This article is from the December 1997 - January 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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What Do You Mean I'm Eating Corn Fungus?

by David Simmonds

Have you noticed that the Mexican food that you get back home bears little resemblance to the stuff being served south of the border? Doesn't the combination plate #4 look and taste exactly like the combination plate #9 at your local take-out? They all have the same sauce, the same cheese and the same heartburn (I suggest Pepcid AC) — and none of it can be found in Mexico except the heartburn, and that comes from too much tequila.

So what do you do when you head south? You order the things that sound familiar, right? How about those enchiladas? Or if you're really playing it wild, a chile relleno? Gee, I'd like the carnitas but the meat’s probably tainted and I'll surely die by sunup. Sound familiar? Well, maybe not for you, but it is for far too many of us.

Today's Mexican food is a historical culmination of the history of the country. The food of the the Indians: chiles, corn, squash, beans and chocolate to name a few, have been melded with the Spanish contribution of meat, wheat and rice to produce flavors and appearances unique to the world. Throw in the development in recent years of dishes employing French, Italian and Asian techniques and ingredients and it makes it mighty hard to ever again be content with the ubiquitous combination plate (hold the hot sauce, please).

You may have noticed that the foods of Mexico are often regional in their availability. I have asked for birria, the stew-like goat dish common in Jalisco, when I was in the Yucután and was met with a dumbfounded stare most often seen on the faces of the French when you ask them anything. For years it was hard to find a flour (harina) tortilla anywhere south of the border region. Now they are available on the south coast of Oaxaca. The fish tacos of Baja California are not available in Irapuato, and if they are, you’d better pass. Of course, you can find almost any food in Mexico City, which in many ways represents the worst and the best of this fascinating country.

Many times, even if you speak and read Spanish and can understand the menu, when the ordered plate arrives at your table it looks nothing like you imagined it would. When you ordered the cabecita you really didn't know that they could be so literal until you were presented with a deep fried goat head split open right down the middle. Yes, those are the brains and eyes for your dining pleasure, señor. I recommend a generous dollop of salsa to enhance the flavor.

So how do you know what to order from region to region? A usually reliable technique in choosing a menu item is to blithely cruise the dining room in the manner of a space alien unaccustomed to acceptable earthly restaurant manners and see what looks good. Then tell your waiter, "I'll have what she's eating." Find out the name of the dish, and if it proves to be good, you have learned something new and can eat it at every meal until you travel to the next state and discover they have their own concoctions. Oh well, the one constant you can unfailingly rely on is that they all have a cold Pacifico and a shot of Cuervo Gold. Life truly is good.

I am not going to attempt an article about all the intricacies of Mexican cuisine. Instead, use this information as a basic primer for some of the food items you will find in various states of the country. Pay special attention to the huitlacoche, or what we call corn fungus, which is actually delicious. If you get tired of it in the usual quesadillas, try it with some shredded chicken and chiles over spaghetti. And it is a natural with squash flowers.

REGIONAL SPECIALITIES

Arroz con mariscos: a Gulf Coast rice dish generously (sometimes) mixed with local shellfish, served with a main course.

Barbacoa: although barbecue is found throughout the country, the dish from the high central plains east of Mexico City is lamb, goat or mutton wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in a wood fire pit.

Birria: a personal favorite, mounds of lamb or goat are added to a reddish, stewlike sauce. Served with tortillas, cilantro, onions and lime, this dish is often found around the mercado or zocalo and often is the only dish on the menu.

Cafe de Olla: coffe, sugar, cinnamon and spices are simmered in a clay pot. Usually served after dinner.

Caldo: Different regions have different soups (caldo). Caldo de pollo, a chicken soup with vegetables is found countrywide. Caldo de pescado, a fish soup is a staple along the coast. Caldo michi is a catfish soup, although other species are used in the lake areas of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Morelia.

Carnitas: pork steamed and then fried in lard, this artery clogger is most popular in Uruapan, but is thankfully served everywhere.

Cemitas: a sandwich, usually found in Puebla and Tlaxcala, filled with veal, pork, chicken.

Ceviche: raw seafood marinated in lime juice, then mixed with onions, chiles, tomatoes, cilantro and oil. Found along the coast with various regional differences.

Chapulines: a specialty of Oaxaca, these fried grasshoppers are pre-Columbian in origin.

Chicharrónes: fried pork skins, best enjoyed with beer.

Chiles en Nogada: Mexico's national dish. Poblano chiles are stuffed with a sweetened meat, topped with a white walnut sauce and pomegranite seeds.

Conchinita Pibil: A Yucután speciality, shredded pork is baked in banana leaves and served with a red onion salsa and then wrapped in a tortilla. Pig ears and cheeks are present in the authentic recipes.

Crepas de Cuitlacoche con Salsa de Poblano: French crepes filled with corn fungus, reportedly first served to Emperor Maximilian and wife, Carlotta. Brave fellow, Max.

Cuete Mechado: From Mexico City, pot roast stuffed with bacon

Estofado de Res: a beef stew popular in Oaxaca.

Fideo: spaghetti noodles served in a red broth, very popular in the food stalls in the mercados of Guadalajara. Sometimes served as more of a spaghetti side dish elsewhere.

Filete Adobado: marinaded filet of beef, grilled or roasted, a speciality of Guerrero.

Higaditos de Fandango: a chicken and egg casserole traditionally served at fiesta time in Oaxaca.

Horchata: a ground rice drink often found in large glass jars. Beware of the ice floating inside: make sure it’s purified.

Lomo de Cerdo: roast pork loin. Can be very good, but it is sometimes dry and chewy.

Machaca: shredded beef, often served mixed in scrambled eggs, peppers and onions

Menudo: the traditional hangover cure, seems to either work or it makes you sick. The featured ingredient is tripe. In Mexico City it is called pancita.

Minguichi: chile and cheese soup originated in Michoacán.

Molotes: fried masa (corn meal) dough that has been flattened and filled with chicken, pork, beef, cheese or potatoes. Different states have different varieties.

Nopales: prickly pear cactus is boiled and added to salsas, served with vegetables or scrambled in eggs. (Note: the cactus needles are removed before preparation and consumption in case you ever get into a culinary mode.)

Pajaritos: stuffed beef rolls. The ingredients include spinach, ham, tomatoes and is floated in a wine sauce.

Picadillo: chopped meats, fruits and spices are used as a filling for tacos, chiles or empañadas.

Pescado a la Veracruzana: fish Veracruz style. Chiles, tomatoes, capers and olives atop fresh fish, typically served with white rice.

Poc Chuc: a popular Yucután dish. Marinaded pork is grilled, and the results are always different and always delicious.

Pozole: maybe the most popular Mexican soup, the main ingredients are pork and hominy. Can be made green, white or red with different flavors in each.

Puntas de Filete a la Mexicana: beef tips Mexican style. Most commonly found in the northern state of Chihuahua.

Queso fundido: a melted cheese dish which can include chorizo, mushrooms, and chiles. Served in a shallow clay dish with a stack of flour tortillas for scooping. Found everywhere in Jalisco and the northern states.

Tinga poblana: beef stew from Puebla which has a smoky and spicy flavor.