"My Mexico"

In an excerpt from her new book, 'My Mexico,' Diana Kennedy celebrates the culinary traditions of Campeche.


Diana Kennedy
January 29, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Provincia azul, donde es azul el cielo, donde es azul el mar."

"Blue region, where the sky is blue, where the sea is blue." I thought of this quote (from Carlos Pellicer) the other day as I was driving across the long bridge that links La Isla de Carmen to the mainland of Campeche. The sea and sky, both a pale lustrous blue, seem to converge at a hardly discernible line. There was nothing else to be seen but a few seabirds and an occasional fish jumping in the still water. I wondered if I dared stop on the bridge to take a photograph, but the trailers and trucks were coming up behind at a fast lick. When I come back, I thought.

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On the journey back a storm had blown in and all was gray with silvery-green reflections of the mounting clouds in the water. Again it was impossible to stop as I watched the oncoming traffic in the rearview mirror -- and besides, I would need a wide-angle lens to do justice to the beauty of that turbulent scene.

Campeche, the town, has always been a very special place for me. My first extended stay there to study the food was in the summer of 1969. The Malecsn (promenade) stretched for several kilometers along the rim of gulf, and the landfill between that and the town itself was dotted with a few buildings of hideous design and construction (I cannot use the word architecture). The baluartes, fortifications, built to defend the town against the most daring of pirates in the eighteenth century stood back partially crumbling with neglect, the still elegant, whitish stone mottled with grays and blacks. Behind those walls lay the town itself; it was white and clean with immaculate small plazas overhung with flowering trees and shrubs surrounded by houses of simple but beautiful design that I have come to associate with that of the southern ports. Tlacotalpan, which is almost intact, and Veracruz, Alvarado, and Ciudad del Carmen, as they used to be.

The home cooks that I visited and cooked with still prepare daily their traditional recipes and take great pride in them; it is their "soul food." Strong Mayan influences can be seen in the preparation and ingredients of many of the local dishes, while others show a complete melding of Mayan and Spanish, and still others have a distinctive Lebanese influence -- there are large Lebanese communities of long standing in the Yucatecan peninsula.

For those families who still follow traditional eating patterns, there is a predictable weekly sequence to the dishes prepared: on Mondays it is comida de floja (the lazy woman's meal -- although it still requires a lot of preparation), frijol con puerco, beans and pork. On Tuesdays beef is served in some form or other, often thin steaks in a tomato sauce, breaded, or stewed with charred onion and garlic, seasoned with oregano, and served with plain white rice. To digress: I am very partial to the rice grown in this state -- it has a very satisfying, earthy flavor that reminds me of the rice from Guayana that I remember eating years ago on the Caribbean islands. Sadly, as with many other good things, production is dwindling because of the low prices paid to the producers.

Wednesday is the day for preparing a simple puchero, or stew, with chicken or beef with vegetables, and Thursday for cazsn (dogfish) in any one of its various preparations. On Friday my friends and their cooks like to choose a whole fish, or fish steaks, often seasoned with tomato and chile dulce and cooked in a banana leaf.

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Every Saturday cattle are slaughtered to ensure an abundance of beef for the Sunday puchero de tres carnes (stew of three meats). The fresh offal is immediately bought up for chocolomo, a hearty soup/stew served only on Saturdays.

In spite of the hot climate freshened somewhat by breezes from the sea, Sunday is a day of heavy eating. In the early morning there was a steady stream of people going to their favorite cook, usually a man, of cochinita pibil. A small, but not suckling, pig is seasoned with a paste of achiote and spices dissolved in bitter orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked in a pit barbecue. The stomach and large intestines are stuffed with and cooked with the meat. A slice of this buche and the roughly shredded pork is stuffed into the Campeche-style French bread roll, for breakfast.

The main meal of the day is a puchjro de las tres carnes, the most substantial of stews with pork, beef, and a fat hen (the hen is very important for flavor). The meat is served with the vegetables, a bowl of the broth on the side along with a helping of rice and the typical relishes of the region: chopped onion in Seville orange juice, a salpicsn, radishes chopped with cilantro and chile, again in orange juice, and (another relish) chile habanero charred and crushed. Now, I like my food piping hot, so I never know where to start first; picking at this and that at random, I am full far too early in the game, to my annoyance. A Sunday puchero is an excellent prelude to a long siesta. If there is meat left over, it is shredded and added to mashed vegetables for tacos.

Eating patterns are always more likely to change in the larger urban centers, while in the more isolated rural areas there has to be much more reliance on ingredients readily available. One family I know that lives in Campeche, but also has a ranch about ninety kilometers away, remembers being brought up on what it cultivated: corn, beans, squash, roots, vegetables in various guises, and wild game, especially venison -- before the shooting of it was forbidden to conserve rapidly dwindling stocks.

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Without doubt, one of the most important foods in Campeche is cazon or dogfish. There are at least five species: cagüay, t'uc t'un, cornua, pech, and jaquetón. These are much preferred over shark, a near relative, for having firmer and less watery meat. Of course, everyone has a preference and will argue hotly in favor of one or the other. Another strong preference is between fresh cazón and asado, the latter grilled until it is slightly charred. The cazón asado in the market was not prepared by the vendors but principally by one man. I thought it would be interesting to see just how it was prepared and, directed by neighbors, went to see him. No, he made all sorts of excuses, including the fact that he did the grilling at four in the morning. Nobody believed him. Perhaps he thought I would set up in competition until someone pointed out that I did arrive in a black police car (lent by a friend in the Justice Department) with a burly escort/chauffeur -- that was enough to make anyone suspicious.

After a little scouting around farther up the coast to what was once a prosperous little fishing village, but now invaded by Pemex, we found a man who was semiretired but who had agreed to grill some for us if we brought them to him early the next day.

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Soon after eight o'clock I was bargaining for two healthy-looking tuctunes and hurried along to Sr. Gregorio. He told us to find a fisherman to clean them, and for a few pesos they were gutted and washed and laid flat with the head, tail, and backbone still intact. But first they had to dry a little in the hot morning sun, a good time to have a typical breakfast of panuchos, filled with cooked cazón and black beans, with beer. By the time we finished, he had the charcoal fire smoldering with a simple metal rack about 6 inches (15.5 cm) above the heat. Grasping the fish by the tail, he threw them one by one, skin side down, onto the grill. From time to time he lifted them up to look at the color, and in about ten minutes (this depends, of course, on how thick the flesh is) he threw them over onto the flesh side and again left them for about eight minutes -- the flesh was about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and each cazon was about 3 feet long.

I stayed chatting with Sr. Gregorio. He told me that times were bad. Up until a few years
ago he was kept busy grilling between 100 and 120 cazón every day. Now he did only a few occasionally but kept himself busy helping his daughter in her small shop, where she also prepared and sold snacks, when he wasn't preparing and salting ray (fish). It takes an expert hand to cut, with geometrical precision, vertical slits through the skin and flesh to expose the bone so that the fish is, in essence "butterflied" out to flatten like a fan. Abanicos de raya cooked with potatoes is a traditional local dish. Most of the cooks I met prefer the species with a shiny gray skin and eye-catching polka dots to the blanca or white species.

At one time he had thirty-six people working for him and, apart from the time spent fishing, used to cut and salt more than a hundred fans in twelve hours. It is important, he says, to wash the fish in agua de lluvia (rainwater, an expression I was to hear time and time again; at one time everyone used to collect rainwater, and many still do). Once cut, they are salted, but with sea salt only, and left overnight piled one on top of the other to drain. As soon as the sun was hot enough the next morning, the abanicos were set out to dry for about six hours, depending on the seasonal strength of the sun. The morning I was there, huge boxes were piled high with these fans, all spoken for, except for a few that he let me buy and take to all my new cook friends. Sr. Gregorio lamented that the young men of today do not want to do this work and carry on the tradition. "Se tira mucho suero" -- you lose too much sweat, he said.

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When not working, he was dressed neatly, sitting in a low chair by the door of the house to catch the sea breeze. He was slow of movement but had skin that many a woman would envy -- due, said his daughter, to his healthy diet of fish and fruit.

When the car came back for me, we wrapped the cazón up in several layers of newspaper, but, he warned, if the fish was to travel, it had to be packed with thick layers of epazote in between -- I forgot to ask why. The grilled fish was packed again most carefully, but from the curious glances it was quite evident by the time I reached Mexico City airport that I had come straight from Campeche.

Among traditional cooks in Campeche, there is consensus about how to prepare these regional dishes and the ingredients that go into them, with very little variation from one to another. As I have mentioned before, some hotly argue for cazón asado, others prefer fresh cazón, some use chile dulce (a small, wrinkled variety of sweet pepper) in their miniestra -- a
basic mixture employed in many dishes using tomatoes, onion, chiles, and often epazote leaves -- some like it hot and use chile seco; others don't.

Although shark has a rather watery flesh, it could be used by increasing the amount and squeezing the flesh well before seasoning, or use any firm-fleshed fish such as cod, groupers, etc. While it need not be grilled, purists like me, who try to duplicate as faithfully as possible the traditional methods, will want to do so. To my mind, it does enhance the flavor. One cook I know cooks the cazón and then mixes it with a lot of pounded epazote until it is an appetizing green color.

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Here are some of the recipes given to me by some of the cooks in Campeche.

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CHERNA EN SU JUGO

Grouper Cooked in its juice

Sra. Maria Dolores Cel

[Serves 6]

The name of this recipe is certainly an understatement. It is one of the most delicious ways to cook fish I have come across in Mexico.

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Sra. Cel is one of those passionately traditional cooks who happily spent hours reeling off a string of her everyday recipes from memory. She then invited me to go and cook with her and the family -- a huge one that congregated from all over town when they heard of the incredible number of dishes she was going to prepare.

For this recipe she uses a whole, large fish or two smaller ones and slashes the skin on both sides so that the seasoning will penetrate the flesh. Of course, the sauce is richer with the gelatinous quality of the bones and head.

As if it needed any more flavor, this dish is served with salsa de chile.

heaped 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

12 peppercorns

1 tablespoon dried oregano

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons achiote paste

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

2 groupers, about 2 1/2 pounds (1.125 kg) each, or 2 1/4 pounds

(1 generous kg) fish steaks about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick

6 tablespoons bitter orange juice or substitute

1/4 cup (63 ml) olive oil

1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley with stems, roughly chopped

1 medium white onion, broiled

2 chiles dulces or 1 green bell pepper, broiled, seeded, and thinly sliced

1 pound (450 g) tomatoes, thinly sliced

4 x-cat-ik chiles or a mild yellow pepper, broiled and left whole

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Grind the cumin, peppercorns, and oregano together in a coffee or spice grinder. Crush the garlic, add the ground spices, achiote, and salt, and mix to a paste. Spread this paste on both sides of the fish, pour on the orange juice, and set for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet, add the parsley, onion, and chiles dulces, and fry without browning, for about 3 minutes. Add the sliced tomatoes and continue cooking for about 5 minutes. The mixture should still be juicy. Place the fish in a shallow pan and spread with the tomato mixture. Add the whole x-cat-ik chiles, cover, and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan from time to time, until the fish is just cooked -- about 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, weight of the pan, heat, etc. Set aside to season, off the heat, for about 10 minutes before serving.

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PESCADO EN MACUM

Sra. Soccoro Castro

[Serves 6]

It is much more common for a housewife to use a whole fish than fillets. You could use a whole grouper or snapper or thicket fillets from either of these fish. They should be cooked in one layer.

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2 1/2 pounds (1.125 kg) fillets of fish about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick,

cut into 6 serving pieces

1/2 cup (125 ml) fresh lime juice mixed with 1 cup (250 ml) water

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

12 peppercorns

1 tablespoon dried oregano

6 garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons achiote paste

salt to taste

4 to 6 tablespoons bitter orange juice or substitute

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium white onion, thinly sliced

1 pound (450 g) tomatoes, thinly sliced

2 x-cat-ik chiles, grilled

banana leaves to cover (optional)

Rince the fish with the lime juice and water and pat dry. In a coffee or spice grinder, grind together the cumin, peppercorns, and oregano. Crush 2 cloves of the garlic, add the ground spices and achiote paste with salt, and mix well. Dilute to spreading consistency with the orange juice. Spread this on both sides of the fish and set aside to season for at least 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet that will hold the fish in one layer. Fry the remaining 4 cloves of garlic for about 30 seconds or until golden, remove from the oil, and discard. Add the fish and fry for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside. Add the onion to the pan and fry for a few seconds -- they should not brown -- add the tomatoes, and fry over fairly high heat for 3 minutes. Put the fish back into the pan, add the x-cat-ik chiles, and cook, covered, over gentle heat for about 15 minutes or until the fish is just tender. I like to set it aside for about 10 minutes before serving to develop flavor.

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SALSA DE CHILE

Chile Sauce

[Makes about 3/4 cup (188 ml)]

15 amashito chiles or 8 serrano or other hot green chiles

1/4 cup (63 ml) finely chopped white onion

salt to taste

2/3 cup (164 ml) bitter orange juice or substitute

Place the whole chiles onto a hot comal or griddle and toast over medium heat, rolling them over from time to time so that they cook evenly. They are done when the skin is blistered and partially browned and they are soft right through. Chop roughly.

Crush the chiles, onion, and salt together to a rough paste, gradually adding the juice.

This sauce will obviously not freeze well, but it keeps for several days in the refrigerator.

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BITTER ORANGE SUBSTITUTE

[Makes about 1/2 cup (125 ml)]

2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon finely grated grapefruit rind

1/4 cup (63 ml) fresh lime juice

Mix everything together thoroughly about 1 hour before using. Keep in the refrigerator, tightly sealed, no more than 3 or 4 days.

) 1998 by Diana
Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random
House
Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or
reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Diana Kennedy

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