They say first impressions are long lasting. This isn’t my first time in Mexico. I’ve been coming here since I was very young. But every step across the border is special to me. Just off a direct flight to Mexico City from the Tex-Mex mecca of San Antonio, I know I’m in Mexico as soon as I peek out the plane’s doors. No, it’s not the altitude. It’s not the mountains. It’s not the cool breeze – or the smog. It’s the airport employees at our remote landing area. It’s raining on the tarmac and as we walk down the wobbly narrow steps, two airport workers are on either side of the railings, holding large umbrellas to shield us from the rain as we step into a shuttle bus.
In the shuttle to the terminal, I hear a middle aged woman speak to the young family that was seated next to me on the plane. In just two minutes, she opens her arms and scoops up their baby, talking cheerfully and cooing. I sat next to them for two hours, and don’t think I even gave them a smile.
While I expect the remote terminal to be out of the way and backlogged as most international customs areas tend to be, it appears as if the customs and immigration staff are all waiting to welcome our small load of passengers. Miraculously, our luggage is already circulating on the conveyor belt. When I get to the Mexican customs Red Light, Green Light post, as always, I get the green light, so I walk right through.
I’m headed to Puebla to which there is frequent first class non-stop bus service from the airport. The cost is less than what I paid for a ten minute taxi ride from my house to the San Antonio airport. The bus dispatch is right outside the international terminal. I go to an ATM to withdraw pesos and buy my bus ticket in what surely is less time than what it takes to get your taxi at LaGuardia Airport on a busy day. My wait for the next bus is about 15 minutes. So now I’m faced with one of my many big decisions everywhere I turn in Mexico: What to eat? Do I buy some tacos from the airport café, or hold off until I get to my final destination? Even though I haven’t had lunch, and I don’t know that I’ll get some treats on the bus, I opt to hold out. Puebla is known for its regional delicacies.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s #1 New York Times bestseller,Eat, Pray, Love, she describes four months in Italy as she savors all the local dishes and wine. She gains 23 pounds and totally abandons her yoga practice as she indulges in Italy’s cultural – oops — culinary treasures.
Now I don’t think there’s a soul that doesn’t like Italian food, and I could live off pasta, pizza andgelato…maybe. But Puebla is to me what Italy is to Gilbert. Corn tortillas are my pasta.
Mole, enfrijoladas and enchiladas are my bolognese, alfredo and alle vongole. I can appreciate most any red wine, but quite frankly, I’d rather drink an agua fresca or freshly squeezed fruit or vegetable juice. These drinks quench the palate, are nutritious and come in as many colors and flavors as a wine list. For the nutrition conscious, you can pick a concoction of celery, cactus leaf, prickly pear, guava, alfalfa, pineapple, and lime juice. If you’re worried about cold and flu season, many places serve an “Antigripal” blend of freshly squeezed orange juice, lime juice, guava and a dollop of honey.
While I understand wine and cheese “mature” with age, deep down I prefer knowing that my beverage wasn’t sitting around in a dusty cellar.
I’m on a quest, inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert and my love of Mexican food, to savor Poblano fare. In Mexico City, sopes are a popular food made from the ubiquitous corn dough. In Puebla they eatmolotes which are not big plates of mole as I would have guessed. They are large quesadillaspinched on the sides like a calzone, and filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, or a mix of the two.
In Puebla everything is fresh off the hot round comal and besides molotes, you can have your choice of plain old tacos, huaraches, memelas, tlaloyos or quesadillas, all of which are freshly shaped from the corn dough or masa. For the super picky, you can look around and find blue corn masa.
A normal order of quesadillas, stateside, is a plate of three small corn tortillas, or one oversized flourtortilla cut in pieces. In Puebla, I eat quesadillasevery day from different vendors and they are all delicious. I watch them freshly pat out the dough from a large ball of corn dough and flip it on the griddle, with little or no oil. They use a white cheese that is both chewy and easy to melt and blends in with the flavors of your favorite add-ons such as strips of nopales (cactus leaves), potatoes or flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers). The cost is about a dollar for each super sized quesadilla that can be up to 12 inches long, barely fitting on a red plastic plate.
I admit I’ve picked up some of my father’s depression-era stinginess. Though to me, it’s more a matter of not being wasteful of both time and money. I don’t have the patience for a multi-course sit-down meal and I don’t enjoy stuffing myself with food. I prefer to go way past mealtime until I find the real deal: Bueno y barato. It’s hard to imagine a dish being any tastier than these made-to-orderquesadillas.
For due diligence, I check out the specials at a restaurant across the street from the Parian artisan market, recommended by a man working in the tourist office. He suggests their mole and chiles en nogada, both of which are local delicacies, and the latter of which can only be found in the fall. He eats there all the time, so I take that as the eternal endorsement. Plus, his favorite lunch joint is the only restaurant of note from the trio of guide books I’d read.
This is not a fancy place. It’s more like a diner with pictures of Frida Kahlo and the leaders of the Mexican Revolution on the coral colored walls. But it’s fairly full around 3 p.m., another testament in its favor. For 40 pesos ($3.00) the daily special gives you your choice of one of three soups, one of three appetizers, one of three main dishes and one of three desserts. I start with the cream of corn soup and a Caesar salad. The first and best Caesar salads I’ve had were in Mexico and I heard Cesar was a Mexican chef that created the salad. Well, at this walk-in restaurant, they didn’t use the same recipe that Chef Cesar did. The croutons were freshly made and still warm, but too oily, and the dressing looked like crema agria which is a nice accent to cut the spiciness of enchiladas but not on my salad. My main course and dessert were Poblano specialties, mole and macarrones. Now in Spanish, macarrones means macaroni. But in Puebla they are ziti-shaped caramel colored dulce de leche bite-sized candies.
Dating back to the 18th century, nuns at Puebla’s Santa Clara convent created many sweets. Apparently, the nuns also invented rompope, the thick slightly alcoholic Mexican egg yolk liqueur. Today, the street where the ex-convent stands is lined with dulcerías displaying Poblano sweets with unique names. There are the tortitas de Santa Clarawhich are round beige cookies, camote (sweet potato) that are shaped like cigars, emborrachados(drunken ones), obleas (wafers), alegrías (joy) and jamoncillos (little hams) just to name a few.
These nuns are not the only famous sisters in Puebla. Legend has it that Sor Andrea de la Asunción invented mole at the Santa Rosa Convent. There were only a small group of cloistered nuns that had kitchen duty here, and Sor Andrea concocted the first chocolate mole for a dinner to be served to the Viceroy. Although the nuns had a very difficult life in the convent, eating only once a day, sleeping on a thin hard piece of wood without blankets, with minimal human contact, Sor Andrea had plenty of creative juices flowing. She picked many local ingredients and spices to showcase her region and culinary skills to the Viceroy.
Although mole means sauce in Nahuatl, the townspeople say the dark sauce got its name when another sister saw her grinding the ingredients at the molcajete and praised her by saying, though grammatically incorrect, “que bien mole su reverencia,” . The kitchen remains as it stood several hundred years later, with talaveratile throughout and lovely labeled canisters for spices. There is a ceramic pot, several feet high, that welcomes visitors to the patio of the Santa Rosa convent. This pot, which purportedly was used only for mole, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Throughout Puebla, Buen Provecho is commonly exchanged as people pass by others who are eating. Some things have no translation. Buen Provecho is the Spanish version of Bon Apetit, but there must be a reason why we don’t say these things in English. Could it be that the Mexicans picked up the expression during the French rule in the 1800s? Or maybe the Mexicans and French say it because they really relish their dishes.
While the Mexican police have always suffered from poor reputations, one Sunday in Puebla, as I eat my daily quesadilla with salsa roja, seated on a plastic chair across from a lovely blue-tiled church, two policemen place their order and join me at my plastic table. But first, they nod and say, Buen Provecho<
The Write Counsel