Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Treasure of the Sierra Madres: Discovering Mexican Soups

The "true" story behind the mexican soup article that appeared in the fall issue of Flavours.

The article, too controversial to print.

Treasure of the Sierra Madres: Discovering Mexican Soups

11:58 the wheels of our plane bounce down onto the tarmac. We are welcomed by smiling men with automatic weapons. The P.A. system and bright yellow signs warn us of lengthy and awkward searches, but the officials look bored as they stamp our passports, asking no questions. Outside of the airport we are greeted with warm ocean breezes and palm trees. We are herded on to the bus which takes us to our hotel. We are in Mexico.

0n day three we find ourselves in a remote mountain village. We had rented a jeep and were on our way to tour an old mayan city. Somewhere, we took a wrong turn. As we went higher and higher into the mountains the road got rougher and rougher. The little donkeys at the side of the road laughed at our 4X4 struggling with the bumps and ruts. Couple times we got stuck, a couple times we nearly flipped and once we nearly drove of the edge of a cliff. At the end of the road we come upon a little village. Maybe village is too big a word. It was a few ramshackle huts pieced together with slabs of broken concrete, pieces of plywood, some assorted truck parts, heavy blankets, and sheets of corrugated tin. Somewhat surprisingly, in the centre of this circle of huts, was a little stone church. A few children ran around playing some incomprehensible game, some of the scrawniest chickens you have ever seen hunted frantically for bits of grain, a tired old three legged dog lay in the sun. As we stood there, wide eyed, a woman old enough to be Pancho Villa’s mother, stepped out of one of the huts. Without a word, she invited us to come in. She sat us down on old apple crates and served us big earthenware bowls of soup. It was a black bean soup as dark as the midnight sky. It was spicy and earthy. Little pieces of smoked meat we hoped were pork enriched the soup. As we ate we discovered layers of nuanced flavours. The tang from lime and vinegar, layers of spice from diverse chilies, cumin, black pepper, garlic, and the beans themselves: silky smooth with little pops of texture, Sweet and smoky, and woodsy. At first the beans served as a foil for the sharper flavours but by the end, they had taken centre stage. Without a word, this old woman’s soup had told us we were welcome, we would be cared for as long as we were there and we would find our way home. We returned to our hotel content.

On day five we were strolling the boardwalk, ducking the smiling and aggressive sales people offering us everything from $2 necklaces to timeshare condos. We came upon a little collection of huts and beach umbrellas which seemed to function as a crude food court. Each little stand posted a hand painted menu offering an almost identical selection of food items; Tacos al pastor, grilled marlin on sticks, octopus seviche. They were cooking up this food on little grills too small and rustic to enjoy the name hibatchi. We had our fill of tacos, garnished with onions and jalpenos; and the marlin, sweet and spicy and smoky; and the corn sprinkled with chili and lime and doused in crème fraîche. And then we noticed in the back, closer to the water another little umbrella.

As we approached, we noticed that the fabric on the umbrella was torn. The man seated beneath the umbrella was probably younger than I but his weathered skin made him look twice my age. Canadian politeness made me ignore the fact that he was sitting on a cart which looked like a child’s wagon with both of his legs amputated above the knees. In front of him he had a battered old cauldron of a soup pot, precariously balanced over an open fire. He spoke one word to us, “Pozole?”. We nodded an affirmation. He ladled out big Styrofoam bowls full of blazingly hot soup. The bowls were filled with big chunks of fish, still on the bone, crab legs, mussels, and fat red prawns. The broth tasted like the sea. But in this mess of delectable sea food, the highlight was the pieces of pozole. This dried, starchy corn, made tender by long slow cooking was at once earthy yet ethereal. This lowly corn imparted not only a feeling of comfort, but a sense of a connection the generations of people who have farmed and survived of this humble grain. All the way back to the hotel, we talked about this soup. We raved about the quality and abundance of the seafood, which we prairie folk are definitely not used to, but we kept coming back to the life affirming presence of the corn.

On our second last night, our hotel hosted a “Mexican fiesta”. Alex, my tocayo, and our favourite server told us we must come. “This is when we serve the real mexican food”. Alex saved us a table up front. We ate heartily, enjoyed traditional music and dance, and drank margaritas, cervezas, more margaritas, and more tequila. The next morning, I woke up a little green around the gills. I crept down to the dining room, holding on to my head to keep it from spinning, on a quest for coffee. My tocayo was there, with his usual broad smile, “you don’t look so good!” he laughed. He sat me down at a table in the shade and told me he had just the thing. He comes back a few minutes later, not with the mug of coffee I was looking for, but with a deep clay bowl filled with a dark red soup. Floating in the soup were little pieces of grey meat and bones from an animal I didn’t recognize. I delicately swirl the soup with my spoon only to discover long ribbons of tripe. The look of the tripe, and the overwhelming aroma made my already tenuous stomach churn. “It’s menudo… This will make you feel better… trust me” I did trust him, but maybe this was just too much. Gingerly, I took wee sip off my spoon. Almost immediately I felt the transformation. The warm spices started to clear my head. And the rich flavourful broth restored energy to my body. I could feel the tips of my fingers and toes start to tingle as life returned to them. I started off slow, but by the end, I was practically licking the bowl. One bowl of this strange and wonderful soup and I was a new man. I was ready to enjoy my last day in Mexico. And I started by ordering a margarita.

For recipes, go to www.flavoursmagazine.ca search recipes for black bean soup, menudo, or seafood pozoles

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