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Mole and Other Things You Haven’t Tried

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A notable aspect about Mexico is the great variety of foods and dishes that can be easily identified with the country. Most of the traditional foods are available all year round, although certain dates and holidays are associated with particular dishes.

September, the Mes de la Patria because of the Independence Day, brings chiles en nogada, hot green peppers filled with walnuts and raisins, covered with cream and sprinkled with pomegranate; and pozole, a broth with large grains of corn, red or green chili, chicken or pork, radish, and other trimmings.

October is when bakeries bring out the Pan de Muerto bread for the All Souls Day celebrations, although some stores, particularly supermarkets, start selling it during late August, presumably to maximize their sales opportunity.

Christmas dishes include bacalao, specially prepared codfish; romeritos, dried shrimp and rosemary sprigs in moleand the Rosca de Reyes cake is cut at Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6th.

Tamales, a traditional (and ancient) food made using corn dough steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf, and flavored with savory or sweet fillings are eaten all year round, but traditionally at Candlemas, on February 2nd. Also by tradition, if your slice of Rosca de Reyes contains a baby doll figurine (baked into the mix of every cake), you are obliged to host a party on this date to serve the tamales to family and friends.

For newcomers to Mexico, some local dishes, particularly spicy ones, take a while to get used to, and some people at first turn their noses up at the different tastes and smells. Quite understandably, many Mexicans are astounded someone wouldn’t like pozole, or mole, or some other dish that people here get excited about, and they assume you haven’t tried it. If you say you have, then obviously “no has probado el que hace mi tía“—you haven’t tried the one my aunt makes.

Perhaps one of the most acquired tastes in Mexican food is mole. This sauce is made from dried and ground chile peppers mixed with other spices and ingredients—famously chocolate used in making mole poblano (from Puebla) or black mole of Oaxaca. There are many kinds of mole, which are usually mixed with meat, rice, chicken, or vegetables.  Mole recipes vary and local restaurants renowned for their mole often keep the precise recipe (moreover, the proportions of the ingredients) a closely-guarded secret.

Mexico’s National Festival of Mole is held in October each year

Mole is one of the truly mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish) sauces of Mexico. The Aztecs were making sauces from chili peppers to which they attached the suffix -mulli or -molli. Following the Spanish conquest, other spices were introduced and different kinds of sauce were developed.

It’s fitting then, that the town in the southeast of Mexico City where the annual national mole festival every October is held is San Pedro Atocpan with its Spanish and native name. It’s located in the largely rural Milpa Alta borough of the capital, at kilometer 17.5 of the Xochimilco-Oaxtepec highway.

The Atocpan mole festival is held in October every year, with some 40 restaurants and over 100 stands participating.  San Pedro Atocpan itself is known as the original site of mole made with almonds.

The post Mole and Other Things You Haven’t Tried first appeared on Mexperience.


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The Cold Comes in Snaps and Waves

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Cold weather in the temperate areas of central Mexico comes and goes throughout the winter months in a series of “numbered fronts” that bring icy gusts which may also cause early frosts for a few days at a time. Then it warms up for a while before the next numbered front makes its way down from the US—Mexico’s principal trading partner and supplier of cold fronts.

One practical result of this polar disorder is that the interior climates in Mexican homes are usually a day behind the frequently-changing outdoor weather; remaining warm when it’s actually near freezing out, and vice-versa.

It’s therefore not surprising occasionally to see people dressed for the North Pole on relatively mild days, or shivering in shirtsleeves on cold days.

The timing of the cold fronts is uncertain, but there’s almost always one in the week of November 20, which apart from being the anniversary of the start of the 1910-1917 Revolution, is when the tree-farms on the hilly fringes of Mexico City usually start selling Christmas trees that you can cut down yourself.

Evidence that it can get quite cold in the central highlands is to be found in supermarkets, which each year set out an array of portable electric heaters at the front of the store, clearly visible as you step-in from the chill.  And early risers in the capital know how fridge-like the first Metro trains out of the shed can be on those nippy mornings, so it’s not unusual to see some particularly assertive commuter walking through the carriage slamming the windows shut—although this habit is less-frequent now as people prize fresh-air above warmth during the flu season.

Cold spells across Mexico’s central highlands can be felt anytime from late autumn through to early spring, although by mid-to-late February temperatures usually begin to rise appreciably, creating some windy days in March, as spring returns bringing back the warm days, and more light during the evening hours following the clocks change.

The post The Cold Comes in Snaps and Waves first appeared on Mexperience.
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Kings’ Day Gifts and Kings’ Loaf Traditions in Mexico

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Never a country to shirk its festive responsibilities, Mexico traditionally closes out its Christmas and New Year celebrations on January 6th, Día de Reyes or Three Kings Day.

Also known as Epiphany, the date marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ child: they are traditionally considered to have numbered three wise men, corresponding to the three gifts mentioned in the Bible.

For many years, Three Kings Day was the date when gifts would be given to Mexican children, who would put shoes out before going to bed on the evening of January 5th. Although this was gradually and inexorably taken over by the imported tradition of Santa Claus, families here maintain the tradition of giving children toys on Three Kings Day. Rather than the main course, this is for many a complement to the excesses of modern-day Christmas; “Por no dejar” —for the sake of keeping it— as some may say.

The continuation of Three Kings Day celebration is notable in the commercial world — toy prices in Mexican stores aren’t discounted to unload leftover inventory until around the second week of January, and the days leading up to January 5th can often see shoppers out late at stores and markets desperately seeking to fill last-minute orders.

The extravagant meals taken at Christmas and New Year are not repeated on Día de Reyes, but instead Rosca de Reyes (“Kings’ Loaf”) is eaten, usually with hot chocolate. The large oval-shaped cakes — sweet bread topped with crystallized fruit and sugar — are interspersed with little plastic dolls representing the baby Jesus. Whoever gets a doll in their slice, and you have to cut your own to avoid feelings of being cheated, is supposed to buy the tamales on February 2nd — Día de la Candelaria: a Catholic tradition celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple.

How many of the people who get the slices with dolls actually end up buying the tamales themselves is an open question. But you probably don’t want to gather for Rosca with people who insist on further slicing each slice horizontally to inspect for dolls: not the spirit you’d want to start out the year with.

Rosca de Reyes, of course, shows up in the shops long before January, just as Pan de Muerto is usually available long before Día de los Muertos—in some places as early as August.

There are other ways in which Día de Reyes marks the end of the long holiday season, sometimes referred to as Guadalupe-Reyes to describe the slow month between Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and the grade schools going back for the new term around January 7th.

It’s also the time to start taking down Christmas trees, festive lights, and other seasonal decorations. But there’s no rush.

Candelaria on February 2nd isn’t a holiday in the sense of having the day off work, but it does come a few days before the Constitution Day holiday, which is celebrated on the first Monday in February.  That is also an official holiday, and for U.S. sports fans it has the added advantage of usually being the day after Super Bowl Sunday.

So tamales and American football. It doesn’t get much more convenient, or neighborly, than that.

The post Kings’ Day Gifts and Kings’ Loaf Traditions in Mexico first appeared on Mexperience.
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Elevation: Why 7,000 Feet Can’t Deliver a Free Lunch

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Mexico is a mountainous country, and many of its towns and cities away from the coasts are situated at elevations of least 5,000 feet above sea-level.

If you plan to live in Mexico, or visit here on a self-catering or camping vacation, a consideration to take into account is that the elevation (the land’s height relative to sea level) has an effect on food preparation, because water situated at higher elevation boils at lower temperatures.

The science is quite simple.  The atmosphere surrounding Earth creates pressure against all objects within it.  Barometric pressure at sea level equates to a little less than thirty inches of mercury, or 14.69 pounds per square inch.  At this pressure level, water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade, 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, the density of the air becomes thinner at higher altitudes (which is why it’s harder to breathe at higher elevation) and the pressure continues to drop constantly until you reach space, where there is no air, no density, and no pressure.

Water thus boils at a lower temperature because the pressure on the water molecules is lower at higher altitudes, requiring less energy for the molecule bonding threshold to be reached (the point at which molecules break away and coalesce into steam).  And so, because less heat (energy) is required to break up the molecules, the water boils at a lower temperature.

Boiling water, cooking, and baking at high elevation

Water doesn’t always boil at 100C/212F: For example, at 5,000 feet above sea-level water will boil at 94.9C (202.9F); at 6,000 feet water boils at 93.8C (200.9F); and at 7,000 feet water boils 92.7C (198.9F).  This online calculator works out the figures.

Tea and coffee: Some tea-drinking connoisseurs argue that coffee is a better beverage option when one is situated in high elevation, because tea requires a high water temperature to “steep” properly.  That’s probably more a matter of personal taste than science, but as staying well-hydrated is important when you’re situated at higher elevations, it’s worth noting that tea quenches thirst whereas coffee aggravates it.

Baking at high elevation in Mexico: If you’re accustomed to baking cakes and pastries in places situated at lower elevations, you’ll discover that the proportions of ingredients and the timings needed to complete the bake will need to be adjusted. This article shares some useful tips about baking at higher elevations.

General cooking: In terms of everyday cooking, you won’t experience an energy gain, i.e. use less fuel, to cook your meal because although the water reaches boiling point sooner, you need to leave your food cooking for longer.  An example is preparing a hard-boiled egg.  If it takes five minutes to hard-boil an egg at sea-level it will take proportionally longer at higher elevations; so any gain realized through lower boiling points is lost in the longer while it takes for the heat-energy transfer to take place.

This is another way of demonstrating that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch”—not even in high places.

The post Elevation: Why 7,000 Feet Can’t Deliver a Free Lunch first appeared on Mexperience.
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