Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.
The Food of Puebla
Let me start off by (re)affirming that I like food, I like to cook, and I really like to eat. And because I am on this trip, I feel some of you may be interested in some of the fun foods of the areas we are exploring. But although I have written a couple of posts on the foods of Oaxaca and Guatemala, I do not pretend to be a food writer or that I have a food blog or any special food expertise other than what I have learned on my own. I’m not an expert. Just a fan.
(Also, for this post, I had no choice but to break my rule of not posting photos of restaurant-prepared foods. (It’s just a quirk of mine.) But in this case, it was the only way to go since I was not in a position to prepare any of these dishes myself.)
I have to be honest: I had never heard of Puebla (neither the city not the state) before arriving in Oaxaca (also both a city and a state) this past spring. Anything about Mexico is sadly underrepresented in typical U.S. school curriculums. Only a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City, Puebla is in fact the place where the Mexican Army defeated French forces on May 5, 1862 – thereby inaugurating the annual celebrations on Cinco de Mayo. When I was talking with my poblano friend several months ago (the term “poblano” is used to describe someone from Puebla), I asked if he liked the food of Oaxaca. He said, “Sure, but being poblano I prefer the food of Puebla.” Puebla has a cuisine? I wondered. And now I know: yes, it does.
Let’s start with the granddaddy: Mole Poblano, created in the 17th century by a poblana nun (her kitchen is a tourist attraction even today) mole poblano is usually called the national dish of Mexico – that’s how important it is. And it is considered the first mole of Mexico (remember, it’s pronounced “MOH-lay” and I’m tired of using italics for it even though it is a foreign word), although it is not one of the seven Oaxaca moles. Just like Oaxaca, people travel to Puebla to eat the mole. Like the Oaxaca moles, the principals are the same: an ingredient list two feet long with lots of chiles, spices, nuts, some chocolate, and lots and lots of effort and time. The two times I have had mole poblano, I was surprised at how sweet it was. It wasn’t like eating dessert, because it was dark and rich and savory. But it was sweet. The recipes I have found do indeed include sugar. And it also has a little kick to it, which should be expected from the array of chiles used. The mole is a deep reddish-brown color, and it usually covers a plate consisting of a chicken leg and some rice when you order it at an unpretentious little restaurant (comedor). With a fork in one hand and a tortilla in the other, you are ready to go.
A sandwich called a cemita (“say-MEE-tah”) is also very popular in Puebla. It is served on a large roll, which itself is called a cemita because it has sesame seeds on top. There are usually many ingredients in this sandwich including a meat (a pounded and breaded pork or chicken cutlet is very popular, but there are others), avocado, lots of quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), sometimes chipotles, but always a strange and pungent herb that was a brand new flavor to me. The first time I had a cemita was the day I parted from Erik and Apollo. Erik and I had lunch at a mall-type place and found a restaurant that had cemitas.
But all throughout that day long I kept – sorry, this is gross – burping a really strange flavor. I thought maybe the cheese or the avocado were bad. But no, it turns out that I was burping the herb pápalo, which is a mainstay on cemitas and always used raw. By my second cemita I was ready for it, but this new flavor still perplexed and intrigued me. It’s bright, green, citrusy (like lemon and orange) and pungent. I don’t know how else to describe it. And apparently it makes me burp.
Having done a little research, I found that some of the best cemitas are in the Mercado el Carmen, about a 10-minute walk from the zocalo. There you will find a long line of people waiting at Cemitas Las Poblanitas. So at 1:30 on Friday afternoon I headed there for my third ever cemita, stood in line and watched everyone in front of me to see how to proceed. The workers at this tienda are crazy fast. They crank out the cemitas lickety-split. The issue during my visit was that the demand was so high. Standing in line for maybe 15 minutes, I was probably the only person waiting for one cemita. Everyone else was picking up food for the family. At that price and quality, I can’t blame them.
The sandwich was huge and amazing. Aside from a little dessert (see below) I did not eat again for the rest of the day. The cutlet was enormous (albeit a little greasy); the pile of cheese was obscene; the pápalo was, well, pungent; there was avocado, chipotles, little raw onion, a drizzle of olive oil; and at Cemitas Las Poblanitas they gild the lily by topping each sandwich with two slices of ham. I cannot believe I ate the whole thing, but I did. But so did everyone else there – and a lot faster than I did. (Pepe = World’s Slowest Eater)
Formerly a in-season-only dish but now served year-round by some restaurants looking to entice tourists through their doors, Chiles en Nogada is a decadent, filling dish that I have resolved to never eat more than once a year. Or maybe twice. Well, three times if I must. But after my 3:00 dinner of a chile en nogada, I once again ate no more the rest of the day and made myself walk until I could walk no more.
The chile in question is – big surprise – a poblano chile, which in the U.S. we are very familiar with. But this puppy gets stuffed in the craziest way. The picadillo stuffing is a combination of finely chopped meat (usually beef and/or pork but mine had chicken), nuts, maybe some seeds, diced candied and dried fruits, and spices. Sometimes sugar is added, and often a small, hard peach is also used. Stuff this mixture into the chile, dredge the package in an egg batter and fry it. Then it is topped with a rich, luxurious walnut cream sauce (which covers the entire plate), and topped with parsley and pomegranate seeds. The white sauce, red seeds, and green parsley pay tribute to the colors of the Mexican flag.
Whereas I said mole poblano was sweet but not quite dessert, this definitely is dinner and dessert to me. The filling is sweet and the sauce is as rich as melted frozen custard. I called it a seasonal dish because in Puebla, walnuts, poblano chiles, and pomegranates are all in season as the same time, roughly late June though early Autumn. Since I had mine in early June, dried cranberries were substituted for the pomegranate seeds. But this dish is so outrageous that I may just bus it back to Puebla later this summer to have the dish in season. And at that time ALL restaurants loudly announce that they are now serving chiles en nogada.
Tacos Árabes are pretty easy to find on the streets and pretty cheap eats. Thanks to a nicely represented Lebanese population, giant vertical skewers of lamb can be seen roasting and being thinly sliced at the entrances of many restaurants. For many Americans, this isn’t such a new flavor – think gyros. But when stuffed into a tortilla with some lime juice and hot sauce – no cucumber, tomato, or tzatziki here – this is a might tasty treat.
There are plenty of other street foods to mention, like molotes (more tortillas stuffed with things and then deep fried), which I love even though they are usually pretty greasy. But one of my favorite experiences happened literally just around the corner from where I am staying: there is a little hole-in-the-wall joint where a sweet, old lady makes nothing but quesadillas and memelas. A couple of weeks ago I was craving something naughty, so I sat down on the bench at the only table in the joint and ordered a quesadilla, having zero idea what was going to go into that quesadilla. All she asked was “¿Con todo?” (“With everything?”). Of course I replied, “¡Sí!” Well, into a freshly pressed and slightly stretched tortilla she piled a mound of quesillo, a giant handful of canned mushrooms (yes, you read that right), and a mountain of chicarrones, which are fried pieces of pork rinds. At one point, while the quesadilla was on the plancha, she even spooned a little extra grease right onto it. It was finished with a chipotle red salsa, and it was SOOO good and SOOO bad for you. I loved it. And it was big, so again I was done eating for the rest of the day. I’ll probably before I leave Puebla…
And now, finally, dessert. Puebla is just as famous for its sugary confections – called dulces - as it is for mole poblano and chiles en nogada. There is a street near the center where for several blocks it is nothing but candy stores. And they all, more or less, sell the same things. I found one that I liked – the girls behind the counter were really nice and gave me lots of free samples – so I went a couple of times, bought some things, and felt comfortable enough to ask some questions.
Camotes are what everyone everywhere is trying to sell, even at the bus station, because tourists seem to love them. I think they’re fine, but I don’t love them. It’s a sweet made with mainly two ingredients: sweet potatoes and sugar. Flavorings are usually added (like vanilla, orange, or lemon) and the soft final product is shaped a little like a miniature cigar. They do actually taste a little like and have the texture of mashed sweet potatoes. They’re different (for an American palate) but pretty good. Other dulces, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, incorporate flavors like coconut, mango, almond, vanilla, and even pine nuts. I’m pretty gaga for these pecan things flavored with burnt milk. On Friday, after polishing off that colossal cemita, I bought one and ate half of it as I was leaving the store and planned to eat the other half later in the evening; I ate the second half 15 minutes later.
Actually, I’ve found myself surprisingly hooked on some of these things, and I was never a big candy eater before. Cake, yes. Candy, not so much. (And yes, I did break down and buy a slice of cake on the street as well. It actually wasn’t too bad but it was still decidedly Mexican.) The one peculiarity for an American observer was the lack of chocolate options in the candy store. Most candy stores have virtually nothing involving chocolate. Just nuts, fruits, seeds, and sugar. I guess they save the chocolate for all that mole poblano.
The food of Puebla completely caught me off-guard. And I have to be honest – and no disrespect is intended: I spent a weekend in April and then three weeks in June in Puebla, and I don’t really find it to be a very interesting city. The historic center is worth exploring, and that’s where all the good foods can be found, but otherwise it just doesn’t resonate with me. Having said that however, I would absolutely go back for a few days to once again enjoy the food and a couple of the museums. I don’t think Erik will be back in time for Chile en Nogada Season, but maybe the two of us will take the bus to Puebla for a few days so I can show him my favorite candy store and then we can seek out other culinary delights!