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Edited by SEMERCI, Görkem
What comes to your mind when you hear “Mexican food”?
Tacos? , Guacamole?, Enchiladas?, Quesadillas? Or some random overly spicy food? (come on, it is not that spicy!)
While traveling, many people have told me they love “Mexican food” referring to burritos or nachos. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy eating burritos every once in a while but they’re actually Tex-Mex dishes and were originated in the southern states of the USA. This kind of food has, indeed, a strong Mexican influence. In example; nachos are a variation of our chilaquiles, a very popular dish we serve as breakfast or brunch (apart from being a hangover medicine!). The truth is, we are very proud of our gastronomy for its vibrant flavors, gorgeous colors, and cultural heritage, and when a traveler tastes the real Mexican food is a whole new experience that has nothing to do with a Tex-Mex hard-shell taco.
In 2010, Mexican cuisine was declared as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO —it was the first ethnic cuisine in the world to be on that list— and in 2016 the government declared November 16th as the National Mexican Gastronomy Day. I wonder how many countries in the world officially celebrate such a day? We love our food that much. But not everything is —soft tortilla— tacos and tequila. Mexico is the 14th largest country in the world with a land area of almost 2 million km2 (United Kingdom can fit eight times in here!), and our gastronomy is as vast as our territory.
In my hometown Hidalgo, located in the central Mexican Plateau, we have a saying regarding food: “If it drags, runs or flies… it goes to the pot” and we take it literally. Here we have an Otomí inheritance, one of the earliest and most complex cultures in Mesoamerica, and most people living in the Mezquital Valley keep preserving our pre-Hispanic roots in their language, traditions and of course their cooking.
Before going into the details, let me tell you that the Mezquital Valley is a semiarid region and most people are involved in agricultural activities mainly producing corn, beans, oats, squash, green chili, and nopal cactus. You can find 107 mammal species, 37 amphibian and reptile species, and 150 bird species, a fertile heaven for biodiversity.
Every year after Easter holiday, we celebrate the Gastronomic Festival of the Mezquital Valley that gathers more than 1000 otomí traditional cookers and where you can find all kinds of dishes… and I mean “all kind of”.
During the Festival, people fill the streets of Santiago de Anaya municipality with colorful tables where you can see women making tortillas, men offering pulque —an ancestral alcoholic beverage made out of maguey—, curious people trying to figure out what they’re about to eat and kids daring their friends to eat a lizard.
As I said before, everything goes to the pot. Pre-hispanic gastronomy is based on indigenous ingredients and most of the dishes contain insects, in fact, that is the main source of protein for the Otomí culture. Grasshoppers, mountain bugs (chinche de monte), snails, mesquite beetles (xamues), wasp eggs, ant larvae (escamoles) and maguey worms (chinicuiles, which have a beautiful color red) are the most common ones and they can be cooked with regional flora, such as maguey, squash flower, aloe, nopal cactus, and garambullo flower; they can be served as sauces, roasted, fried or accompanying other dishes.
And what about the meat? Well, in this Gastronomic Festival you can find exotic animals (before hunting, people go under strict guidelines to protect the species), such as opossum, wild pig, coyote, fox, armadillo, squirrels, lizards, and snakes. You can eat them in tacos (soft tortilla) or for the small ones like lizards, you can grab them as the same way you eat a chicken wing in your favourite fast food chain.
New generations are incorporating their roots with popular food, you could eat a pizza with ant larvae or pulque with various flavors, like a strawberry; this is a great way to get young people to know pre-hispanic gastronomy. For dessert, you can have a juicy prickly pear fruit, pumpkin seed sweets, or exotic fruit sorbets.
If you ask me, I’d recommend an opossum taco with mesquite beetle sauce and prickly pear fruit with a little bit of tequila, salt, and lime. Then you could walk around town eating some toasted grasshoppers with sauce, salt, and lime (YES! Everything is better with salt and lime, trust the Mexican way!).
Of course, there are many more culinary options in Mexico, every region has its authentic richness and even the same dish can vary from north to south, so if insects and exotic animals are not your cup of tea, there will still be plenty of other options for you to try. Our food not only nurtures our bodies, but it also nourishes our inheritance and feeds our culture.
© All photos taken by Omar Rodríguez Ceron
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