Mexican food writer Lesley Tellez is writing her first cookbook and documenting the process on Serious Eats. Read her introduction here.
One of the most iconic dishes in Mexico City, eaten for breakfast or when one is hungover, is pancita, a simple soup of tripe simmering in a chile-based broth.
I tried hard to like pancita when I lived in Mexico, even though the only thing I wanted during hangovers was a sip of Mexican Coke. The soup is similar to menudo, which I liked. But whenever I drew close to anyone cooking pancita—often in big, bubbling clay pots that sat in the city's markets—the smell turned my stomach. Pancita smelled like stables. Barnyard. Manure.
But those were my values. I'm an American woman who had not grown up eating much tripe, and it smelled foul to me. It did not smell foul to many other people in the world. Plenty of chilangos (the local word for Mexico City residents) loved this soup. For my Mexican food cookbook, which I started writing in January, I hoped to take a comprehensive look at the city's traditional cuisine. That meant I'd have to write about everything—including a few iconic dishes I didn't like so much. So what do you do when you have to write about a dish that turns your stomach? Do I tweak the recipe to mimic my tastes or accept it as-is and make as traditional a version as possible? Or should I leave it out altogether?
I resolved to find at least one bowl of pancita I liked in Mexico City. A few months later, I found myself in a tiny fonda in the Centro Histórico, a deep bowl of jiggly tripe and crimson broth in front of me. I took a bite and... not bad. The texture was chewy, pleasing. I crumbled some chile de árbol over the bowl. On the second bite, a fertilizer smell hit my nose just before I could swallow. I tried to ignore the sudden urge to retch.
When I got home to New York, I told myself to get over it. I had eaten pig uterus tacos and live beetles. I liked pickled pigs feet tostadas. I could handle a little barnyard, especially if I gussied up the soup with something meaty like oxtail. The Centro Histórico fonda owner had told me that doing so would be just fine. A Mexico City butcher was likewise enthusiastic about oxtail in pancita, telling me, "N'oooombre. Te va a salir un súper caldazo." (Roughly translated: Duuuude. You're going to have a kick-ass soup on your hands.)
So in May, I went to the Chinese market near my house and bought a pound of honeycomb tripe and a pound of oxtail. This was not the tripe they'd told me to buy in Mexico City—both the butcher and the fonda owner had recommended I buy cuajo, a tripe with a slightly bumpy texture almost like the taste buds on your tongue. I did some Googling and realized this was probably rumen, the cow's first stomach chamber; honeycomb tripe came from the next chamber, the reticulum. (Incidentally, there are two more chambers as well, each with their own unique textures.) My local markets didn't carry rumen, so honeycomb would have to do.
The fonda I visited in Mexico buys its tripe directly from the slaughterhouse, and the cooks have to boil it for six to eight hours to tenderize it. American (and much Mexican) supermarket tripe comes already bleached and pre-boiled, so mine only needed a few hours' cooking time. I figured the bleach had stamped out any foul odors, so I plopped the tripe in some boiling water and let it cook. 45 minutes later, an aroma began to fill the house—the stink of half-digested stomach contents. I opened the kitchen windows and turned on the fan, and shut myself away in my office.
After a few hours of cooking, I fished out a small piece of tripe and tasted it. The barnyard flavor clung stubbornly to the organ, coating the inside of my mouth. So I tossed the tripe in the trash and went online, searching for ways to make these guts taste like something other than guts.
Some people suggested scrubbing the tripe with a vinegar-salt slurry, and then letting it soak in water. Others said to scrub it repeatedly with a stiff brush and leave it to dry in the sun for several days. That was not going to work in my small Queens apartment.
The next morning at 8 a.m.—I had to start early if I wanted to both soak and cook the tripe in the same day, and make it to an evening dinner out—I took out another package of tripe from the fridge, and, without having breakfast or coffee first, proceeded to slather and then scrub both sides with vinegar and salt. I told myself that I was simply cleaning something dirty. I was an excellent cleaner, and scrubbing tripe crevices was required to get the job done.
The worst moment came when I looked down at my natural-fiber brush and remembered all the times I'd used it to clean my molcajete. And also, maybe, once... to clean the sink. I had washed the brush before and after each use, but the thought of old salsa bits (or old food bits?) getting stuck in the tripe made me gag. My empty stomach panged. What if the slurry wouldn't work? What if the house stinks again? What if I was doing all this work for nothing?
Eight hours later, nausea and nervousness lingering, I placed the tripe in the pot with another pound of oxtail. A mild smell wafted out of the kitchen, but not enough to send me running for the hills. I let the tripe cook and prepared my dried chili broth, along with several sprigs of fresh epazote.
At the end, the soup looked right—crimson and meaty, with a light greasy sheen on top, just like at the markets in Mexico. And the tripe was soft, the broth flavorful. Definitely some barnyard aroma. I made a few notes on the recipe and ran out the door to catch a train to Manhattan for dinner, willing myself not to throw up on the train. I didn't feel better until I got to dinner and shoved the first bite of bread into my mouth.
The next day, and the day after, I thought more about the pancita, although I didn't eat any. I realized I had included the recipe in the book partially because it was an iconic dish, but also because it dug right at my insecurities about this entire project. I am a Mexican-American woman from California writing a cookbook about mainly Central Mexican food. I worried often that because I hadn't grown up in Mexico, I wouldn't be able to do the food justice.
The pancita was my way of showing off—to myself and my readers—that I was not just some gringa claiming to know something about Mexican cuisine. But I hadn't gotten it exactly right. After fighting through my extreme disgust, I realized the pancita still needed more chiles, more epazote, more seasoning. It needed the type of calibration and research that can only happen when you taste other varieties of the same dish. Unfortunately I didn't have the stomach, the time, or the access to the proper ingredients to make it 100 percent perfect.
What I could do was create a very good version that reflected my tastes, and a recipe that I'd be proud putting my name on for the world to see. And I felt confident that an offal-lover tried it, they'd be pleased.
I sent the recipe to my recipe tester, Mira, with instructions to bump up the aromatics. She made the recipe a few weeks later at her house and it was better than I remembered: beefy and rich from the oxtail, with a lurking dried chili flavor. I still did not like the tripe, and the dish did not exactly mirror what was sold in Mexico City, but I would serve it to friends, if they liked offal.
As my manuscript deadline approaches, I'm coming to terms with the fact that the book may not turn out exactly how I'd originally envisioned. I wanted each recipe to be flawless and exciting, so perfect that people would talk about the dishes for years. Some of them, I'm happy to say, are that great. But others are simply satisfying and good. That will have to do.