Here are my favorite foods that I tasted during my holiday vacation to Mexico.
Spending my holidays in Mexico was a bittersweet and beautiful experience that expanded my palate and perception alike. This year was the first that I didn’t join my family for Christmas. Typically, my mother’s extended family meets at my grandparents’ home in Kansas. Instead, I spent two weeks this year with my novio’s (boyfriend's) family in El Paso, Texas and Torreón, Mexico. During this time, we also took a road trip to the Pacific Coast, visiting the beaches of Mazatlán, Mexico.
Any time that I travel, the beauty of the experience is spiked with a few emotional battles, and this trip was no exception. The night before leaving for El Paso, the realization that I wouldn’t see my family this year hit like a hard punch to the gut. The holidays simply wouldn’t be the same without making chocolate Santa sugar cookie heads in my grandmother’s kitchen and watching my family unwrap my artistically-created presents for them. I carried this sadness with me to Mexico.
Typically, I cope with emotions by burning them out through running or yoga, but where I stayed in Mexico, that was not a possibility. Daniel’s grandmother raised 7 children within the small abode she calls home. There is no running water for the toilet or shower, no 3-pronged outlet for my laptop, no wifi, and no space to roll out a yoga mat. I stand out as the only gringa in the neighborhood and running poses serious safety concerns. Instead of being tethered to my typical first-world activities, I am forced to be present with myself, my emotions, my company, the language that becomes less of a confused mystery each day, the happy regional Mexican music that moves me to dance, and, of course, the food. Here are the most memorable foods I ate:
My Mexican food experience is punctuated by a few key ingredients: sugar, spice, queso, and tortillas. I am repulsed by the thought of eating meat, but I make exceptions for fish. Fish was nearly always an option at the places I ate in Mexico, but I can only take so much before the thought of it begins to make me nauseous. What does that leave me with? Quesadillas.
Quesadillas are a simple and ingenious creation of cheese toasted between two tortillas. I ate them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts and was still not sick of them by the end of my trip. My favorite rendition was at a taquería that served them with family portions all the best extras: fresh-made guacamole, lime, salsa, and pico de gallo (a salsa of fresh-chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, serrano chile, and lime).
Somehow, this drink of rum, coconut milk, and pineapple juice tastes much sweeter and smoother by the beaches of Mexico than anywhere else in the world.
Jumex mango juice
Growing up, I was tortured to have only apple, orange and grape as options for juice in my home. When I learned that mango juice was a staple in Mexican households, I never looked back to my limited gringa ways. Jumex mango juice is essential to the deliciousness of Mexican cuisine. Sweet, refreshing, and thirst-quenching.
Abuelita hot chocolate
The most common rendition of hot chocolate in Mexico is made from “Abuelita” (Spanish for “grandmother”) by Nestle. Unlike American cocoa, Abuelita is made from circular disks of chocolate that is alchemized to hot chocolate by melting in hot milk.
I fell in love with horchata long ago when I heard the Vampire Weekend anthem for the drink: In December drinking horchata. I’d look psychotic in a balaclava. Winter’s cold is too much to handle. Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals… This song recounts the irony of sipping horchata on a sidewalk in New England, pretending it’s the beach. As I savored my sweet rice milk drink this December, I was glad to not have to pretend to be far from the freezing cold of Boston.
Tostada is Spanish for "toasted", and it generally refers food smothered onto a large, circular tortilla chip. I’m told that you can make these chips yourself by frying day-old tortillas to a crunch. My first taste of Mazatlán (alongside a Piña Colada) was a tostada topped with ceviche made from raw fish fresh from the sea, chopped chile peppers, lime, salt, and cilantro.
Huevos con chile, frijoles, tortillas, y café
A typical breakfast at Daniel’s abuela’s house was huevos (eggs) scrambled with chile pepper and served alongside refried beans. We often ate this concoction in our hands with warm tortillas. Nestle is the most popular brand of coffee, and it is typically served instant with cane sugar and a splash of milk.
Buñelos y atole
This was the special occasion breakfast that we had on our first morning in Mexico. After a nearly 12-hour overnight bus ride, this sweet morning treat tasted incredible. Atole is a warm drink of masa (corn flour), water, unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. This hearty concoction was served alongside a heaping platter of buñelos, which are essentially fried dough. The Mexican version of buñelos is a round, flat flour dough pad that is coated in sugar crystals.
Tamales de chile y queso
I am told that every Mexican family eats tamales and carne asada (what looks to me like steak bites) for each special occasion. The ones I tasted were made in massive batches and heated to serve for our Christmas and New Year’s Eve meals. Tamales are deceptively difficult to make. There is a certain technique to spoon-painting corn husks with a masa dough paste before filling them with flavor. I wasn’t able to master the artistry when I tried last year, but maybe it will become easier after several years of experience.
On New Year’s Eve, our tamales were served alongside a feast of mole, spaghetti noodles, refried beans, pork leg (which I did not try), and buñelos with caramel. Mole is a delicious spicy chocolate chile sauce that is drizzled over savory dishes. As a girl, I had always dreamed of eating chocolate-covered pasta. This was the first time that I made it a truly tasty reality. Ingeniously, the chocolate cools the heat of the chile and forms a smooth, sultry sauce.
Gorditas de huevos con napales
I tasted gorditas for the first time during our 5 pm lunch at a roadside restaurant overlooking the mountains after hours of roadtripping to Mazatlán. They were simple, but any food at that point tasted magnificent. The gorditas I had were made of 2 small, round blue masa dough balls that were filled with toppings and cooked on a wood-burning stove. The filling options included a variety of meat, queso, refried beans, and grilled peppers, but my favorite a mixture of huevos and napales (nopal, or fan-shaped cacti endemic to Mexico). The napales had a mild cooked-pepper taste and texture. This meal was served alongside sweet, pulpy orange juice that was squeezed right in front of us and enjoyed in front of a breathtaking view.
Street food snacks
Elote is one of the most popular street foods in Torreón. This is a tasty concoction of piping hot grilled corn, cream, shredded cheese, lime, chile powder, and a variety of mild and spicy salsas.
Churros were my guilty pleasure during my first visit to Torreón. I had never actually seen a hot churro outside of photos before last year. This fried, cane sugar coated cylindrical doughs can be filled with chocolate, caramel, toffee, or lecheria (a sweetened condensed milky syrup).
Street food fruits are often pre-cut watermelon, mango, orange, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, strawberries, or cups filled with combinations of several of these types. Complexity is added to their sweetness by topping the fruits with lime, chile powder, and chomoy (a red savory pickled fruit condiment).
The grocery stores in Torreón sell bamboo-like sticks of straight sugarcane, and I was taught how to eat it: whack the outside with a sword-sharp knife to peel off the hard exterior, bite into the celery-like texture of the inside, and chew like a cow munching on grass to release the sweet liquid nectar from the fiber.
Empanadas are wheat pastry-shells filled with sweet or savory concoctions. I tasted a sweet one in Mazatlán that was filled with a thin, nutty sugar paste and another with with apple pie-like pineapple filling and a sugary outer coating.
I have attempted to make vegan tres leches (three milks) cakes several times before, but I had limited experience in eating the real thing. Mexico provided a fresh opportunity to expose my tastebuds anew. Daniel and I split a heaping slice of a version made from maize in Mazatlán. The maize flour gave the cake a somewhat gritty texture that was contrasted by the silky whipped frosting that topped the cake and the milky sweetness that soaked through to the cake’s bottom. My mission is to try to veganize tres leches again, this time with coconut milk fat as the whipped creamy frosting and cashew milk that seeps all the way through my vegan vanilla cake.