Tex-Mex has nothing on the authentic la comida mexicana (Mexican food). I discovered this shortly after arriving in Querétaro, a beautiful colonial city about 160 miles northwest of Mexico City. For three weeks during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I lived there with a local family as an exchange student. Before I went to Mexico, my knowledge of Mexican cuisine consisted of whatever General Mills Old El Paso products my mom used to whip up for dinner. So we’re basically talking supermarket quality hard shell tacos and salsa that tasted entirely too tomato and not fresh at all.
When I initially expressed interest in being an exchange student in Mexico, one of the first comments from my mom was, “But honey, what about Montezuma?” (Montezuma of course refers to the colloquial name bestowed upon the temporary stomach ailment otherwise known as traveler’s diarrhea). “Well, seeing as how I’m not Spanish and had no role in helping Cortes slaughter the Aztec people I think I should be okay.” My mom didn’t find my particular joke very funny, as she knew better than anyone how delicate my stomach was seeing as I inherited the “genetic” condition from her. (My dad’s stomach on the other hand was described as being “iron-clad.”) I know that she was thinking why I couldn’t pick some “developed” country like Spain or France where you could just drink the water and not have to worry about ancient rulers unleashing revenge on unsuspecting tourists in the form of a stomach bug.
In the weeks leading up to my departure I read up on as much about Mexico as I could, including the country’s national dishes. As a birthday present that year my dad had given me Lonely Planet’s World Food Book Mexico. Although the book presented me with tons of information including some things I wanted to forget as quickly as I read them-the consumption of fried grasshoppers and other insects for starters-I was more ready than ever to go out and try some of this awesome food firsthand. The funny thing was that even though my host family was 100% native Mexican, they never served me authentic Mexican meals such as chilies rellenos and mole poblano the entire time I stayed with them. It was almost as if my mom had sent them a smoke signal in advance warning them to not serve anything spicy to me or I would have terrible stomach woes. Although my host father (who I was told to call “Mos” due to the extremely large mustache he sported) was forever teasing me to try one of the many chilies he ate with his meals, I knew better than to believe his mentiras innocentes (innocent lies). There was no way his mischievous looking grin and his coaxing words on how dulce (sweet) the chilies were was going to dupe me into eating one of the fiery little things myself. My host sister Gabi later told me that a general rule of thumb regarding the spicy factor of chilies was that the smaller they were, the hotter they were. A very good thing to know…
The authentic Mexican food I was missing out on by living with my host family was made up in the authentic restaurants where I ate and the cooking classes I had with other people in the program. I can still remember the first time I ever had sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup). We had traveled to Bernal, a colonial village in the state of Querétaro, and home to the Peña de Bernal, an enormous monolith of massive rock, the third highest on the planet. Although I had mastered the requisite phrase of sin hielo (without ice) when placing my drink order, once I was living and breathing all things Mexico, I started to become hesitant about being adventuresome with the cuisine. It’s amazing that no matter how many miles you travel, a mom’s words always stick with you. However, I was able to finally tune out the ominous warnings about Montezuma possibly paying a visit the second I swallowed a spoonful of the delectable sopa de tortilla that day in Bernal. To my gringa mouth, it was like swallowing a bit of heaven. Although it is a very simple soup, with tomatoes, chilies, and onion being the principal ingredients, the inclusion of the fried tortilla strips and queso fresco (fresh cheese) are what makes it so quintessentially Mexican, so superbly delicious. It was during this meal that I remember actually being outright rude to someone I knew (for those who know me, you know that I am never, ever rude to people, most especially friends and associates). Sopa de tortilla proved to be the exception to my demeanor that day. Holly, one of the girls in my program, had been eyeing my sopa ever since the waitress set it down at my place. She finally worked up the nerve to ask me if she could have some, to which I immediately responded, “No way, get your own.” Although I felt guilty over the way I had responded and likened my behavior to that of a five year old, there was no way I was going to share. It was just too damn good.
Our days during the week were spent between language and cultural classes, the latter making up a series of electives. Having always loved cooking (when I was in the first grade my grandmother had given me the ABC Alphabet Cookbook), I of course opted to do the cooking class. It was one of the neatest experiences of my life. For three hours, two times a week, I and two others from the program walked to El Marques restaurant where we had our classes with Chef Montoya. Although neither I nor my two amigos had had more than a couple years of American taught high school Spanish, that didn’t stop us from understanding Chef Montoya’s directions (who himself knew no English). Although it may be a cliché to say, cooking really is a universal language. What cannot be understood by verbal directions can be inferred by body language. However, if my two group mates or I had done something wrong, whether by not chopping the chilies fine enough or adding too much oil to the pan, “no” is of course the same in English and Spanish. The intonation is just a bit different.
Our class schedule consisted of cooking for the first two hours and then being able to enjoy the masterpieces we had created for the last. For a bunch of teenagers, nothing was cooler than being able to eat unchaperoned in a foreign restaurant alone, talking about whatever and most importantly speaking in, gasp, ENGLISH. I should mention that even though we didn’t have to sign away our lives to any language pledge, we were strongly urged to speak en espanol at all times. I involuntarily followed this due to no one in my host family speaking any English, so I relished these cooking classes all the more. We made a variety of dishes but the ones that whet my taste buds palate the most were sopa azteca (Aztec soup), which is often another name for sopa de tortilla, and chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles). For anyone not familiar with this Mexican staple, it consists of a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with melted cheese and then covered in either an egg batter or corn masa flour and last but not least, fried into foodie oblivion. On a sweeter note, one of the dessert dishes we made was arroz con leche (rice pudding), which in taste resembled nothing your grandmother ever made or that was available in the refrigerated aisle at the grocery store. It just had a taste that was very Mexico. A taste that is often the sole reason why some people will travel halfway around the world to experience once again.
Where food was concerned, my time in Mexico wasn’t without its blemishes or culture shock awakenings. On one of the weekends there, my host parents took me with them to visit a lady who used to work for them. Although my host family was undoubtedly on the higher economic echelon of Mexican society in terms of the cars they drove, having live-in help, and TVs all over the house, this woman’s “home” made them seem like they were the Rockefellers. The house was constructed out of scraps of various materials, and the door was nothing more than a flap, and something you would expect to see on the front of a tent. There of course was no running water and no wash facilities. It was the saddest and most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life but for Mexico, life in that kind of dwelling was quite common. It was also an awakening for my teenager mentality on how so much of the rest of the world lives in such dire poverty. Before we left home, my host mom had told me it was okay to decline any offers of food. Once we got there I understood why. Although both my host parents ate the food that was offered to them by their former worker, my host mom later confessed to me that she had gotten sick from whatever she had eaten. It was a different world indeed.
Although I didn’t eat out that often for dinner since I truly enjoyed eating with my family, the one time I did, I later became sick. I suppose it served me right since I dared eat Italian food at an overpriced touristy restaurant in the main plaza area. It wasn’t as if I was in Buenos Aires, where there does exist a sizeable Italian immigrant population, so the Mexican food gods were probably mad at me for not eating some of their native food goodness. As soon as I saw my plate of pasta carbonara being brought out by a waiter and sitting in at least a quarter of an inch of oil and grease, I knew my number was up. Having stupidly not brought any of the “pink stuff’ (otherwise known as pepto bismol) with me to Mexico, my host family was kind enough to stop at Wal-Mart after picking me up. Yes, that’s right I said Wal-Mart…in Mexico. I should mention that Wal-Mart is a HUGE chain throughout Mexico and it’s also a very big deal. So big that getting dressed up to go shopping at Wal-Mart is often a common family outing on Sundays. Ironic considering how people in America dress so shabbily when doing a lot of fancier stuff than just shopping at just a local discount store.
My time in Querétaro came to an end all too soon. Contrary to my first couple days there in which I was beset with extreme culture shock and homesickness, I really grew to love everything about la vida mexicana (Mexican life), including the delicious la comida. Although it’s been almost a decade since I first traveled to Mexico at the tender age of 16, it was a great introduction to the joys and one of a kind experience a person can have by leaving their comfort zone and trying something new. I still also scoff at anyone who dares try to tell me that Tex-Mex cuisine is the same thing as Mexican cuisine. IT’S NOT!
Discovering the World of la Comida Mexicana (Mexican Food)Posted on May 5, 2010