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Regional Mexican CuisineRegional Mexican Cuisine

February 2, 2009

9 Min Read
Regional Mexican Cuisine

San Francisco enjoys no small renown for its Mission-style burrito, swollen with rice, beans, meat, salsa, cheese and sour cream. But at Mi Lindo Yucatan, also in the citys Mission District, guests find nary a flour tortilla in sight and instead feast on panuchos (corn tortillas grilled, fried, stuffed with black beans, topped with turkey and garnished with cabbage, tomato, pickled red onion and avocado), polcanes (cornmeal dumplings filled with lima beans and pumpkin seeds and served with pickled red onions), poc chuc (marinated, charbroiled pork, black beans, grilled onions and achiote salsa).

As communities from throughout Mexico plant roots in el norteand chefs everywhere champion Mexicos regional cuisinesmore people are getting a tasty lesson in south-of-the-border gastronomy with a clear message: When it comes to regional Mexican cooking, the burrito is barely the beginning.

Take the simple tamale. Tamales have been part of Mexican cuisine for hundreds of years, says Margarita Pulido, corporate chef, Azteca Milling, L.P., Irving, TX. Tamales have evolved, and world-class chefs are experimenting with the process and flavor to include fillings such as caviar and salmon. Tamales in Mexico vary depending on the region. For example, tamales in the north of Mexico are normally filled with chicken and pork, or even with dry meats. The tamales in the south are filled with mole, beans, rice, etc. Tamales in the coast area of Tampico or Veracruz are filled with seafood. Tamales in the south are bigger, while those in the north are smaller and narrower. In the north, the wrapping of the tamale is corn husks, and in the south, plantain leaves.

Yucatán: Mexicos Mayan roots

The Yucatán offers an intriguing tropical cuisine with roots in the ancient Mayan culture, says Sean Craig, senior executive chef, Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Gilroy, CA. Yucatecan foods barely resemble what most Americans know. Save for the habanero pepper that appears sparingly in salsas and seasonings, the ingredient emphasis is on milder stuff: bitter orange juice, seasoning pastes called recados made from achiote (annatto) seeds, native game and wildfowl like deer and turkey (whose eggs are particularly popular), and chaya, a spinach-like green.

According to Regional Mexican Cuisine: An Exploration of the Cuisines of Veracruz, Yucatán, Oaxaca, and Puebla, a research report compiled by Kerry Ingredients & Flavors, Beloit, WI, European influence in Yucatán shows up in a tradition of sausage making, a fondness for breads and pastries, and a propensity for frying.

Pibs, stone-lined, earthen barbecues, lend their name to what Craig calls the quintessential Yucatecan dish, cochinita pibil: pork marinated in achiote seeds, citrus juice and spices, wrapped in aromatic banana leaves, and left in the pib to steam-bake until tender.

Food from the Yucatán continues to grow in popularity, because it is fresh and light and not too spicy, says JeanMarie Brownson, executive culinary director, Frontera Foods, Chicago. She cites grilled fish in an achiote rub and poc chuc as items with potential. Other Yucatecan standouts include sopa de lima, lime soup made with shredded chicken and tortilla strips; motul-style eggs, a breakfast of tortillas topped with a fried egg, refried beans, tomato sauce, peas, ham, shredded cheese and a side of banana slices; and relleno negro de pavo, turkey in a Yucatecan black mole sauce.

One of the most-effective ways to introduce consumers to new tastes is through something theyre already familiar with, says Craig. Tamales and tacos are known quantities, but, he continues, Yucatecan tamales with greens and pumpkin seeds, or tacos topped with cochinita pibil, give these familiar items a new twist. Even the ubiquitous fish taco can grow with an achiote-garlic rub and a Yucatecan-style habanero salsa, he says.

Veracruz: coastal culinary crossroads

In the balmy, maritime state of Veracruz on the southeast coast of Mexico, people enjoy an abundance of tropical goods like plantain, coconut, black beans and achiote, Pulido notes.

Fresh seafood is also prevalent in Vercruz. A dish typical of this region is arroz a la tumbada, featuring seafood from this coastal state and rice, originally introduced by the Spanish, Craig says. Some even call it Mexican paella. He adds that peanuts, a common ingredient in West African cooking, are also found here more frequently than in other regions of Mexico, especially in the Veracruzan classic pollo encacahuatado, chicken in peanut sauce. Another regional staple is huachinango a la veracruzana, red snapper in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, capers, onions, olives and herbs.

According to Kerry research, Old World herbs like thyme, true oregano, Italian parsley, marjoram and bay leaves play starring roles in many dishes, as does minta wildly popular aromatic all over the state, but most particularly in the north. Native herbs like epazote, anise-scented avocado leaves (often ground into a powder), and velvety, fragrant hoja santa (Piper auritum), also distinguish Veracruz foods.

Puebla: Mexicos culinary capital

Mole poblano takes its name from Puebla, and the states chiles en nogada is a contender for Mexicos national dish. Its colors echo those of the Mexican flag, with green coming from poblano chiles stuffed with a picadillo of chopped meat, garlic, onions, nuts and fruit; white from a creamy walnut sauce; and red from a scattering of pomegranate seeds.

Pueblas famous sweet potato, camote, may be tough to find stateside, but it makes a fantastic cinnamon-citrus pudding dotted with raisins. Spanish-style nougats known as turrones are made from honey and almonds. Bakeries spill forth with sweet breads called pan dulces.

According to Kerrys Regional Mexican Cuisine, other European influences in Puebla come from Italy. In central Puebla, Italian dairy farmers founded the town of Chipilo, whose butter and cream earn kudos throughout Mexico. Pueblas historic ties to dairy farms account for its affection for cream sauces, like the one on chiles en nogada.

Oaxaca: land of the seven moles

If any of Mexicos regional cuisines can reach critical mass in the United States, its Oaxacas, where Old World spices, New World herbs, chiles, fish and shellfish, poultry and pork, and the regions inimitable chocolate reign supreme.

Oaxacan moles fit the bill for todays consumers: big flavor, little fat, lots of vegetables, says Brownson. Yet their sheer variety may be their biggest impediment to mainstream establishment. We need to teach the consumer about the wide variety of moles so beloved in Mexico, she says, ranging from green to yellow and black. With continued education, we can overcome that old stereotype about mole being a chocolate sauce. Green moles, for example, are made almost entirely from fresh vegetables, chiles and perhaps a few nuts and seeds.

Others include the smoky mole chichilo, made with roasted pasilla, mulato and chilguacle negro chiles, as well as tomatoes, tomatillos, marjoram, allspice, avocado leaves, black pepper, cloves and corn masa; mole Amarillo, with chilcoxle, ancho, guajillo and costeño chiles, in addition to green tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, garlic, cumin, black pepper, cloves and either cilantro, hoja santa or pitonia herb, depending on whether its served with pork, chicken or beef, respectively; and pipián, a sauce made of toasted green pumpkin seeds, cumin, garlic, cilantro and chiles.

Chiles appear throughout Oaxacan cuisine. Oaxaca is famous for the many types of chiles grown there, in particular the pasilla oaxaqueña, says Craig. This deep-red chile adds a distinctive hot-and-smoky taste to beans and other dishes. Amarillos, chilhuacles and costeños are other Oaxacan chiles used in moles and sauces.

The regions cheeses, like queso Oaxaca and asadero, go into dishes like quesadillas and fundido, Mexican fondue.

From Mexico City to Jalisco

Potatoes and soups, like pork- and hominy-based posole, are typical foods found in the center of Mexico, according to Pulido. In the state of Jalisco, Gordinas, sopes and guaraches are very popular dishes made with corn masa, she says.

In addition to traditional foods, Mexico City is rapidly becoming a food-lovers destination with its plethora of fantastic taquerias, torterias and high-end Mexican restaurants, Brownson says. Well soon see more things Mexico Citystyle, meaning a little more refined and upscale, and perhaps with influences from other cuisines.

Brownson cites huaraches, Mexican flatbreads made from fresh corn masa, as gaining popularity as an upscale taco alternative. Other items on her watch list include grilled meats in the Guadalajaran open-pit style. Americans are fascinated with everything cooked over hardwood, she says.

Mexicos cowboy country

If some of this regional Mexican fare proves a bit baffling, simply travel to the border states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila or Nuevo León to find familiar ground. Its these states in Mexicos Old West cattle country that gave us the foods we call Tex-Mex.

With its arid climate and sandy soil, the north didnt take naturally to agriculture, and for years its indigenous inhabitants, the Chichimecs, lived as hunter-gathers. Then came the Spanish, who discovered prime grazing territory in the scrubby land and established a regional ranching tradition. We taste that tradition today both in the dried and salted beef known as machacaa staple in burritos norteñosas well as in cabrito al pastor, baby goat grilled over mesquite and served with guacamole, roasted onions, salsa and tortillas.

In the Monterrey area, says Pulido, the vegetables commonly used in foods include chile poblano, chile Serrano, potatoes, whole corn ear, pumpkin, squash, zucchini, lentil, pinto beans, garbanzo and peas.

Unlike elsewhere in Mexico, northern tortillas will be made from wheat flour, not corn. Although the Spanish largely failed in their attempts to supplant corn with Old World wheatwhich, according to food writer Karen Hursh Graber, was the only grain the Spanish considered suitable for communion waferstheir efforts did take hold in Mexicos north, where wheat remains the grain of choice for that regions tortillas and breads.

Another hallmark of la cocina norteña is the abundance of dairy productsnot surprising, given the cattle, goats and sheep that graze there. Perhaps the most famous is queso chihuahua, also known as queso menonita after the Mennonite community that brought it to Mexico. This pale-yellow cheese varies in flavor from mild to Cheddar-sharp and is popular breaded and fried as queso frito. Other common cheese varieties include panela, a fresh, unripened cheese made from whole or partly skimmed cows milk with a thatched surface pattern from the baskets in which its molded, and requeson, a soft, ricotta-like cheese perfect for enchiladas.

Also in Mexicos north is the state of Baja, a prime vacation spot for North Americans and Mexicans alike and, according to Chris Keegan, R&D chef, Cargill Flavor Systems, Cincinnati, a place to watch for up-and-coming regional Mexican trends. Im intrigued by most Mexican regional cuisines, he says, but currently, Im enjoying studying the Baja region. It has a rich heritage of Russian and Asian influences, which results in very complex, full-bodied flavor profiles.

Whether authenticor perhaps slightly skewed toward more-mainstream tasteseven the most regional of Mexican fare can prove somewhat familiar from time to time.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].

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