Essential components of the Michoacán kitchen, clockwise from lower left: onion, brilliantly yellow/orange chile perón, small green chile serrano, cabbage, sal de grano (sea salt), various kinds of corn, chayote, and limón criollo (similar to key lime). In the background are two dishes of freshly prepared guacamole.
In November, the state of Michoacán invited Mexico Cooks! to speak at December's Fifth Annual Traditional Michoacán Food Festival. It was a tremendous honor to participate in the academic portion of the festival, along with such Mexican food world luminaries as Robert Bye, Alma Cervantes, José Luis Curiel, Gloria López Morales, Chepina Peralta, and Rubi Silva de Figueroa. Graciously hosted by Michoacán's state government, the Secretary of Tourism, the Secretary of Culture, the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, and the Casa de las Artesanías, among others, the three-day Quinto Encuentro de Cocina Regional de Michoacán was huge hit.
We all spoke well and cogently about topics ranging from 16th Century convent food to 20th Century obesity prevention. Mexico Cooks! spoke about the need to preserve traditional regional Michoacán recipes and foods. Yet, as Friday afternoon turned into Saturday morning and the clock ticked closer to the noon opening of the food fair booths, everyone's attention wandered from academics to the rich fragrances wafting through the upper story arched casement windows of Morelia's 17th Century Casa de la Cultura (the Ex-Convento del Carmen ).
María Gertrudis Anguiano Alfaro from Nuevo San Juan Parangarícuaro used a huge wooden spoon to serve atole de grano from a solid-copper cazo. She prepared the atole from sweetly tender corn kernels, delicious fresh fennel fronds, a hint of chile, sea salt, and water. The diner tops it with minced chile perón, minced onion, and flavored with a squeeze of limón to taste.
Seven regions of the state--Pátzcuaro, Uruapan, Zitácuaro, Zamora, Morelia, and Lázaro Cárdenas--offered more than 100 traditional dishes, prepared by 50 cooks from the various areas of Michoacán. Each regional cook proudly offered her (or in a few cases, his) specialties, ranging from atoles (hot corn-thickened drinks) to moles and uchepos (a kind of tamal).
José Alfredo González Valtierra of Zitácuaro baked this cabeza de res en penca de maguey (whole beef head wrapped in maguey cactus leaves) for twelve hours. Sr. González told Mexico Cooks! that he uses a traditional bóveda (arched roof) brick and clay oven that holds the heat necessary to give the beef its flavor. The green portion to the bottom and right of the picture is the cactus leaf; you can see the steer's teeth at left center.
The regional cooks competed for ten prizes: best traditional dish (three prizes), best booth presentation, best atole, best tamal, best bread, best sweet, and best traditional dish prepared in a copper cazo. In addition, the Festival awarded a prize for the best innovation in regional food.
These gorditas de frijol (thick disks of corn, in this preparation stuffed with beans), prepared by Juana Bravo Lázaro of Angahuan, are made of blue corn masa (dough) stuffed with freshly cooked frijoles (beans) ground smooth on a metate (volcanic rock grinding stone). Topped with cream, finely shredded cabbage, minced onion, Cotija cheese, and salsa, these gorditas are addictively delicious.
Doña Juana won the prize for the best-decorated stand. She commented that she has been cooking since she was ten years old, taught by her grandmother and her mother. She's a widow with two teenage children, both of whom are enthusiastic about helping her take care of her clients.
Four years ago, Doña Juana went to Paris, France, as part of the team that presented Mexican food to UNESCO in an attempt to gain World Heritage status for Mexico's culinary traditions. That attempt did not succeed, but another presentation is currently being prepared for 2009.
The freshly cooked frijoles for the gorditas in the photo above are in the batea (wooden dish) at left. Sra. Bravo's daughter grinds the beans on the metate until they are smooth and scoops them into the empty batea at the end of the metate. The paste of frijoles is then incorporated into the masa and cooked over firewood on the comal de barro (clay griddle, right).
Aporreadillo (made of dried beef, scrambled egg, and tomato broth), morisqueta (steamed white rice), and frijoles de la olla (recently prepared whole beans) come from Apatzingán in Michoacán's Tierra Caliente. Victoria González Chávez prepared this magnificent--and abundant--plate of food.
The traditional cooks of Michoacán truly represent the best of all that makes our kitchen the best in Mexico: an extraordinary variety of regional dishes, the richness of freshly grown, local ingredients, and the sazón (individual cook's skill and flavors) that speaks to the heart.
Buen provecho! (Good appetite!) Please come to visit us soon.
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