Category Archives: Mexican Food and Drink

A Chile By Any Other Name….

Last week I was doing some research and stumbled across a study highlighting the health benefits of cayenne pepper. The study stated that eating cayenne peppers increase digestive fluid production and boost the stomach’s defense against infections. It occurred to me that I didn’t know how to say cayenne pepper in Mexican Spanish.

So I started with Google which reported that it was “pimiento de cayena.” The lady at the molino (spice grinding shop) just looked at me blankly when I used that. Then I tried Wikipedia which said chile morrón. However, chile morrón is a bell pepper in our area.

Next I polled my Facebook group, Women Surviving Rural Mexico. One lady said she’d heard the term cayene (pronounced kai-en-nay). Another said chile dulce, which can also be used for bell peppers. And still another woman said chile piquín. Chile piquín in my area refers to very small, very spicy orange chiles. 

So I asked my sister-in-law who took a poll among her pistoleras (the ladies that make tortillas with her). They came up with the name chiltecpín roja. Doing some research on that term, I don’t think it is correct either. The word chiltecpin in Nahuatl means ‘flea chili’ and is a small, extremely hot, red chile. Incidentally, this variety is thought to be the oldest of the Capsicum genus ever cultivated.

The name game gets even more complicated when you realize that dried and fresh chiles have different monikers. The jalapeno becomes chipotle, poblano changes to ancho, chilaca dries and is then pasilla. The Anaheim chile becomes colorado, mirasol changes to guajillo, serrano dries and is then chile seco. The bola chile dried is cascabel.  

None of this helped me find out the name for the cayenne pepper, unfortunately. If anyone can give me some insight on this, I’d appreciate it! 

On the other hand, a little more digging produced the fact that any of the chiles in the Capsicum annuum family will provide similar health benefits. These chiles have been used as a spice and medicinally in Mexico since before the Spanish arrived, the uses of some of which I’ve experienced myself. 

For example, chile cola de rata (Chile de árbol) toasted on the comal will certainly clear your nasal cavity. A generous bite of chile piquín will instantly banish a headache, after your eyes stop watering that is. Getting chile juice on your hands and touching another body part will stimulate circulation rapidly and painfully.

The chile has been acknowledged by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Evidence points to the chile being part of the indigenous diet as far back as 6500 BC and domesticated by 4100 BC. Excavations under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan have uncovered fossilized remains of Capsicum chiles dating back to CE 150-250.

Chile continues to be a primary ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Chile seed shakers are on the table in the restaurants that serve birria. Bell peppers are mixed in the nopal servings. Every salsa, including guacamole, is spiced with this little fruit. Even the candy often has chile powder on it! 

Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chile peppers. Capsaicin is what gives them medicinal properties and their spiciness. The more capsaicin in a pepper, the spicier it is.  Interestingly, you can develop an immunity to the effects of capsaicin over time. So those who consume chiles regularly don’t receive the same benefits as those that ingest them only on occasion. On the other hand, long-term consumption of capsaicin has been shown to reduce high blood pressure. 

Eating chiles increases energy expenditure and core body temperature which is lowered again through perspiration. Capsaicin reduces the production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and reduces the risk of stomach ulcers

Capsaicin can also reduce pain when applied in a cream to the skin. It decreases the amount of a neuropeptide that travels to the brain to signal pain. Capsaicin cream is recommended for muscle, joint, lower back, and post-operative pain. It can also help lessen pain from nerve conditions like shingles. Capsaicin cream has been successful in the treatment of psoriasis as well. 

Capsaicin slows the growth of cancer cells and causes cell death for prostate, pancreatic and skin cancers. Chiles contain antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin which give them their red color. 

Capsaicin has antimicrobial and anti-virulent activity and is useful in combating Streptococcus pyogenes. Cayenne chile in particular has been shown to suppress the development of 16 different fungal strains. 

In Mexico, chile powder and olive oil are mixed for a liniment to treat joint and back pain. It can be sprinkled on food to improve digestion and circulation. Eaten whole, chiles are useful to promote sweating to break a fever. 

The seeds can be rubbed on hands or feet to warm the areas up. Be careful not to get any in your eyes. If that happens, use hair to rub them to reduce the burning. It works, amazingly enough. If you have long hair, don’t be offended if someone grabs a hunk over lunch to do just that.

So even though I still don’t know exactly what cayenne pepper is called in Mexico, chiles are a healthy addition to any diet!

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Would you like to read more about Mexican traditional remedies?

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Filed under Mexican Food and Drink, Natural Healing

Grocery Shopping and Food Preparation Tips for Rural Mexico

One problem you might have when you move to rural Mexico is you haven’t the foggiest idea where to look for the food you’ve become accustomed to or how to prepare the food options available to you. 

I know that happened to me. Pasta seemed simple enough, yet every time I made a batch, it turned into an inedible hunk of goo. Another problem food of mine was rice. I’d been used to Uncle Ben’s instant rice and it took some time and a few unsalvageable batches to learn how to prepare regular rice. Who knew that you needed to lightly brown the pasta and rice before cooking? 

Recipe books that I brought with me, even though that were geared toward Mexican cuisine, were useless to me. I wasn’t able to find the ingredients called for. A can of stewed tomatoes–not hardly. More helpful were my mom’s handwritten recipe cards with my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s cooking instruction. More recently, a blog reader sent me a delightfully useful book called Cooking and Curing with Mexican Herbs by Dolores L. Latorre which has been so helpful in varying my meal repertoire.

Then there’s the whole shopping experience. Name brands that you’ve come to love and enjoy are not available. Nor are some essentials even on the shelf. Grape jelly is a prime example. None of our local stores carry grape jelly. Chocolate chips are another. No chocolate chips in the baking section. Pretzels? Forget it!

Prices on goods also are a big adjustment. Although you could get a huge jar of peanut butter for the kids’ PB & J lunch for a reasonable price north of the border, that’s not true in Mexico where peanut butter is an imported product. If you are living on pesos, peanut butter might be out of your budgeted price range.

So unless you live near a Costco or Walmart, you may need to adapt your food acquisition strategies.  Because of portion sizes and freshness, you may find you are doing shopping every day rather than once a week. Variations in food availability and quality make meal planning more challenging, but not impossible.

One way to cut back on grocery expenses is to prepare a large meal during the day and have the leftovers for dinner rather than preparing something entirely different.  We don’t have a fridge, so anything left over after dinner is portioned among our animals, although with a teenager in the house, that usually isn’t much. Then tomorrow, we’ll have something different.

Living in rural Mexico means that spaghetti sauce and ketchup are luxury items now rather than staples for us. If you absolutely must have them, buy those that are in boxes tend to be less expensive than imported brands in cans or jars. The boxed spaghetti sauce is a bit bland, so be prepared to spice it up. Pick up some oregano at the fruteria or molinera and maybe even some fresh mushrooms to saute and add.  Meatballs? Make your own. I don’t know about which part of rural Mexico you live in, but there’s no frozen food section at the corner market in my area.

Stock up on rice and beans and learn how to prepare them. Adding garlic, onion or a chili pepper while the beans are simmering adds some flavor. You’ll find a number of different varieties of beans to change the menu up a bit, however, you’ll need to make peace with having beans more days than you may like. A crockpot can be a lifesaver here!

Unfortunately, there will be days when you run out of gas to cook with. When that happens, it’s a good idea to have some canned goods on hand. A can of beans on tostadas with tomato, onion, and cheese requires no cooking.  Again, if you have a crockpot–you’ll be fine if the gas runs out. Of course, we aren’t above cooking over the open flame, either in our fireplace or our outdoor cooking area.

If you buy cheese, lunch meat or bacon from the deli counter, ask for a certain amount suelto (loose) rather than buying something prepackaged. Your pesos will go further that way.  If you want to make a sandwich, then get freshly made bolillo instead of Bimbo white bread. Again, it’s less expensive and tastes better. 

Regular power outages or brownouts in some areas mean a fridge isn’t a reliable way to store fresh food. Condiments come in minuscule portions because without refrigeration, they will go bad quickly. Mayonnaise, jelly, even chilis can be bought in very small containers meant to be consumed within a day or two of opening. Milk can come in a jug, bag or in a box. Boxed milk does not need refrigeration until after it is opened. 

Take advantage of the weekly market for lower-cost food items. Those stalls set up on random corners will also have fresh and scrumptious stuff you can pick up.

Buy fruits and vegetables in season and save money. A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables are available year-round. However, there’s no guarantee that any of the items are organic so be sure to peel those that can be peeled or wash them in a three parts water and one part vinegar solution. Many Mexican women soak everything in Microdyn or Bacdyn, both of which contain the active ingredient ionized silver and I suppose it works too.  

If you can or have a food dehydrator, you can store seasonal fruits and vegetables in this way. Another solution to a high grocery bill is to grow your own herbs and foodstuff. Seeds packets can be found in the semilleria or there are a few places you can order online. Check out Rancho Los Molinos. You won’t be able to order seeds online since they are prohibited for importation although Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds gets around this by sending them to Mexico via Germany.

Although pancake mix is easily found in most stores, the stuff that is being passed off as maple syrup (miel) isn’t much more than colored sugar water, which is very disappointing. Common pancake toppings include fresh fruit, jelly, cajeta, and honey. Pancakes or french toast are easily prepared comfort food at our house.

Typically you’ll find a whole aisle of different cooking oils. I suggest trying a few to find one you like to cook with. On the other hand, you might find that cooking with manteca (lard) gives your food, especially the beans, more flavor. Fresh manteca is often found at the carniceria. If you don’t see it, ask, it may be behind the counter. 

The bars of stuff packaged as margarine in our area tastes foul to me. There are a few places that sell actual cow’s milk butter in town, which is more palatable. It is more expensive though, so we only buy it once in a while.

If your meat comes out too dry, which happens to the best of us, salsa is the fix-all! Slather it on and no one will be the wiser. Make your own salsa if you are in any way sensitive to hot and spicy foodstuff because even though you’ve been assured that it “no pica” a Mexican’s definition of spicy and yours may be different. Salsa also makes a good meat marinade. I add my sister-in-law’s tomatillo salsa which she sells at her tortilleria to chicken or beef strips while I’m cooking them and my family loves it. 

At first, the whole process of finding and preparing food in rural Mexico can be overwhelming. Take heart! Soon enough you’ll be making delicious dishes and amaze yourself with your cooking ingenuity!

What other shopping or cooking adaptations have you made since moving to rural Mexico? What cookbooks have you found useful?

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Filed under Mexican Food and Drink

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit from Mexico

Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L) are a staple food in Mexico, right up there with corn. They are part of the traditional trio-planting of Las Tres Hermanas (the three sisters). The exact number of bean types varies from expert to expert, however, most agree that there are at least 200 different edible bean types in Mexico. Archaeologists believe that beans were cultivated in Mexico approximately seven thousand years ago and their propagation spread worldwide. 

In Mexico, the earliest signs of bean cultivation have been dated to sometime before 2500 BP. Evidence has been found and carbon dated in the Tehuacan valley at Coxcatlan. Other evidence of this plant’s domestication has been found in Tamaulipas at Romer’s and Valenzuela’s Caves near Ocampo dating back to 1300 BP and in the Oaxaca Valley at Guila Naquitz which dates to 2100 BP. 

Beans were given as tribute from the nations that the ancient Aztecs ruled. Specific payment amounts were recorded in the Codex Mendoza. Beans were sometimes ground into flour for a paste or mixed with corn to make masa. 

The type of bean preferred depends on the region. Black beans are eaten often in Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo. The central states are particularly fond of Peruano and Flor de Mayo and they are served in Michoacan, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi. Pinto beans are most often the bean of choice in the northern states. 

In Mexico, you can buy bagged beans from most stores or in bulk from the places that sell seeds or vegetables. If you get your beans already bagged, the opacity of the bag indicates its age. Newer bags are clear, older ones are more opaque. If you buy your beans from the seed dealer or fruteria, shiny beans are fresher. Older beans smell somewhat nutty. 

Dry beans will keep nearly indefinitely if they are stored in a cool, dry place. Their flavor and nutritive value degrade over time. Furthermore, cooking times for older beans are longer. 

Frijoles de la olla are beans cooked the first time while refried beans are warmed-over beans. Traditionally, beans are first cooked in a clay pot and many still prefer their beans prepared in this way. You can also cook beans in a cast iron pot and get an extra dose of iron with a dash of metal flavoring. Beans cooked in cast iron take about 2 ½ hours. Either the clay or cast iron pot can be used over the open flame. 

If you are going the modern way and using a stove, I find enamel pots are excellent bean cooking recipients. Beans cooked with this type of vessel take longer, between three and four hours. Stainless steel pots also work well and will take 2 ½ to 3 hours for proper bean consistency to develop.

Most Mexican cooks do not take the time to soak beans the night before. They are sifted through thoroughly, however. Any chaff, stones, broken and wrinkled beans are discarded. The acceptable beans are rinsed and then added to a pot of boiling water. 

I add an onion, a few garlic cloves and one chile pepper for seasoning.  My sister-in-law likes to add a sprig of fresh epazote (wormseed) or a few avocado leaves as well. Salt is added towards the end of the cooking cycle about 30 minutes before they are ready. To test for doneness, the bean should be soft like a potato when you smash between your fingertips. If it is still hard, cook longer. 

Frijoles de la olla are often served sort of like a soup. I like to garnish the dish with fresh cilantro and onion and use bolillo (rolls) to sop up the juice. 

When refrying beans, heat the oil or manteca (lard) until it is sizzling hot. Add the amount of beans you wish to fry plus about one cup of bean broth. Once the beans start to boil, reduce the temperature to simmer. When they are soft, mash them with a spoon. 

You can add a whole chile for flavoring, just remove it before smashing. If you want to add onion, sautee the pieces before adding the beans. We sometimes add chicharron (crackling) or chorizo (sausage) to the refried beans as they are cooking for a different flavor. 

Refried beans can be served in taquitos, tostadas, or as a meal accompaniment. You can top them with pico de gallo, cheese or sour cream. Served on toasted bolillo and topped with crumbly cheese it becomes a delicious snack. 

Cooked beans will keep refrigerated up to 5 to 7 days. You’ll know when they’ve gone bad, believe me. 

You might find these types of beans among others in your local market:

Alubias (green beans), ayocote café (brown runner beans), ayocote negro (black runner beans), ayocote morado (purple runner beans), vaquita (Calypso beans), vaquita roja (red and white bean), habas (broad beans), bayos gordo, moro, pinto (pinto beans), flor de Mayo, negros (black beans), garbanzo (chick pea), mantequilla (butter beans), Peruano, sangre de toro (kidney beans), amarillo, alberjón, rosa crema, habichuela, tapajeño

Beans are quite nutritious. One cup of cooked beans will provide anywhere between 9 and 13 grams of fiber, which in turn can help lower cholesterol. Beans are also high in complex carbohydrates, folate, iron, and protein.  

However, let the eater beware. Many types of beans contain oligosaccharides which produce gas as a byproduct as it is being digested. Draining the beans the beans were cooked in can reduce the amount of gas eruptions for some people. 

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún recorded in the Florentine Codex a variety of medicinal applications for beans used by the Aztecs. The juice of ayocote beans (P. coccineus) was used to treat swollen eyes. The roots (cimatl) of this plant were prescribed as a parasite cleanse. The root of the Phaseolus maculatus (cocolmex) was used as a medicine and to ferment tesgüino.

Beans are still used medicinally in Mexico. In the area where I live (Guanajuato and Michoacán) raw beans are used as a headache cure. The bean is rubbed between the temples. I suppose it works by activating pressure points. 

In other areas of Mexico, beans are eaten, boiled without salt, for 40 days in the event of stomach pains or some other internal issue. Bean juice is thought to promote milk production in lactating mothers, cure amenorrhea and female sterility. It’s sometimes used as a treatment for empacho (indigestion) and externally for hives. 

While there isn’t any medical evidence that supports these traditional uses, beans do have medicinal value. Including beans as part of a regular diet inhibits certain types of cancerous growths. The bean pod of P. Vulgaris, P. coccineus and P. lunatus and their juices are also effective diuretics and have some value in improving kidney function, and reducing gout inflammation, urinary tract infections, and edema. Beans have been shown to work at reducing glucose levels and in the treatment of high cholesterol and obesity. Mexican beans specifically are a good source of antioxidants

The traditional medicinal dosage recipes I found are as follows:

As an infusion, bean juice is made from five grams of green bean pods, allowing it to steep for 15 minutes in 250 ml of boiled water. The pods are then filtered out. The patient can drink up to two cups a day.

As a decoction, seven grams of green bean pods are added to 300 ml of boiling water which is then boiled another 4 minutes before being strained. Up to three cups per day can be drunk. 

In the treatment of diabetes, a tablespoon of dried black bean pods (Phaseolus vulgaris) are added to a half-liter of water and boiled for three minutes. The concoction is strained and the patient can drink up to 3 cups a day.

For edema, a tablespoon of dried bean pods (Phaseoli pericarpium) is added to water and boiled for three minutes. This mixture is drunk twice a day. Rheumatism is treated with a tablespoon of dried pods added a cup of boiling water. Allow it to steep for 10 minutes then strain. One cup of freshly prepared bean pod tea can be had between meals, several times a day. 

For wounds, bean juice from cooked red or black beans is ingested as much as a person can drink per day. The wounds themselves are also washed with bean juice as it does have antibacterial properties

Whether you decide to dose yourself with some bean tea or just add regular servings of beans to your diet, eating beans is good for your health. In this epoch of global climate change, it is also reassuring to know that several types of beans native to Mexico are extremely drought resistant. So rest assured, there’ll be beans enough at my house if you come to visit!

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Filed under Alternative Farming, Mexican Food and Drink