An Introduction to Mexican Cuisine, Part 1: Puebla and Central Mexico

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"This is the place where the Spanish settled and really declared it their own," Lesley Tellez, author of the forthcoming Eat Mexico, told me. She was talking about Puebla, the landlocked state nestled between such diverse geographies as highland Hidalgo, coastal Veracruz, and rugged Oaxaca. This geography, and the multiple ethnic regions within the state, lends itself to a cuisine of remarkable depth.

Puebla's culinary legacy stretches back to the Mesoamerican age. It's where amaranth was first domesticated and one of the first places maize was cultivated, an ancient cog in Mexico's great corn belt. What is Poblano cuisine? Meat wrapped in fragrant leaves and roasted underground or braised in tomatoes and tomatillos. Pumpkin seeds used in more ways than you thought possible. A sophisticated French-influenced bread culture. And of course there's mole, the chocolate-tinged sauce that takes dozens of ingredients and days to make, which, when done right, is a Proustian madeleine of the New World.

Poblano cooks take foreign ingredients, like Middle Eastern pita, and make them their own. "People here eat everything they can," says Rebecca Smith Hurd of All About Puebla. Puebla is a place where you can devour the world, but it will be the world filtered through the Mexican kitchen.

Welcome to the first story in a six-part series highlighting the regional cuisines of Mexico. Our goal: to show the incredible diversity and depth of the country's food culture, noting ingredients and dishes beyond the well-known. We're kicking off with Puebla to showcase its ancient history and modern influences: it's a land-locked region that reaches far beyond its borders.

Essential Ingredients: A World of Influences

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Black beans with cotija cheese. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Avocados, beans, chilies, corn, squash, tomatoes, and tomatillos: these are some of Mexico's favorite things.

In Puebla they're colored by native herbs, grains and greens; fruit and livestock from Spain; and spices, tubers, and seeds from South America, Africa, and Asia. Puebla became a major stop on the trade route between Mexico City and the Atlantic port of Veracruz. Puebla's famed convents filled up with daughters of the wealthy merchants whose influence and purchasing power brought dozens of foreign ingredients and ideas into the city.

Chilies: If corn is the backbone of Mexican cooking, then chilies are the heart. Nowhere else on earth are they used with such range: as aromatic bases and spice rubs. As a whole catalogue of spices on their own. In Puebla, Smith Hurd says, "the cuisine is not as spicy as other areas of Mexico, where they favor chilies more on the habanero scale."

Common chilies include earthy poblanos, chipotles (ripe jalapenos dried over smoky fires), fresh and feisty serranos, and the tiny but fierce piquin chilies used in salsas.

Beans: Look inside the Pueblan pantry and you'll find many varieties of beans and pulses. The usual suspects include fava beans, lentils, pinto beans, ayocotes or black runner beans, arvejón in the Sierra Norte, and alberjón, a type of garbanzo bean.

Greens: One of the most important vegetables are nopales, the paddle-shaped pads of the abundant prickly pear cactus. You'll find them prepared raw or pickled in salads, stuffed inside huaraches, and even made into ice cream. Verdolagas, or purslane, and the broccoli-like huauzontle are the most popular of Puebla's quelites, a term that encompasses all edible wild greens.

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Quesadilla with huitlacoche. [Photograph: Nathan Tucker]

Mushrooms: Puebla and the bordering Estado de México are said to have some of the world's finest morels, but the favorite child of the fungal world is huitlacoche, a sweet, woody black fungus that grows on corn. It's eaten fresh in quesadillas and cooked into sauces. Since huitlacoche damages the corn it grows on, farmers reserve special sacrificial crops for it.

Proteins and cheese: Chicken and pork are eminently popular in Puebla, but beef, sheep, and especially goat and turkey all have their place on the table. Fish is more rare, but in the Sierra Norte river fish like trout and acamayas, the local crawfish, abound. Puebla does not have any famous cheeses of its own but you can find stringy quesillo (aka queso de Oaxaca) and the cultured creams nata and crema.

Bugs: Entophomagy is a longstanding tradition in Central Mexico, and bugs are a delicacy all their own. Look for the caviar of Mexico—escamoles, ant eggs—and and gusanos, or Maguey larvae, are two of the most important.

Bread: Nowhere else in Mexico will you find the variety of bread that is available in Puebla City, a legacy of the French Intervention (1863-1867) and the Francophile Porfirian regime's push to replace corn with wheat. A few types are the eggy, brioche-like cemita; the plump pambazo roll; the crunchy pan de agua; the pita derived flat bread pan arabe, and even crepes. Pan dulce, or sweet bread, like sugar shelled conchas, are popular.

Maguey: The maguey plant is the giving tree of Mexico. It gave the country pulque, the milky ferment made from the plant's sap, and, with European distilling techniques, tequila and mescal. In the kitchen, maguey leaves are used to wrap meat for barbacoa, while their translucent, parchment-like membrane, mixiotes, is the traditional wrapper for the dish of the same name.

Herbs: What are we seasoning all this with? Epazote, the indigenous national herb of Mexico, is considered indispensable for black beans and is also cooked like spinach and drunk as a tea for its pungent flavor. Other essential herbs include Mexican oregano, which tends to be muskier and warmer than its bitter Italian counterpart; papalo, which tastes like peppery, citrusy cilantro; and hoya de aguacate, the minty leaf of the crillo avocado tree.

Essential Dishes

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Mole Poblano. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, tamales, chilaquiles, and more foods, mostly masa-based, comprise the national cuisine of Mexico. However, preparations vary wildly in ingredients and technique from state to state. Menudo, the ubiquitous tripe soup, becomes panza de res en verde, tripe cooked in serrano and pepita sauce, in Puebla's northern regions.

As in much of Mexico, lard is the traditional cooking fat and rice, beans, and tortillas accompany main meals. Lunch is the main meal, while breakfast can mean atole and a tamal, pan dulce, or eggs.

Common threads unite Pueblan cooking with greater central Mexico, including the region's style of pit barbecue, localized specialties, and cooking methods. Meats are often poached, but steaming, frying, and stewing all make appearances as well.

Mole, Pipian, and Adobo

According to Smith Hurd, there are three great sauces in Poblano cooking: mole, pipian, and adobo.

Any proper discussion about Pueblan cuisine begins with mole poblano, considered by many to be Mexico's national dish. Probably invented by the nuns of Santa Clara, it is powered by chilies wouldn't be the dish it is today without the addition of global ingredients like almonds from Spain, plantains from Africa, and cinnamon from Asia. As it can take days to make, it's generally reserved for special occasions like weddings.

Each cook has their own recipe of vary complexity. Depending on who's behind the stove, it might be smokier, sweeter, earthier, or spicier. While the roster of ingredients fluctuates, you'll always find dried chilies (like mulatto, pasilla, and ancho), a light dose of chocolate, nuts for thickening and toasted sesame seeds for garnishing, spices like allspice and canela, and fresh and dried fruit including plantains and raisins.

While Oaxaca is famously said to have seven moles, Puebla continues to be defined by mole poblano alone. But that's hardly all the state has to offer! Many more exist in Puebla, including mole de chilayo, made with sesame seed, red jalapeno, and white beans, mole verde de Zacapala, made with pumpkin seeds, lettuce, chilcotes, and local runner beans.

The second of Puebla's great sauces is pipian, hallmarked by the pre-Columbian technique of browning seeds to release their fat and then grinding them into an oily paste. In Puebla, the most popular form is verde, made with pepitas, spices, broth, and fresh chilies, but the Totonocs in the north also make pipian blanco with coriander and peanuts.

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Pollo en adobo rojo.

In adobo, meat is marinated in chilies and vinegar. For adobo rojo, dried chilies like guajillo and ancho chilies are typical, while the more tart, brighter verde uses tomatillos, jalapenos, and serranos.

Stuffed Chilies, Saucy Meats, and Soups

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[Photograph: Blake Royer]

Pueblan cooks are fond of stuffing and frying their poblano chilies, which is the makings of one of the state's tastiest dishes, the baroque masterpiece chiles en nogada.

A celebration of the fall bounty, the dish features a picadillo, a stuffing or hash, of finely chopped meat seasoned with apples, peaches, pears, and dried fruit stuffed inside a roasted poblano chili. The stuffed chili is then fried in lard, drowned in a creamy walnut sauce, and garnished with parsley and pomegranate seeds for a white, green, and red tableau reminiscent of the Mexican flag.

As a seasonal and laborious specialty, chiles en nogada aren't an everyday dish. More common foods fill the stuffed-pepper gap, like chiles rellenos, battered and fried poblanos stuffed with simpler fillings like oozy cheese, and chiltamale, a pepper stuffed with a fresh corn tamale.

Pueblans are bold braisers, cooking meat in all manner of chili, nut, tomato, and tomatillo sauces. These preparations typically fit specific purposes. Tinga, chicken marinated in a chipotle sauce, is reserved for antojitos like tostadas and molotes. Others are dishes in their own right, like puerco con verdolagas en salsa verde, or braised pork and purslane in a tomatillo and fresh chile sauce.

Better Than Chipotle's Beef Barbacoa

A barbacoa taco. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Still others are events in and of themselves. Likely pioneered in Hidalgo, barbacoa is the regional style of pit barbecue. A whole animal, typically sheep or goat, is wrapped in maguey leaves, maybe seasoned with aromatics like avocado leaves, and roasted. Like all of central Mexico, Puebla claims the dish as its own.

"Soup-stews," a term coined by Diana Kennedy to refer to dishes like pozole that don't fit neatly into either category, are integral to the cuisines of central Mexico and bridge a direct link to the pre-Columbian, vegetarian chilli stew chillmoli. In Puebla, Smith Hurd says, they constitute the other half of the mole equation. Two such preparations are mole de olla, a beef, chili, and vegetable stew, and mole de caderas (literally, hips), the most fascinating of Puebla's other moles. All About Puebla details its humble agricultural origins, as the recipe calls for off cuts like the hips, bones, and spines of goats cooked with ingredients like runner beans, wild tamarind seeds, and local chilies. That nose-to-tail tradition continues to this today.

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[Photograph: Chris Crowley]

As elsewhere in Mexico, the soup course is essential to comida, or lunch, the main meal of the day. This may come in the form of a sopa seca, casseroles and other "dry" bean, rice and pasta courses, or cremas, smooth vegetable purees that highlight regional produce like Puebla's poblano peppers. The spicy corn chowder chileatole is a rustic classic, while meatier soups include albondigas en chipotle, or egg-stuffed pork meatballs in chipotle broth.

Street Snacks and Sandwiches

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Chalupas.

What about antojitos? Mexicans have a sophisticated nomenclature for their masa snacks—many minor variations on a theme—that matches the Italian language for pasta. Awed by the stupendous variety of these snacks, Diana Kennedy once called Mexicans "the most persistent noshers in the world."

Generally speaking, masa snacks fall into two broad categories: those that are stuffed and those that are topped. Most are grilled or shallow-fried, but deep frying and steaming have their place. They're typically served early in the morning, like tamales with atole, for commuters, or later in the night, like tacos, to fill in the gaps between the main meal. Others are foods of practicality, like tacos placeros ("market tacos"), a cheap but robust meal folded into a tortilla.

While antojitos were enjoyed in pre-Columbian times, many modern varieties would not exist without the ingredients and techniques introduced by the Spanish. There's the lard in your tamale, the oil used to fry your tostada, and so on. Some modern snacks remain relatively faithful to their pre-Hispanic forms, like central Mexico's famous tlacoyos. Often but not always torpedo shaped, these grilled antojitos are stuffed with fillings like beans or requeson and traditionally topped with nothing but salsa.

Despite being grouped into the catchall of street food, not all are found on the street or in markets. Some are the province of restaurants and, in Puebla, "street food" is more likely to be served out of stalls than on the curb.

Each region of Mexico has their own unique antojitos. Puebla can lay claim to the Sierra Norte's pinots, thick bean stuffed tortillas dipped in tomato salsa, and memelas poblanas, masa boats that are a popular morning appetizer. The regional spin on fried tortilla shells, chalupas, are served through to the afternoon, while molotes, like deep fried masa calzones filled with anything from plantains to brains, are often enjoyed at night.

Street food is an easy point of entry for immigrants and their influence is evident in tacos arabes, deemed "the taco of Puebla" by Smith Hurd. The creation of either Lebanese or Iraqi immigrants, tacos arabes are made with pork seasoned with a chipotle sauce and cooked in the style of shawarma. They are, unlike the related tacos al pastor, served on pan arabe.

Not all snacks are made of masa, though. Puebla is home to some of the world's finest sandwiches. Everybody who's anybody knows the towering cemita, what with its frijoles en chipotle, pungent papalo, and stringy quesillo. But there are also chanclas, stuffed with shredded beef, avocado, and onion, and drenched in guajillo sauce; pelonas, a small roll fried and then overstuffed with crema, salsa, shredded beef, and avocado; and the guajalote, crispy-fried torta de agua bread with crema, salsa, and shredded turkey.

Beverages and Sweets

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Rompope. [Photograph: Maria del Mar Sacasa]

Sweets in Mexico were forever changed by the introduction of refined sugar. The frozen treats and candied fruit and tubers, like camotes en dulce, enjoyed throughout central Mexico are a legacy of that. But Puebla also has its own heritage of creative, elaborate desserts created by the convent nuns. Baroque sauces weren't all they gave Puebla! Some are more transparently European, like muéganos or nougat, while others, like camotes de Santa Clara (flavored sweet potato candies), blur lines.

A particularly unique aspect of this heritage is the pumpkin seed icing, invented by the same nuns and used on sweets like the shortbread cookies tortitas de Santa Clara. That same icing is used for Puebla's beloved mollotes dulce, the state's custard-filled sweet bread.

The state's drinks exhibit both ancient and colonial influences. For imbibing, there is rompope, the eggnog variant created by the nuts, and a variety of fruit wines and liqueurs, like the raisin-based pasita, are enjoyed. But beverages aren't all fun. Many are important to and associated with holiday celebrations. Ponce, a fruit cocktail anchored by tejocote, is prepared for the Day of the Dead and Christmas, while atole, though a typical street food, is often associated with Christmas. Found throughout Mexico, the ancient, masa-based porridge is made in Puebla plain or with chocolate, as champurrado. Amaranth and fresh corn are also used to make it.

The Other Cuisines of Central Mexico

As vast as its cuisine is, Puebla is just one part of the many pronged world of Central Mexican cooking. The surrounding states of Tlaxcala, Morelos, Hidalgo, Querétaro, and Mexico are all home to their own serious gastronomies.

From Querétaro's chicken cooked with orchard fruits and spices, to Morelos's pipian rojo, a sauce of sesame seeds, nuts, and dried chilies, to Hidalgo's mixiotes, seasoned meat steamed in a parchment like wrapper, the spectrum of dishes is astounding. This is to so say nothing of Tlaxcala's mole de ladrillo, named for the burnished brick-like color the guajillo chilies give it, or the D.F.'s tacos al pastor, the marinated, spit-roasted pork developed by Middle Eastern immigrants!

To echo Fuchsia Dunlop, there is no such thing as Mexican cuisine. Rather, there are many cuisines of Mexico. Next up on our tour: Veracruz.

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