I know that most of you who have feasted in Mexican restaurants will realise that chilli and beans are not the staple diet of the Mexican people, it could not be further from the truth. Whilst in Mexico in November prior to lockdown, I probably ate more vegetarian food than meat-based meals. Of course, chilli peppers are very much featured in most dishes from varying strengths. A word of warning – whilst the locals always ask you how hot you would like your dish – remember that ‘throat-ripping’ flavour is more common than not!
Mexico at a Glance
Firstly though, I would like to mention the deep and meaningful culture of this amazing country – for once, I was entranced by this as much as the food. Mexico is a land of festivals, fiesta and religious days, all of which will involve food! Each village and town will have their own ‘special’ celebrations, but there are many national days, the most famous, being The Day of the Dead, or ‘Dia de Los Muertos’. It is definitely an out of body experience, to say the least! Do not get spooked, it is a fun and joyous time, and something I will remember forever, particularly the vibrant and colourful costumes that everyone wears. Wanting to do as Mexicans do, the night before the important day, we went into a huge shop and bought some costumes, so that we would fit in with the crowds!
Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos
Celebrated every year on November 2nd, preparation will start days before as shrines and other commemorations to the dead of the family are revered everywhere. Glorious costumes are made, including the famous sugar skeleton masks and outfits – it is quite intimidating when you see them walking towards you, or jumping out from behind something!
There are food stalls as far as you can see with various offerings from breakfasts to dinners and snacks. We breakfasted on (wait for it) something I like to call ‘cactus on toast’! It’s the prickly pear variety and we had ours grilled and placed on the omnipresent ‘tacos’, and then smothered in green sauce and cheese. The cactus is grilled in huge pads across a barbecue and is surprisingly tender. I must admit, I ended up with quite a penchant for ‘nopales’, the name of this often-eaten breakfast. Believe me when I say some of it was a little off-putting, so I drew the line at ‘chapulines’ – roasted grasshoppers!
Somehow, we managed to include a sort of puffed corn soup (pozole) accompanied by Day of the Dead bread (Pan de Muertes) at lunchtime. Dinner was tasty grilled garlicky chicken smothered in ‘mole’, a traditional chocolate sauce flavoured with chilli with a deep and unctuous flavour. I really loved it. To cool our mouths down, we had ‘pastel de tres leches’, a sponge with a topping made of condensed milk, evaporated milk and a few slivers of nuts with so much sugar to make your teeth curl! Needing more refreshment for my burning mouth, we picked up a bag of freshly sliced pineapple that had been iced so it was soothingly cold and so, so fresh and sweet. I refrained from the chopped chillies they offered as an accompaniment – I wonder why?
‘Mole’ is a sauce made from chocolate, but in every family, they will have their own recipe, and this will be a closely guarded secret, so don’t ask, create your own!
We had some Mexican friends who joined us later in the day who tried to explain more about the background behind this special day, but to be honest, it was so noisy and raucous, you were somewhat swept away with it all. I do not think words can describe it, but if you have ever watched the James Bond movie Spectre and the opening scenes, it is as close as I can describe it!
Our final deed before moving on to a bit of relaxation elsewhere and some normality (believe me, this was so tiring an experience) we picked up some souvenirs, including some ‘calaveras de Alzucar’, some intricately painted mini sugar skulls. These are edible, but normally they are simply left in the shrines or somewhere visible as a token offering to the dead loved one. Some will have feathers or another décor, and they can be smiling. The size of the sweet offering will show whether the passed soul was a child or an adult. I must admit I was quite touched by this.
Heading to the Coast
Wanting to have some cool breeze along the coast, we travelled up to the trendier Baja California Peninsular for a bit of relaxation as well as a change in food. As a fish lover, this was going to be the perfect place to re-adjust my digestive system!
Baja California is actually a Mexican state, the reasons for which are too politically difficult to explain. Of course, the area does have a Californian influence, with the spectacular ocean and beaches there and the fun and vibrant city of Tijuana (great for shopping), which is close to San Diego. If you enjoy a tipple, there are so many bars and restaurants that are extremely lively, and this tends to spread deep into the night. For now, though, I was looking for something more sedate, as well as a market or two – I was having withdrawal symptoms by now!
Once we got our bearings in the cute town of Rosarito where we were staying in a quirky little ‘casa’ with only a few rooms, we checked out the local information. As usual, if you really want to know anything – ask a local! The owner’s daughter told us we had to visit the fish market at Popotla, luckily not that far away and that she would be going the next morning, as chance would have it. She was also going to point out the best beach shacks to eat from – I could not wait for that experience.
Slightly off the beaten track, well to be honest the market was at the end of a dirt road, you suddenly hit upon a buzzing locale, with fish trading going on everywhere around you, and huge plastic tables piled to the gunnels with yellow fin tuna, king crab, red snapper, oysters and clams. The latter two of this group of shiny bright-eyed fish were shucked with dexterity in front of you, the recipients being residents and restaurants all over the Baja area. Both men and women worked the market, something that is not so usual in other countries. As far as you could see, the traders were lifting the fish aloft to attract the attention of the nearest buyer whilst financial negotiations were taking place – fascinating, as although I speak reasonable Spanish, I did not understand more than a word or two of their speech. Tempting tasters are always on offer – call me heathen but I am not exactly partial to oysters so I made my colleague taste one – beautiful was his response, and the best he had ever tasted.
What is great about Popotla is that it is exactly what is says on the tin. No tacky souvenir vendors, no hustlers, just pure fish for sale. As for its location – wow. Right on the beach, and the one thing for sure you know is that in the oceanfront restaurants, the fish is fresh and straight off the boat!
Opting for my favourite shack-eating experience, we had ceviche served in a coconut shell – double wow. Probably my favourite of our Mexican journey. Ceviche is raw and marinated fish, usually in lemon and lime, which gently cooks the seafood. I think ours also had some delicate little clams, but the taste was so wonderful and fresh, leaving a ‘wake up’ zing in your mouth. Totally, outrageously delicious, far better than sushi or sashimi in my book, especially with a grind of pepper or two.
The coast road was lined with camper vans on their ‘Baja California Road Trip’. Next time I visit, I am going to do just that. So much to see and eat, but not enough time to do it! I will be back, for sure.