Regional Mexican Cuisine: Get to Know the Soul Food of Michoacán

Rustic and hearty but almost electric in flavor, with more tamales than you can shake a stick at.

Carnitas tacos on a plate with lime wedges.
. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

After a stint in the balmy Yucatan, sweating over blistering salsas and relishing smoky pit-roasted pork, we're now heading west to Michoacán. Abutting the Pacific ocean, the state is often called the soul of Mexico. Fitting, then, that it borders tequila soaked-Jalisco, the wellspring of much of Mexico's culture, and Guerrero, where corn was first domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Central Balsas River Valley.

Like the Mayans, Michoacán's native Purepecha people didn't just submit to the Spanish, or the Aztecs before them, and today the state is home to one of Mexico's most diverse indigenous populations. This heritage is reflected in the local cuisine, one that, journalist and Mexican food expert Gustavo Arellano wrote, maintains unusually close ties to its traditional kitchen.

What you'll find there is food both rustic and hearty but almost electric in flavor, with more tamales than you can shake a stick at. Dishes like fresh cheese cooked with chili, belly-hugging casseroles made of tamales, and lard-fried carnitas; starchy hominy pozole emblazoned with chiles and birria so rich it sticks to your lips.

Michoacán's cuisine isn't as famous as the primal cooking of the Yucatan or the baroque food of Puebla, but it's just as worth digging into.

The Michoacán Kitchen

The Michoacán pantry is full of Mexico's hallmark staples such as tomatillos, tomatoes, dried chile chilaca (or pasilla), and avocados, while creamy peruano beans and several local mushroom varieties bring a hometown face to the cooking. Michoacán cooks are particularly adept with chayote root, chili seeds, and a local wild green called lamb's quarters, using them all in expected and less-than-expected ways.

As elsewhere in Mexico, the state's geographic diversity lends itself to a bounty of deliciousness. Mountains surrounding a coastal plain ensure plenty of rainfall, which has helped Michoacán become Mexico's top producer of avocados (as much as 92% of the country's crop is grown here). But many more fruits grow around them, such as blackberries, tamarind, and guava, and all make their way into the cooking.

Besides avocados, one of the state's most recognizable ingredients is queso cotija, a firm, sharp, and salty cow's milk cheese that's grated as a garnish for all kinds of dishes, used as liberally as Parmesan in Parma. The state's hot coastal plain lends itself to ranching, which means cattle for beef and dairy, though pigs are important too, both for carnitas and the state's spin on chorizo, which sings with chile and vinegar.

The Land of Tamal Casserole

Guajillo chilies are frequent players in the Michoacán kitchen. Shutterstock

Aside from the Yucatan, there is nowhere in Mexico so renowned for its tamales as Michoacán. Tamales get weird here, and cooks do things to them that'd be considered unorthodox elsewhere in the country, like serve them with sauce or sour cream on the side, or, gasp!, as a side dish with certain stews. Michoacán tamales often have no filling, and the dough is made not with masa but fresh corn.

Though fresh corn tamales are made throughout Mexico, nowhere else are they so distinctive. Consider uchepos and tamales de elote y miel, or fresh corn and sugar. The latter are made with a mix of sweet-juicy and starchy corns, creating a texture that is, Diana Kennedy writes, spongy and like "British steamed pudding." Uchepos, on the other hand, are served (not stuffed) with cheese and crème fraiche.

If you want something inside your tamal, try corundas, triangular-shaped versions with savory fillings, served with sauce on the side. What makes them unique, Kennedy adds, is the particular preparation of the corn, which results in a sturdy dough, and the use of the corn leaf for wrapping.

Those with a sweet tooth might prefer custard-like canaries, which are made with rice flour, dairy, and egg yolks for festive occasions. They're found as far east as Puebla and seemingly always enjoyed with a warm beverage like hot chocolate.

And for the leftovers there's casserole. Extra uchepos will get layered in a baking dish, covered with chiles, cheese, and crème fraîche, and then baked. Remember when I said this food was hearty? It's also really good.

Birthplace of Carnitas

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

The cooks of Michoacán can lay claim to many great accomplishments, but for those of us who love pork, none match carnitas, those crispy and luscious hunks of pork (and sometimes offal) cooked like confit in a deep cauldron of lard. That fat is often seasoned with dried herbs like marjoram and Mexican oregano, tequila or beer, citrus, and more. It's usually then stuffed into tacos, though also makes its way into enchiladas with rice and beans on the side.

But carnitas isn't the only meat-centric meal around here. Also famous is the local chorizo, made with earthy guajillo and searing puja chilies as well as a variety of herbs. Thrifty cooks will preserve dry pieces of beef, then cook them with tomato, chilies, and eggs to make a hearty aporreada. And there's the state's favorite chicken dish, pollo placero, or market chicken. Chicken is fried in lard and seasoned with oregano, then served with enchiladas under a blanket of ancho chili sauce.

Cooks are fond of their offal, too. Carnitas is traditionally made with a whole pig, which includes plenty beyond the standard muscle groups. You'll also find rellena de pollo, chicken's blood and intestines cooked with herbs, fat, and chilies for something spicy and funky with a lot of textural fun.

You may notice a trend here of proteins, be they fried or simmered, carefully seasoned with chilies, herbs, spices, and citrus, all to put the state's agricultural bounty to good use. And as is befitting of a hearty cuisine, animal fat takes multiple roles, both cooking medium and vital flavoring.

Famous Stews

Pozole rojo. James, Flickr

The western coastal region to which Michoacán belongs has produced some of Mexico's most famous stews. While pozole is more closely identified with Guerreo and birria with Jalisco, both dishes are too irresistible to have not spilled over into Michoacán cooking.

Pozole is more than a hangover cure. It starts with gelatin-rich pork parts stewed into a luscious broth that's colored with dried or fresh chiles. But the star is hominy, whole corn kernels that emerge from the nixtamalization process for making masa, that add a tender and pleasingly starchy bite to every spoonful. Michoacános tend to prefer their pozole rojo, rich with dried chiles.

Birria is, as Rafael Hernandez writes in Celebrating Latino Folklore, so central to Jaliscan identity that the local government promotes the dish through its own festivals. It's a rich braise typically made with goat (though sometimes beef or mutton) and layered with chiles and herbs for a complex and satisfying spoonful.

Michoacános can't lay claim to the dish, but they treat it right, and in Michoacán it's typically made by rubbing the meat with adobo seasoning, then cooking it with a small amount of liquid and even more spices, like warming cinnamon and pungent cumin. The meaty broth is best swiped up with freshly made tortillas.

It'd be over-reaching to call Michoacán the soul food of Mexico, but the comparison bears some fruit. With comforting stews, fatty pork products, and all kinds of starchy tamale delights, there's a lot to love about this oft-overlooked region.

This feature originally appeared as part of an occasional series highlighting the regional cuisines of Mexico.

February 2015