Category Archives: Mexican Food and Drink

Natural Healing — Pitahayas

Pitahaya AKA Dragon Fruit

With things being what they are these days, we have to take our joys where we find them. This week our big highlight was our cactus produced pitahayas, one for each of us. We planted it two years ago from a cutting from the neighbor. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of a long productive spell. 

Hylocereus polyrhizus cactus

The Hylocereus cactus that produced our pitahayas (as opposed to pitayas which come from the cactus stenocereus) is the Hylocereus polyrhizus. It produces fruit that has a pink covering with a reddish, seedy (and delicious) interior known as pitahaya roja. It’s native to Mexico but found in many tropical regions nowadays. In our region, this fruit is also called tuna tasajo. Tuna is the generic term for cactus fruit while I assume tasajo is from an indigenous source, possibly Purépecha, but I couldn’t find an English or Spanish translation for the word. Another term used generally for the fruit from the Hylocereus cactus is pitahaya orejona.

Hylocereus polyrhizus is a viney cactus. Ours has snaked its way up the wall, but I’ve also seen it locally wind itself around mesquite trees. It has a night-blooming flower, so it is dependent on night pollinators like moths or bats. The gorgeous white flower usually wilts within a day or two.  

The betalain that gives this yummy fruit its red color is also found in beets, Swiss chard, and amaranth. Betalain not only makes a natural food coloring but also is rich in antioxidants. The seeds contain linoleic acid which is a functional fatty acid.

This seedy fruit helps the digestive process through prebiotics. It has a preventative effect against breast and colon cancer. It has been shown to aid in reducing cholesterol levels. The lycopene content that gives the fruit its red color is effective in neutralizing heavy metals and toxins including MSG and herbicide ATZ. Furthermore, the antioxidant and fiber content of this fruit may be useful in the prevention and treatment of diabetes.

Traditional Mexican remedies include a diet rich in pitahaya to stimulate appetite and improve digestion. The fruit can be eaten raw, juiced, or made into ice cream or syrup.

Two or three fruits eaten an hour before breakfast for two or three days are prescribed to help with constipation. To treat intestinal parasites, the seeds of several fruits can be separated out and chewed thoroughly before swallowing.  

The flowers can be cooked and eaten like vegetables. Dried flowers can be used to make tea which is used to treat nervous disorders and insomnia. An infusion made from the flowers is also used to treat gum pain and tooth infection. 

Dysentery was treated with a section of root boiled in a covered cup over a slow fire. The concoction was allowed to cool with the top still on and sweetened with honey, then left overnight to be drunk in the morning before breakfast. This process was repeated every day for seven days for maximum results.  

Pitahaya blanca from the Hylocereus undatus cactus.

There are several other varieties of sweet pitahaya available in Mexico. Hylocereus undatus has white fruit and pink skin. This is the type most grown commercially and known as pitahaya blanca. It originated in the southern part of Mexico. Pitahaya blanca is sweeter and has a higher sugar content than either the red or yellow varieties. 

The name reina de la noche (Night Queen) refers to the bloom of this variety. H. undatus has been shown to have wound healing properties when used topically and useful in treating oxidative stress and aortic stiffness in streptozotocin-induced diabetes. The peel has antibacterial properties effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella typhimurium among others.

Hylocereus megalanthus has a yellow fruit and white exterior which is called pitahaya amarilla. The seeds from H. megalanthus fruit have the largest amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids when compared to the other varieties. Hylocereus Purpusii produces fruit with purple skin and pulp. 

Hylocereus ocamponis is native to the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. It’s pinkish on the outside and a darker red inside.

Have you tasted pitahayas? Which color?

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Learn more about traditional herbal remedies in Mexico!

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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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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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