Mexico Cooks! attended the July 1, 2009, Simposio de Los Quelites (Symposium of Wild and Cultivated Mexican Greens) at the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Garden) of the UNAM (National Autonomous University) in Mexico City. The day-long symposium featured talks by scientists, chefs, nutritionists, and other members of Mexico City's culinary community.
Quelites are the edible, tender, newly grown parts of wild (and in some instances, cultivated) plants. Those tender parts include buds and flowers, shoots, and new leaves. The name quelite comes from the Nahua word quili-tl. Quelites that are commonly eaten today are verdolagas, guías de frijol, puntas de calabaza, papaloquelite, flor de pitahaya, guaje, pata de gallo, huihuila, quelite cenizo, and hoja santa. Some quelites are eaten as vegetables and some are used like herbs, for flavor in a prepared dish. Many are common, both in fields and markets, and some are quite rare.
Dr. Javier Caballero, director of the Jardín Botánico, gave opening remarks about the history of research at the 50-year-old garden. He celebrated not only the ongoing work at the research center, but also the part the center has played in the preservation and rescue of ancient Mexican greens.
In the pre-Hispanic era in Mesoamerica, maíz (corn) was the king of plant food. Corn's companions in the kitchen were chile and wild herbs, in addition to occasional wild game. In his Codice Florentino, Fray Bernadino Sahagún documented this same diet that prevailed after the Spanish conquest and which, in many instances, continues to be the predominate diet. Almost five hundred years post-conquest, maíz is still king in Mexico.
Many of the speakers referred to the Spanish Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his exhaustive Codice Florentino, a compendium of 16th Century 12-volume Nahua, Spanish, and Latin writings accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations. In the Codice, Sahagún described thousands upon thousands of details about indigenous life in Nueva España, including an entire volume about everyday and ritual foods.
Maestra Edelmira Linares and Dr. Robert Bye were both organizers and presenters at the symposium. Their well-received talk covered the discussion of quelites in the Codice Florentino. Dr. Bye and Maestra Linares stressed that Mexico eats all of its weeds; of the nearly 2000 species of quelites known to Fray Bernadino Sahagún, 500 are still used in Mexico's kitchens.
Dra. Karen Dakin (left), noted UNAM linguist, and prominent chef and writer Diana Kennedy animatedly discussed Dra. Dakin's fascinating talk about the etymology of Nahua naming of various quelites. In the afternoon session, Sra. Kennedy gave a delightfully informal talk about the quelites consumed in rural parts of Mexico. Sra. Kennedy drew a laugh from the audience when she said, "Some of these dishes may be treasures in the pueblos where they're made, but not all of them are to my liking."
Dra. Dakin stressed that the 'why' of words--how they are formed, what their roots are--is as important as their definitions. This slide from her fascinating talk shows that the Nahua word ayoh-yaca-quili-tl (guía de calabaza [squash vine tendrils]) comes from ayoh (calabaza=squash), yaca (point, or nariz=nose--the part that goes out in front), and quili-tl (green vegetable). A later speaker pointed out that right up to the present day, children running ahead of of a group of adults--like a squash vine's tendrils running out in front of the main vines--are sometimes called narices (noses). Another speaker, Maestra Jiapsy Arias, pointed out that the Codice Florentino contains nearly triple the amount of information in Nahua as it does in Spanish.
Mid-afternoon at the symposium was devoted to what was touted to be a muestra de gastronomía y degustación: a food demonstration and tasting. Mexico Cooks! and the rest of the assembled assumed that the degustación would include small tastes of a variety of edible plants. Some people (names deleted to protect the guilty) actually thought we'd best plan to have our comida (the main meal of the day) elsewhere: these weeds would never sustain us through the rest of the day! We were so wrong.
Rollitos de pechuga de pato con quelites (little rolls of duck breast with quelites). These tidbits were simply fantastic: the flavors of the delicate breast of duck, the deep green quelites, and the pepitas combined to be more than the sum of their parts.
The group of chefs in charge of the degustación prepared so many beautiful and delicious dishes that it seemed we were in the presence of a latter-day loaves and fishes miracle. Nearly 150 people ate until we were all but comatose.
The flavors of every dish were superb. Mexico Cooks! is hard-pressed to say which of the many dishes were her favorites. The rollitos de pechuga de pato were a revelation, as were the tamalitos de quelites from Restaurante Azul y Oro, as were the berros con elote y crema.
Jericalla de quelites con hojas de quelite, estrella de anís, y tres mieles (custard of quelites with cheese, star anise, and three kinds of honey). These tiny custards, no more than an inch in diameter, were marvelous as prepared by Chef María Elena Lugo Zermeño of Mexico City and Querétaro.
If pushed to the wall, however, I think I would have to choose--for sheer surprise and perfection--the jericalla de quelites (photo above). The unexpected silky sweetness of the custard, the speck of crystalized leaf, the crackle of the star anise, and the drizzle of three honeys made this finale to our comida simply breathtaking.
The symposium was an enormous WOW! from start to finish. The organization, execution, and thoughtful details were absolutely tops. It doesn't get much better than this.
Looking for a tailored-to-your-interests specialized tour in Mexico? Click here: Tours.