified water available for consumption, and trucks roam the streets selling refills for about 2 dollars Canadian. The fact that some Mexican people resent the idea that their food and water will cause illness became clear to me when a tourist guide explained that she had served unpurified water to a group of tourists when they visited her home (unknowingly to them) as an experiment to try to confirm her theory that tourist illness was little more than a psychological condition brought on by fear and negativity. Since Mexicans do not themselves drink tap water this ‘test’ seem rather malicious although foreign ideas about the connection between Mexican food and illness do contrast sharply with the pride surrounding local cuisine so it is not surprising that there exists animosity in some cases.
The idea that foreigners
feel they will gain weight if they eat Mexican food is another reason
local people feel that tourists are not suited to participate in the
Mexican dining experience. People explained that once visitors realize
the food is made with a significant amount of oil, lard, cream, sugar
and spice they deliberately avoid comida regional (regional cuisine,
as it is called in Merida). For example, one informant explained that
vain foreign women refuse to eat Mexican food for fear of gaining weight
even if they enjoy the flavour.
On the other hand, people in Yucatan use the terms gorda or gorditta (fat or fatty) to refer affectionately to friends and family members who are overweight (even if they are only slightly heavy). Apparently it is customary to tease friends affectionately about characteristics with which they may be unsatisfied.
When it comes to food, the widespread preference for American products that characterizes consumer culture in Mexico does not hold. Rather, local people prefer local cuisine. Perhaps in an effort to retain their sense of cultural identity despite the influx of foreign and fast food establishments such as McDonalds, Burber King and Kentucky Fried Chicken people from Yucatan reserve some of their favourite recipes for local consumption.
Some of the most popular dishes in Yucatan include salbutes, panushos, tamales, poc-chuc, papadzules, pollo o cochinita pibil, frijol con puerco and bistec. This list comes as a shock to visitors who have their mind set on burritos (rightly called burritas), enchiladas, quesadillas, guacamole, salsa and hard shell tacos. Although these dishes are available in Yucatan they are prepared differently and are less popular than classic Maya dishes. For example, a Mexican taco is unlike those served in Canadian restaurants, which are made with crispy “u” shaped toasted corn tortillas filled with hamburger meat, fresh tomato, lettuce, cheese with a sweet and spicy red seasoning mixed into the meat. In Merida, the name taco is used more or less generically to refer to anything which is rolled up into a lightly fried soft corn (or flour) tortilla. Most often, beef or chicken is seasoned and then heated with oil and onion, then rolled into a small tortilla after various salsa condiments have been added. Tacos are always served with small bowls of green or red tomato salsa and dark green jalepeno sauce on the side. In their homes people make tacitos (an endearing version of the word taco) by mixing almost anything that is available in the kitchen, and placing it inside a tortilla. A group of people explained that a taco is basically the Mexican version of a sandwich in the United States or Canada. “Los tacos son los sandwiches Mexicanos y las tortas son los tacos que se hacen con pan en vez de tortilla” (Tacos are Mexican sandwiches and sandwiches are tacos made with bread instead of with tortilla). Historically tacos have been sold exclusively at outdoor street stands and eaten standing up at the counter as a type of fast food. In traditional Aztec and Maya communities tacos made from maize (corn) with beans and chile provided a complete source of carbohydrates, vegetable protein, vitamins and minerals. Today tacos are made with anything one would put in a sandwich such as pork, chicken, beef, ham, beans, tuna, eggs, vegetables, chile or even bananas with cream. Most all tacos are seasoned with condimiento (spicy liquid seasoning) and contain meat, with the exception of vegetarian soy tacos which have recently become available in a select few vegetarian restaurants. When purchased at street stands tacos cost about 5 pesos or $1 dollar Canadian each and people usually consume between 5-12 tacos in a sitting. A popular Maya version of the taco is called a papadzule and is filled with scrambled egg and covered with tomato and a creamy pumpkin seed sauce.
Of the Maya dishes available, salbutes and panuchos (pronounced sal-boo-tais and pan-oo-chos) are probably the most popular in peoples homes, in restaurants and as a snack food at parties. Salbutes are made with chicken or beef mixed with onion, chile, lettuce, tomato and a few wedges of avocado served atop a small deep fried corn tortilla (about 3 inches in diameter). Panuchos are the same, but are prepared with a layer of refried beans baked inside the tortilla. Another Maya dish is called pebles, which is a thick soup of ground maize boiled and topped with chicken and a slice of meat loaf made with beef, onion and spices wrapped around boiled egg. Onion marinated in lime, salt and sometimes chile are sprinkled onto the mixture. Poc Chuc is a Maya dish which is a soupy stew made from chicken, pork or beef, chic peas, maize, lettuce, tortilla and garlic.
Cochinita is considered to be the most desirable Yucatec meal. Eaten for breakfast, cochinita is pork marinated in recado rojo (a paste made from annatto seeds and mixed with lime juice, vinegar and salt) and then roasted with oil and served with fried onion on French bread. It is sold at street stands in the early morning (especially on Sundays) and is not generally available otherwise. People laugh heartily at the suggestion of cochinita being available after 11am, especially during the week, since it was traditionally a meal served exclusively on Sundays. Recado rojo is used to season either chicken or pork which are then referred to as pollo pibil or cochinita pibil. Sopa de lima is rich soup made with lime and chicken broth mixed with tostadas and fresh pieces of chicken. Lime is an integral aspect of Yucatec recipes and *there are at least different types of lime available. Aside from adding a zesty flavour to local recipes lime is understood to possess various medicinal properties. Mixed with Coca Cola, it is a trusted remedy for stomach illness and consumed with tequila lime can be used to treat throat infections. On its own lime is sometimes squeezed into open wounds to speed up the healing process (a painful but effective remedy by local accounts).
Most meals (including breakfast) are served with a few small bowls at the centre of the table containing various types of salsa, guacamole or onion marinated in naranja agria - sour orange. The term salsa is used generally to refer to any type of sauce rather than specifically to the tomato, onion, lime, cilantro and chile version of salsa we imagine in Canada. This type of salsa is called salsa casera or salsa Mexicana in hotels and commercial restaurants. Salsa is usually a liquified mixture of green or red tomatoes with onion and chile to varying degrees of spice intensity. Cream sauces made with media crema (a canned Nestle product of condensed milk or cream) are also called salsa and are poured onto many dishes. Pumpkin seed sauce is another type of salsa used in some typical Maya recipes. When food is purchased food from an outdoor street stand salsa is provided to customers in small plastic bags.
Even though the corn tortilla is a staple of the local cuisine fresh bread bakeries in Merida are plentiful. The sweet breads are delicious and rival the flavours available in Quebec or France, but the baguettes lack a crispy chewy crust since they are often made with manteca (pork lard) rather than butter. Similarly, croissants do not always have the flaky buttery quality they do in Europe or in Montreal. Panederias, panificadoras and pastelerias offer delicious french bread, a variety of sweet breads, and the most succulent iced cakes imaginable, called tres leches (three milks). Tres leche cakes look like regular wedding cakes or birthday cakes that have fluffy light filling although tres leches cakes contain a sweet light bread soaked in a subtle milky mixture which melts in your mouth. The plentiful bakeries in Merida (and all over Mexico) are a result of the integration of Spanish culture into Mexico. The baked goods available at panaderias are directly descended from traditional Spanish recipes. For this reason I was told that Mexicans do not consider baked goods to be part of their regional cuisine and construe their international image by exporting classic foods such as corn tortillas, spicy peppers and zesty meat dishes which predate the Spanish conquest. A popular tourist information guide suggests that Yucatec cuisine represents “a mouth watering mixture of European and Mexican flavours”(Yucatan Today, 2002: 29) due to the cultural influences which were received during the late mid 20th century across water channels connecting Yucatan to Europe (especially France) and to New Orleans and Cuba as well. It is interesting to note that more recently imported goods (such as Cheese Whiz, Nestle products, Coca Cola, or hot dogs) are not seen as imposed cultural traits but have instead been creolized and incorporated into local cuisine and culture.
LOCAL CONSTUMPTION NETWORKS
Most typical Maya dishes are not available in commercial restaurants but rather are homemade or purchased through a locally based food production system called cocina economica (economic cuisine). The system of cocina economica involves the sale of meals from private homes at lower than restaurant prices to make prepared food economically accessible to local families. Families who wish to supplement their income prepare extra food when they cook for themselves and sell it to friends and extended family at competitive prices. To request food from a cocina economica household people drop off their empty dishes and pots early in the day to be picked up in the afternoon, filled up with the daily meal. The system relies on networking, wherein one family is paid to cook for a few families, all of whom are associated through family, friends or neighborhood ties. It is difficult for foreigners to take advantage of the system since it is not widely advertized although within the past few years some restaurant style cocina economica venues (extremely casual, with nothing more than a few red plastic tables set up) have posted up signs to make their home cooking available to a wider audience.
Mexican food is one of the more popular items exported from Mexico. Restaurants abroad often try to create a “Mexican ambiance” by hanging colourful textiles on the walls, playing Mexican music and having waitresses or waiters dress in oversized sombrero hats. In Montreal a commercial restaurant called 3 amigos is covered with colourful wall paintings of men on horses among cactuses wearing sombrero hats. Paper place mats display images of a Maya temple, a wooden guitar, painted pottery, a mountain range, cactuses and a bright orange sunny sky. The place mat is framed with a decorative cartoon version of hieroglyphs and a totem pole, which is an indigenous symbol native to Canada rather than from Mexico. A drawing of 3 plump mem with curved mustaches, sombrero hats and clog type shoes represent the 3 Amigos and decorate the front of the menu. The inaccurate use of the Spanish language on restaurant matches and menus suggests that the restaurant caters to customers who have little experience with Mexican culture or cuisine. For example, the slogan no problemo rather than no problema appears on the cover of the matches and on business cards, a typical error made by non-Spanish speakers. Other errors include reference to insaladas rather than ensaladas or to burritos instead of burritas.
LINGUINI, BLUEBERRIES and CREAMY MANGO SAUCE
Some of the curious dishes available on the 3 Amigos menu are a salad called mandarin which contains grilled chicken, spinach, mandarin quarters, blueberries and roasted almonds, flautas described as Mexican egg rolls stuffed with chicken and served with a peach salsa, sour cream and smoked chile sauce, papas or potato skins with melted cheese and a choice of meat served with rice or salad, acapulco pollo made from chicken marinated in a creamy mango sauce with jalepeno pepper, linguini avocado verde (green avocado linguini) which is linguini served with a mixture of vegetables, tomato, cheese, avocado, roasted almonds and lime juice (with a with a choice of chicken or shrimp), or a dish of linguini pasta served with jumbo shrimps in a creamy rose Pernod sauce tossed with sauteed green and red peppers called magnolia shrimps. The name chimchichangas is used to refer to a dish made from tortillas stuffed with spicy meat and topped with a cherry brandy sauce and sour cream - a combination of ingredients which play into a typical Tex Mex understanding of what constitutes Mexican food. The popular imagination of Mexican food as being sweet and spicy originates along the boarders of Mexico and the United states where the fusion of Mexican and American tastes takes place. The absence of sweet sauces in authentic Mexican cuisine was a surprise to many tourists visiting Mexico from the United States. Basically, the creolized version of Mexican food known as Tex Mex has been well integrated into the menu at this “Mexican” restaurant.
In another Montreal restaurant one finds more exclusive Mexican cuisine and a soothing rather than a festive atmosphere is generated through the use of woven napkins, place mats and painted ceramic plates and dishes which have been imported from Mexico. Art work done by a *renowned Mexican painter are displayed on the walls in place of the gaudy red and orange images displayed in more commercial venues such as 3 amigos, Carlos and Pepes or Mexicali Rosas.
The link between Mexico and the pleasure of drinking ice cold beer or the fun and freedom associated with indulging in tequila derive from typical travel ideas about the beach, sunshine, tacos, salsa, Latin culture, music and relaxation more generally. Accordingly the marketing of Mexico as a tourist destination involves the promotion of Mexican restaurants as festive arenas where specific, local alcoholic beverages are served. Although Corona is likely the most popular beer outside of Mexico it is not popular in Yucatan. People explain that there are two different types of Corona, one which is available in Northern Mexico (and is exported) and another of lesser quality which circulates in the South Eastern states of Yucatan and Quintanaroo. People in Yucatan prefer Sol, Superior or Dos Equis (which are referred to as lager beers) or the less expensive brand Tecate but explain that Corona is available everywhere for tourist consumption. Mexicans attribute medicinal properties to Tequila and explain that throat infections can be cleared up by drinking a few shots of Tequila.
Alcohol is served with bocadillos or botanas (snacks or hors d’ourves). At least four small plates of bocadillos are placed on the table when alcoholic beverages are ordered in restaurants or bars. The side dishes are usually scooped up with tostadas (crispy deep fried tortillas) or picked from the plate by hand. Standard bocadillos are cubes of mango marinated in salt and lime, pieces of squash cooked with onion and chile, boiled beets with onion, fried eggs with chayote (a green vegetable similar to spinach), potato salad mixed with carrots, peas and onion, a dish of refried beans and a plate of creamy garlic sauce served with slices of baguette (called pan frences). Escabeche is a mixture of jalepeno peppers with carrots and onion and is usually available wherever food is being served. Peanuts drenched in chile and covered with fresh lime are very popular as are chicheron (fried chips of pork lard) which are usually available wherever alcohol is served - both in a commercial and domestic settings. At private parties a standard array of snack food are served. Small sandwiches called sandwichon are a typical party food made form processed white bread with Cheese Whiz, a layer of ham, and a creamy jalepeno spread. These gooey tidbits are usually made with 3 layers of bread and have the crust removed. Sometimes Cheese Whiz is simply spread onto a large piece of bread called a pan de molde, rolled up and then cut into cinnamon roll style pastries. Even though they are made with American Cheese Whiz, processed ham and white bread they are understood to be a classic Mexican party dish.
A dish of unripe mango mixed with chile, salt and lime is another popular fiesta snack and plates of refried beans and various types of salsa are always available for chip-dipping. Chopped up wieners (salchichas) mixed with mayonnaise, onion and spicy salsa are served in bowls and eaten with toothpicks or toasted corn chips. This popular hot dog mixture is a favourite at both informal and formal events and can be purchased at any super (supermarket), where there are always free samples available. The idea of the supermarket really caught on in Merida and even small corner stores (which sell a variety of products) are called “mini-super” to distinguish them from tiny stores called tiendas. The term super (pronounced soop-air) is an English word that has taken on local meaning, and the American style grocery stores located inside the growing number of air conditioned shopping malls are always referred to as the super, as if it were a Spanish term.
The difference in
attitude between first time visitors to Mexico and seasoned tourists
is the realization that there is regional variation in Mexican cuisine.
Interviews revealed that people envision Mexican food as a general type
of cuisine and are not aware of the differences between the foods from
the different states. Mexican food abroad (in England, the United States
and Canada) is consistently associated with what was described by informants
as a “mythical Mexican atmosphere”. British tourists suggested
that the presence of cactuses is the most basic element in the creation
of a Mexican ambiance, and in the United States and Canada the use o
brightly coloured clothing and sombrero hats by waiters and waitresses
is typical. When people think of Mexican food in the United States Taco
Bell immediately comes to mind and in Canada Carlos and Pepe’s
is very well known. Following with the British association of cactuses
with Mexico, one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in London is
called The Cactus Pit. The availability of Mexican beer (most often
Corona or Sol) and tequila is another aspect which people consistently
relate to the Mexican dining experience.
A significant number of foreigners spend a good deal of time in Mexico eating in their hotels or seeking out pizza. Incidently, pizza is widely available in Merida and is made with typical pizza dough, processed slices of ham topped with cheese, onion and mushrooms, green pepper or pineapple. Chile and oregano are sprinkled on top of pizza and these condiments are served in small plastic bags with take out or delivery pizza. Restaurants often provide customers with magnets for their refrigerator which list their phone number rather than paper take out menus or business cards. Deliveries are made almost exclusively on mopeds which have square metal box attached to the rear where pizzas are kept warm.
Overall, informants from Canada, the United States and England were surprised by the foods they encountered in Merida and many claimed they prefer the version of Mexican food which is available in their home countries. Their experience with Maya dishes in Merida was limited to those tourists who made a deliberate effort to explore regional cuisine. Those that did seek out local foods described positive experiences with Maya cuisine and were especially impressed by poc chuc (a chicken or pork stew made with chic peas, tomato, tortilla and garlic) and pollo pibil (chicken roasted in mixture of red spices). When locals were asked about their cuisine they associated eating well with the consumption of beans, pork, chicken, tortillas, salsa, fresh tomatoes, onion, chile and lime. Burger King and McDonalds are understood to be unhealthy although many people frequent these establishments regularly. Buckets of Kentucky fried chicken show up at fiestas, but only to compliment the local dishes and not to replace them. Mexicans relate the consumption of fast food to accessibility and laziness since cooking can be tedious and uncomfortable in the deep heat and humidity.
It appears that the changes Mexican food undergoes for consumption abroad involve both the Mexican producers (who wish to retain a sense of cultural integrity by not making authentic regional dishes widely available to foreigners) and the foreign consumers who wish to satisfy a preconceived idea about Mexican cuisine. Mexican food abroad is usually packaged in a stereotypical environment which portrays the daily experience of Mexican dining as something different from what it is for the average Mexican. Foreigners typically associate the concept of “spicy”or “hot” with Mexican food and experience this to a greater extent in Mexico than in their home country since recipes are consistently modified to become less spicy outside of Mexico. The addition of sugar and sweet sauces to many meat recipes is one means by which Mexican food is made appealing in venues such as Taco Bell and the sweet quality of Mexican food has become a typical quality of Mexican cuisine in many foreign Mexican restaurants. Tacos, enchiladas, and frijoles are the most commonly cited Mexican foods available in the United States and most people from the States explain that they prefer the Mexican food available in their home country to the cuisine in Mexico since their version is more “basic” and less spicy.
The assumption by foreigners that local foods will make them ill discourages families from sharing many traditional recipes since they resent the implication that there is something “wrong” with their food. The sacred nature of family dining and the exclusion of passing visitors from this experience means that there are many dishes which do not circulate amongst tourists or reach outside of Mexico. A sense of pride in local cuisine is a deep rooted part of cultural identity and people are not easily willing to “sell out” or into the global market. People are defensive about the assumption that Mexican food causes illness. The frequent occurrence of illness among travellers is often attributed to a combination of factors which include adaptation to the tropical environment, time change and negative attitude. The food available at street stands (comida de la calle) is undoubtably unsanitary since the cooks handle money and food simultaneously and locals warn tourists against eating in these venues. The average person I spoke with believes that if these foods are avoided then illness is little more than a result of buying into negative stereotypes about Moctezumas revenge (diarrhea) which have become associated with Mexican food. Many people deny that local foods or water cause illness altogether (with the exception of purchasing food from a street stand) and subscribe to the idea that it is negative attitudes based on stereotypes about Mexico that make foreigners more susceptible to falling ill.
Coe, Micheal D.