I have long enjoyed the nispero fruit which is known as míspero locally. Mama Sofia had several full-grown trees and when in season would always give us a bucketful to take home. My husband has been trying for years to grow our own nispero tree. One time Miss Piggy broke loose and ate it. Another time, a hoard of ants stripped the sapling bare overnight and it dried out. A third planting was destroyed by the chickens. However we currently have not one, but two, healthy nisperos out back. They aren’t mature enough to produce fruit yet, but I have made nispero leaf tea. It’s delicious! It has a fruity flavor all its own.
The nispero (Eriobotrya japonica) otherwise known as loquat is not native to Mexico or Japan, but China. I wasn’t able to trace its migration to Mexico, although I imagine it came with the Spanish. Regardless how it arrived, it is a healthy addition to your Mexican diet whether eaten as a fruit or enjoyed as a tea. It’s long been used to treat skin inflammation and respiratory problems in China. Here are some other health benefits:
Pick a handful of leaves, preferably young leaves. Scrape off the furry underside. Wash and let dry.
Cut the leaves lengthwise in long stripes to reduce oxidation.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Let the leaves steep for 10 minutes. Strain and serve. Flavor with honey if desired. It really doesn’t need it. The flavor is lightly fruity.
I found one recipe that suggested the tea can be served as a hot toddy, with a splash of whiskey or bourbon and lemon on the side. I suppose it could. Maybe I’ll try it this way during the rainy season on one of my days off.
Did you know that the Maya didn’t make tortillas before 900 CE? The reason archeologists believe the tortilla is a more recent addition to their diet is that no comal has ever been recovered at any excavated sites of periods before 900 CE. So what did the Maya eat? TAMALES!
Tameles were foodstuff in the Aztec and Maya civilizations as far back as 7000 BC. The Maya even had a hieroglyph for tamales. Since a tamal is individually wrapped, it was the perfect portable food. They were often carried by warriors, hunters and travelers as a sort of meal on the go. Tamales could be reheated over the fire or eaten cold.
A tamal (notice there is not final “e” at the end of the word in singular) is made of masa (corn dough) steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The wrapping is not eaten, but we always save our wrappings for the goats. It can be filled with pretty much anything, meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, chili etc.
The Aztec had their favorite fillings. Tamales were often filled with turkey, flamingo, frog, axolotl (salamander), pocket gopher, rabbit, fish, turkey eggs, honey, fruit, squash or beans. Festival tamales were a cut above the rest. Tamales wrapped with amaranth leaves stuffed with greens and served with shrimp sauce were made for the Lord of Fire Xiuhtecuhtli. Tamales filled with beans and chilies were made in honor of the god “Smoking Mirror” Tezcatlipoca. The “Old God” Huehueteotl was honored with shrimp and chili tamales.
Tamales at festivals were passed around in baskets and always held in the left hand. Bad luck would come if you eat a tamal that had stuck to a cooking pot. Aztec women were forbidden to eat these tamales. A pregnant woman who ate a stuck tamal might have pregnancy complications, the child would cling to her womb just like the tamal clung to the side of the pot.
The Maya often had tamales filled with toasted squash seeds, squash flowers, beans, iguana, turkey, deer, and fish. The heart of the deer was used to make tamales for special festivals. They also had unique, elaborate tamales, rolled together and filled together like a jelly-roll, displaying spiral designs when cut. Often the tamales were wrapped in chaya instead of banana leaves or corn husks.
Traditionally, food preparation was the domain of women. The ties began at birth when the umbilical cords of infant girls were buried under the grinding stone, symbolizing their future occupation. Girls learned at the knees of their mothers from a very young age so that by the age of 13, girls were responsible for grinding maize and food preparation. (See Codex Mendoza)
Women, young and old, participated in the extended tamal preparation in what was called a tamalada.
La Tamalada by Carmen Lomas Garza
In Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, Bernardino de Sahagún described what he observed in a tamalada in preparation for a festivity.
“Among the ashes was the labor of the old women. They made tamales using dried grains of maize; …they made tamales of meat. Some cooked tamales in an olla. Some washed the maize grains which had been cooked in lime. Some carried and drew water, or poured it. Some broke up, ground, and pulverized cacao beans. Some mixed cooked maize with chocolate. Some cooked stews, or roasted chiles—different kinds of chiles. All night they remained there. Vigil was kept. They kept watch. There was constant awaiting of the light. They sat holding vigil and chattering.”
So how does one make tamales?
The beginning steps to preparing the masa are identical to making tortillas. (See Tortillas)
First, the dried corn is removed from the cob.
Removing the corn from the cob.
The corn is then sifted to remove stones and dirt, then poured high so that the wind takes any chaff left over. Next corn is then boiled until soft with lime and the husks removed.
The softened and peeled corn is then milled. Many tortillerias offer this service as hand grinding with a metate takes much longer. The resulting doughy mix is called masa.
Add melted manteca (lard) or vegetable oil to the masa and mix it until the dough is pasty.
Corn husks can be bought already dried and flattened.
In addition to the masa (dough), the wrappings need to be prepared. If you are using dried corn husks, soak them in hot water until they are pliable. This could take up to 30 minutes. Drain and then pat dry.
In order to form the tamal, take a softened corn husk and spread the masa into a flat rectangle shape. Add the filling in the middle. Roll the husk and fold up it up at the end. Set the tamal upright in a steamer pot with 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom. Cover and steam on medium-low heat until the dough pulls away from the corn husk. Enjoy!
Only one person should meter mano (put his/her hand in) to load the tamales into the pot, otherwise, the tamales will spoil, or so is the common belief.
The zacahuil tamal, a specialty still made by the Huastecan people, is 3 feet long, weighs about 150 pounds and uses most of the leaves of a banana tree to wrap. It is baked in an oven or in the ground rather than steamed.
As with any other integral part of life, there are several expressions using tamal/tamales found in Mexican Spanish.
The idea of infidelity comes into play again with the expression “Hacer de chivo los tamales” which literally means making tamales out of goat but means you are about to be betrayed by or betray your romantic partner.
Or how about this one–“Para todo mal, un tamal. Para todo bien, tambien.” For everything bad, console yourself with a tamal. For everything good, celebrate with a tamal. With the variety of tamales available, there’s a flavor for every occasion. I’ve also heard this expression with mezcal replacing tamal. That will work too!
Our whole purpose in living in off-grid rural Mexico is to become self-reliant. After 9 years of slow progress, we still aren’t there yet. But we are closer than we were.
Our microcosm provides us with regular food stuff. We grow corn, beans and squash ever year in the traditional way on sharecropped land. (See Las tres hermanas) Our non-GMO organic corn not only provides year-round foods for our animals but also allows for equally healthy tortillas–the very foundation of Mexican cuisine. My sister-in-law runs a tortilleria (See Failing at your own business–Tortilleria), so I am relieved of this very time-consuming task. Corn is also used in tamales, pozole and a plethora of other traditional dishes.
Corn and lime boiling in preparation for milling for tortillas.
We also grow garbanzo (chickpeas) after the corn growing season is finished. It makes for a nice snack, either raw or steamed, with the added benefit that the entire plant is eagerly consumed by our grazing animals. Fiona, the donkey, is especially fond of garbanzo.
Our organically fed animals also provide us with delicious foodstuff. From our small herd of goats, we have daily milk and occasional meat. The milk we don’t drink right away is pastured right on the stove for later. We use it for creamy hot chocolate or honey-dripped oatmeal. The honey is from a local organic hive and delicious!
As we don’t have refrigeration, we dry our leftover meat into jerky strips. The dried meat theoretically should last several weeks. However, it rarely does due to the presence of a pre-teen, always ravenous, boy.
Our chickens, ducks, and turkeys provide us with daily eggs and occasional meat as well. Just as with the goats, this means butchering. My husband has had years of practice at this and, therefore, our animals do not suffer needlessly.
We also keep rabbits and have recently added sheep to our backyard barnyard. Both provide occasional meat. (See Waskely Wabbits and Old MacDonald’s Farm). I’m hoping that our sheep will give us wool and perhaps milk later on as well. But as we haven’t had much success with sheep herding (See Birth and Death) it remains to be seen if that will actually happen or not.
Tunas are not hard to find after the rainy season.
La Yacata provides food, free of charge, for us as well. Cactus fruit is abundant towards the end of the rainy season. It’s not unusual for us to spend an afternoon foraging for pitayas (See Picking Pitayas) or tunas (See Picking tunas) or harvesting nopales (cactus leaves)(See Harvesting Cactus) for dinner.
Tea can be made from hojas (leaves) or roots of a variety of naturally available plants. (See Feverfew tea and Lentejilla). Wild mushrooms are also found aplenty during the rainy season.
We have moras (blackberries), chirimoya, guayaba, limones (lemons) and durazno (peach) in season in our own garden. We anxiously awaiting fruit from our granada and nispero trees this year. Our orange tree up and died last year, so it looks like no oranges this year. I hope to do some container gardening as well. Backyard gardening hasn’t been very successful with our free range chickens and rabbits out and about.