Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vegetarian diets: Mexican style

I remember taking a health class not too long ago where the teacher made the following blanket statement: "Mexican food can be healthy if prepared without meat and cheese." I had a talk with him and argued that a more accurate statement would have been "Any cuisine can be healthier if you eliminate meat and cheese." We had a great talk and I eventually came to admire and respect him, but that conversation got me thinking...Mexican vegetarian traditions are still unknown on this side of the border.

Here's some musings about vegetarian diets, Mexican style:

Beyond the Taqueria
Have you ever wondered why Taqueria food features brains, tongue and tripe? These cuts of meats were cheap and considered leftovers, but widely used because of their affordability. Unfortunately this type of food has become the "signature" Mexican cuisine here in the US. In fact, many regional Mexican cuisines feature a lot of vegetarian options for that reason: Meat is considered a luxury.

Carnaval: Goodbye to meat!

In Mexico, Carnaval is celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday. It is a time for revelrie and debauchery before the more solemn "Semana Santa" or Easter celebrations. Carnaval literally means "goodbye to meat". In a largely Catholic population even the most devoted meat eater goes vegetarian for 40 days if they observe vigilia, or Lent.

Nothing new
Ancient Mexicans were mostly vegetarian. The original Mesoamerican diet was comprised of squash, peppers, beans and corn. Even Oprah featured a show on "Blue Zones", or places where people live longer. The longevity of people in certain areas of Central America may be directly linked to a vegetarian diet that has been around for more than 3000 years.

Salad, or salsa?

Tomato salsa is very popular in the US. In Mexico the word salsa actually means "sauce" and there's a lot of different varieties, from the raw to the cooked. Raw salsas often include the same ingredients used to prepare salads, like peppers, onions and some times fruit. Pico de gallo, an orange chopped salad that includes jicama and cucumbers is a good example. If chopped in smaller cubes the salad becomes a fresh salsa!

Jugos y licuados.
Some market stalls in Mexico exclusively sell vegetarian or vegan drinks. They are called juguerias (see my next post). They feature jugos (juice) delicious aguas frescas (fruit drinks) and licuados (smoothies). Fruit is also a popular snack. Some street vendors sell fruit spears, often seasoned with lime, salt and chili pepper.

Go verde
If you speak Spanish you know that verde is the word for the color green. Verdura or "greenery" is a word used interchangeably to describe edible greens and salad. Many dishes include verdura in the form of shredded lettuce, radishes, green onions and avocado...mostly as a side dish or garnish. However, there are many other types of verduras. Here's a few:
  • Verdolagas. Known as purslane in English. It has a pleasant sweet-sour flavor.
  • Romeritos. Succulent leaves similar to a young, tender rosemary leaf.
  • Quelites. The word comes from the Nahuatl "quilitl", meaning any edible wild herb. There are many kinds of quelites that grow wild in Mexico.
  • Popalo. Round little leaves, often used inside Tortas, or Mexican sandwiches.
  • Chipilin. Deliciously fragrant leaves, often used to prepare tamales and soups. Very popular in southern Mexico and Central America.
  • Epazote. This strong tasting herb is used as a seasoning, but some times it is also used as a verdura. For example, some quesadillas include fresh epazote leaves.
  • Chaya. Large green fuzzy leaves. In Chiapas they are steamed or pan friend, they remind me a bit of kale or green chard.
  • Momo. Also known as hoja santa meanign "sacred herb" (pictured below). This plant is also used to prepare tamales, it has a delicate taste similar to anise. Some folks in Southern mexico use the momo leaves to make tasty little wraps, in the same manner you would use a tortilla.

Xoconostles, chayotes, nopales...Oh my!

Mexico contributed chocolate, vanilla, avocadoes, tomatoes and corn to the world's diet, among many other foods. There's a lot of fruits, grains and vegetables commonly eaten south of the border that are just waiting to be discovered here in the US! Here's some examples:
  • Mamey. It is elongated like an avocado, but it has brick colored flesh and a shinny black pit. It has a delicate flavor somehow similar to papaya but sweeter and creamier.
  • Chayotes. Pear shaped squash. They are very popular, often boiled and eaten like vegetables, but they are technically fruits.
  • Manchi. Also known as nanche. It resembles a small yellow cherry. They are a bit mealy, they are often marinated in rum and eaten as a dessert.
  • Tejocotes. They are little fragrant fruits similar to crab apples.
  • Guajes, caspiroles. These are seed pods, eaten raw or cooked. Guajes are cooked like green beans. Caspiroles have a sweet, fuzzy flesh. The taste is similar to lychee fruit.
  • Tunas. No, not tuna fish! These are cactus fruits - they come in green, yellow and a beautiful magenta color.
  • Nopales. Tender cactus, they are eaten cooked. The taste and consistency is similar to okra.
  • Xoconostles. They are like tunas, but sour.
  • Jocotes. Round sweet fruits, similar to plums.
  • Moras. A variety of wild berries.
  • Zapotes. Similar to mamey, but round.
I hope to post several traditional Mexican vegetarian recipes featuring these ingredients in the near future!

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