With its rich brown flesh and creamy texture it’s not surprising that, outside Mexico, zapote negro is often called “chocolate pudding fruit.”
Beneath its papery olive-green skin, you wouldn’t expect to find such a rich brown, pudding-like pulp. Nor would you likely feel inclined to choose one that’s properly ripe, all wizened, saggy and split!
It’s not sweet like chocolate pudding, but, like raw, natural cacao, zapote negro has an earthy and slightly floral flavor. It’s pleasant enough, but doesn’t make a big impression on its own.
Many Mexicans grew up enjoying this fruit as a creamy drink, blended with orange juice, a little sugar, and for the adults, a shot of tequila!
We decided to go the savory direction, and added a little spice and tang to make this catsup-like condiment.
What does it go well with?
We serve this catsup with crisped (roasted or fried) root vegetables like camote (sweet potato), makal (Mayan word referring to a tropical tuber)any of the many tubers that can be found in Mexico.
Give it a try, and let us know what you think!
Zapote Negro Catsup
Serve this zesty condiment with root vegetable fries.
Crush all ingredients except naranja agria and water in a molcajete, with mortar and pestle*. Add naranja agria juice.
Strain mixture into zapote negro pulp.
Taste and add water to thin or neutralize flavor.
Add salt if needed.
*If you don't have a molcajete or mortar and pestle, blend all ingredients except the zapote negro together in a blender to make a runny paste.
This recipe was created for our "Cooking Plant Foods of the Yucatán" class series. If you're in Mérida (or planning to be)consider joining Erin Gomez Danielson to learn this and other creative recipes using the local ingredients.
In the slew of social media postings leading up to Day of the Dead, there’s a good chance the food most posted about is the traditional sweet bread: Pan de Muertos. True, who doesn’t love fluffy light sweet bread scented with orange and coated all over with the sandy crunch of fine sugar?
But, whether living or dead, ‘man cannot live on bread alone’. Vegetables and fruits are necessary nourishment for the returning souls, and on Day of the Dead altars they also represent the deep connection to the source, to Mother Earth.
Let’s take a look at some of the fruits and vegetables typically found on Day of the Dead altars.
It’s said that on the altar, this tuber represents the earth from which man comes, and to which we return in death. As water is necessary for sustaining life, this watery vegetable can also serve that purpose to give the dead precious refreshment. The vine of the jicama may also be used to make an arch over the altar.
The glow of sweet oranges and tangerines, along with the bright golden cempasuchítl flower (Mexican marigold) light the way for the dead. Their sweet juice also gives sustenance.
Calabaza en tacha is a preparation of small hardened squash cooked soaked in a syrup of piloncillo (raw cane sugar formed into pylon-shaped cones). Holes are bored through the wall of the squashes in order to fill the centre with the syrup before roasting. The seeds are left in – to be used by the dead to find their way back – and the sweet syrupy dish is a rich delicious treat.
Guayaba (guavas) and tejocotes (a Mexican crabapple) are seasonal fruits that perfume the altar and rejuvenate the soul. Both are also ingredients in ponche – a warm fruit punch that is served from Dia de los Muertos into the Christmas season.
While neither fruit nor vegetable, sugar cane joins guayaba and tejocote as another ingredient in the seasonal ponche. Some say the long canes, sometimes attached together into a tripod formation, represent a place on which enemies can be hung, but most look upon it for the sweet and juicy sugar itself which family enjoys snacking on at the gravesite with the usual chile and lime.
To honor the memory of the dead, It’s important to personalize the ofrenda, so other favorite fruits like papaya, or cooked plantain might also be offered. The dearly departed deserve plenty of sweet sustenance in order to refresh them, and to ease the soul’s long journey back to its resting place.
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ChefAlejandro Ruiz is widely regarded AS the unofficial ambassador of Oaxacan cuisine.
He heads up a small empire; Casa Oaxaca, a boutique hotel and group of restaurants that celebrate the complexity of Oaxaca’s culture and traditions. He is the founder of ‘El Saber del Sabor ’ — ‘The Knowledge of Flavor’ — a festival in Oaxaca celebrating the marriage of art and food, and, in March 2018, his cookbook was published.
He’s obviously a busy guy, but not entirely inaccessible; he loves to connect with his guests, to share meals and stories. How I met him, myself, was — I like to think — entirely fate.
In March of 2017, I‘d reserved 5 weeks to explore Oaxaca, wanting to learn more about its regional produce. Previously, I had made an overview of the more ubiquitous and essential foods to include in my ebook, and Oaxaca being one of the more biodiverse States, it begged much more of my time. Plus, you know… Oaxaca is magical. So, despite the heat and general overwhelm that I experience in massive markets, I was duty-bound to explore the labyrinthine Central de Abastos (having meditated beforehand).
Oaxaca City’s Central de Abastos is the distribution hub for all produce going into, and out of, Oaxaca. It is where local chefs, cooks and vendors from smaller markets in the city come to stock up on produce from within the region as well as from elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. It’s also considered a ‘Mecca’ for food-lovers who visit Mexico. Wafts of ever-changing aromas from sweet and musky mangos and guavas to the smokiness of the region’s chiles fill your nose. Jewel-tone fruits might be cut open to display their succulent flesh, and the sometimes impossibly tall or wide pyramids or vertical stacks of the many shaped food items are impressive. Chiles are strung, greens piled into mounds and insects piled high in handwoven baskets.
Chicatana ants are not a snack food
Two pesitos (the vendor emphasized how few pesos) was the payment requested for the trio of tiny chicatana ants now sitting in the palm of my hand. As a sustainable protein and a traditional food in this part of Mexico, (and plant food lovers themselves) I’m a keen supporter of insect-eating.
Unlike chapulines (grasshoppers), chicatanas are not a snack food. This, I learned the hard way. Once I’d cracked the thin, dry carcass between my teeth, glass-like shards and little legs proceeded to scratch their way down my throat. Tears filled my eyes as I tried not to sputter. A bottle of water appeared in front of my face and a tall smiling man asked was I ok. I choked – now with a mix of surprise and glee. I glugged some water and quickly composed myself.
“Chef! I had been hoping to meet you!”
Oaxaqueños are very warm people — he placed his hand on my shoulder. “Really?” he said with a big smile. He thought he was merely saving a silly gringa from choking on chicatanas.
This was my moment!
I tried to remember my 30 second elevator pitch. I didn’t have to tell this guy that Oaxaca was more rich in diversity of edible plants of any place I had been to, but i did. And to let him know how invested I was, I explained that I had created an eBook for foreigners like me who come to Mexico with little or no knowledge of the breadth of Mexico’s plant foods, nor the hows and whys of using them and their value to the culture. From there, the conversation was easy.
Next thing, we were in his car, driving out to the Casa Oaxaca farm. He vaguely mentioned there would be some sort of filming going on, but for me, it didn’t matter; I was happily along for the ride.
Rick Stein’s On the Road to Mexico
It turned out that the filming was for a BBC program: Rick Stein’s Road to Mexico. Rick is a chef from the UK and a downright affable fellow. Alejandro and his family set about cooking while the crew filmed and recorded his stories. I pitched in with prep as his members of his family prepared the fire and the beautiful clay comal that much of the meal would be cooked over.
Out in the field, we harvested various greens and herbs for salad. Alejandro explained that they grow some of their own produce, like lettuces, to ensure the restaurants have consistent supply, and he sourced as much as possible from people of the community for the most seasonal and regional, foraged for in the mountainous regions around Oaxaca.
At the end of the day, as the equipment was being loaded into vans amd we were saying goodbyes, Alejandro offered: “If you ever want to do anything together, we can collaborate.” His intention was to build the farm into an enterprise that would give his family employment as well as give back to his local community.
A Collaboration is Born!
Now, 18 months and some earthquakes later, we are preparing to do just that, as the project that began with the aforementioned eBook has evolved into ‘Frutas y Verduras Plant Food Lovers’ Experiences’. On November 8, we will present A Day of Traditions with Chef Alejandro Ruiz. This market to table experience will focus entirely on the plant foods of the region.
This is a unique offering, and a special opportunity for Alejandro, himself, to take a fully plant-focused approach to his food traditions. He’s as excited as we are. Together we’ll visit the market in the village near his farm, to learn about, taste, and shop for ingredients. Then, on to the farm, where we’ll meet his family, and share in the preparations. Cook, taste, relax, repeat… all culminating in a 4-course meal plus the requisite mezcal — the agave of this region giving us this most valued plant-based drink.
Suzanne Barbezat, Oaxaca contributor to Afar.com and TripSavvy.com, author of ‘Frida Kahlo at Home’ and our Frutas y Verduras Oaxaca guide will be accompanying the group and I’ll be there too. We’re looking forward to this day of fresh-food discoveries in the countryside of Oaxaca, with Chef Alejandro, his family and the chirping chapulines.
Knowing Mexico, you could say, starts with its food. The foundation of any meal begins with what the earth offers. Ask Chef Alejandro Ruiz: ‘El Saber del Sabor’, the knowledge of flavor, begins with an appreciation for the plants and herbs.
This is a small-group event. Please get your ticket now, to avoid disappointment. Book here
First, you have to wash and peel the chayotes. You can peel them with a regular peeler, but be careful. Chayotes give off a slippery resin that can end up on all over the palms of your hands.
You can scrub off this resin after peeling, but there are ways to keep it off your hands. You can cut the tip off the chayotes and let the them rest for about 30 minutes. This should get rid of most of the chayote resin. If you oil your hands a little, this too will keep the resin from adhering to your skin.
Once your chayotes are ready, move on
After they’re washed and peeled, cut the chayotes into large chunks and remove the large seeds in the middle. Cook them in water with a bit of salt and sugar until they’re soft, or you can steam them.
Once the chayotes are soft, remove them from the fire, drain them and start mashing them. It might be tempting to use a blender or a food processor for this, but don’t do it. Chayotes are so high in water content you’ll end up with chayote soup in the blender.
Next, heat the olive oil on a pan and then add the onion and garlic. When the onion is transparent, add the mashed chayote mixture to the pan.
Season to taste. You can add salt, pepper, and chicken bouillon(or other seasoning). You could also add scallions and even grated cheese if you want a thicker consistency. Chayotes are like a blank canvas for your culinary creativity!
Let the mashed chayotes simmer for a few minutes so the liquid will evaporate a little, and they’re done!
Guias (Gee-uhs) are the vines and leaves of the squash plants that wend and weave their way around the bases of the corn in the ‘milpa’. To make these fibrous vines more palate-friendly, they are chopped first into small pieces before being boiled, to make them more tender. These greens, boiled in water along with herbs, corn husks and onion, are the base of Sopa de Guias.
This humble soup is a perfect example of how little is wasted in Mexico’s culinary landscape. That said, a soup like this has the potential to taste like little more than watery broth with boiled greens – perfectly welcome when prepared and offered with love and humility. As a restaurant patron, however, most of my own taste-tests in Oaxaca left me wanting a bit more for my 80 or so pesos – until I tried the offering at Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante in Oaxaca City.
In keeping with the style and reputation of the restaurant, the presentation of this soup is more “haute” than the “humble” version Chef Alejandro Ruiz was raised on. There’s no trozo de elote (slice of corn on the cob) to gnaw on, instead the corn kernels have been scraped into the bowl. Delicate golden-orange petals of the squash flower adorn the bowl before the broth is ceremoniously poured over at the table Nevertheless, he stays true to tradition; in his extensive knowledge of the range of herbs of Oaxaca; these along with a small amount of chile pasilla paste, bring warmth and complexity to the simple broth.
Aside from the chocoyotes – dimpled little masa dumplings which generally contain some lard to lighten them up– this soup is traditionally a vegetarian dish. Should a bit of lard be a deal-breaker, ask for them to be left out and enjoy this soup with a tortilla instead.
Ramón: Breadnut, Ojite, Ojoche, Capomo, Jushte, Ash, and Ox… AKA the “Maya Nut”.
In 2014, when I travelled to Chiapas to see what I’d find there forFrutas y Verduras I was hosted by a young couple who were working in a community in the rainforest of Chiapas as part of an NGO. The project was to make use of the seed from a tree they called ramón.
The fruit and the seed from the tree were both edible, but the seed in particular was known to be highly nutritious, At times of famine it had been valued as a food source but once the desperation for food was relieved, the process of drying, roasting and grinding them was more, perhaps, than local people wanted to do with this food they associated with harder times. Instead, the trees were being felled for lumber, an unsustainable practice that was endangering an eco-system where a great many foraging animals depended still on this tree for their food. Even, still, some Maya locals were collecting not just the fruit, but the seeds themselves to eat with corn, either as a drinkable gruel (atole) or made into tortillas, Since the early 2000’s, NGOs in Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua)had been working with communities to make best use of this resource, and, as this couple told me, it was important for Mexico to follow suit.
Thanks to Google, I was able to conclude that they were talking about the ‘Breadnut’, or ‘Maya nut’ tree. (Brosimum alicastrum). Although interesting, it didn’t fit my criteria for Frutas y Verduras as it wasn’t a fruit /vegetable that the average traveller would likely stumble upon in a market setting and take home to cook or snack on, so I didn’t pursue it further.
The Bread from the Breadnut
Now 3+ years later, with a longing for some good bread, I wandered into Panaderia Rosetta*, a bakery-cafe in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, and a mecca for all good things bready. There on the shelves, I sighted a hearty-looking round “peasant” loaf. Nut brown, with a sprinkling of oats on the top. My kind of bread. I asked what it was.
“Pan de ramón – un nuez de Chiapas”.
“It’s ramón bread – a nut from Chiapas”
I hadn’t thought about it since my visit with that young couple, so I was delighted to buy a loaf and taste what ‘ramón’ had to offer.
The bread from Rosetta was dense and chewy. My first bite revealed a nutty and sweet earthiness that reminded me of the hot chocolate of Oaxaca. Although it was described as a ramon and avena(oat) bread, it was made on a base of wheat flour. However, ramon could be well used in an assembly of ingredients for a gluten-free bread.
Reading up on it, I learned that this ramon powder, in addition to being used as an alternative flour, is being added to teas and some coffee-alternative hot beverage mixes to add an earthy richness. Unlike coffee,however, it’s caffeine-free and is said to have a relaxing effect due to its content of the amino acid, tryptophan. According to the Maya Nut Institute, it’s even being used to add flavor (and nutrients) to beer.
Ramón’s Food Value
Ramón is not a ‘true’ nut, it’s a drupe, like a plum, cherry, or almond. This means it does not contain the alkaloids or allergens that people with nut allergies react to.
Fat-free, gluten-free, ramón is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants with 19 of 20 possible amino acids along with folic acid and proteins.
The seeds can be eaten fresh and, traditionally, when they are collected, they may be cooked until soft and mashed – but as a food product for distribution they are more often dried and roasted after which they can be kept for up to 5 years without loss of nutrients.
For the communities where the tree grows, harvesting ramón is accessible work for young and old – children can easily gather the fallen nuts which are easily split open to be processed into a usable food. With a supportive infrastructure for distribution, and a system to manage the forests to ensure that none are over-harvested, ramón, this “Maya nut” as you may see it called, is a sustainable food. If you consider it, the common acorn is a similarly viable food source, one that native people in the northern parts of North America utilized, though Europeans never took to it as a food; it was left to the squirrels.
As many of us look upon our consumer food supply with skepticism, this is inspiration to look in our back gardens. After all, foraging animals are one indication that a plant will be good to eat. Ramón is just one of many ingredients that are being “rediscovered”… naturally “organic” and an opportunity to sustain many.
If you can’t find ramón powder at your local health foods market, you can order it through Amazon
In the winter months, that special breed known as “Snowbirds”
fly south to enjoy the “Bahias de Huatulco” – the numerous bays that make up this Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Some stay for months, others arrive on the many large cruise ships that dock there and explore for the day.
Huatulco is well-known for diving and snorkelling, for surfing and other water sports. Fewer visitors think to venture inland to the mountains.
But a short drive north of the town of Santa Maria de Huatulco, there is a lush and exotic eco-agriculture project called Hagia Sofia, a labour of love by one man, Armando Canavati Nader, who recognized the potential of the region to grow exotic fruits that, while not native to the region, are well suited and are sought after on the export market, much due to their “superfood” potential.
Fruits native to Southeast Asia, like mangosteen, and the noni, sought after for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory , anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties (basically, keeping all ill health at bay..) and used as a super-juice ingredient and as a supplement – both may have commercial viability. in my conversation with Armando, he spoke of these fruits known for their value in traditional medicine as having potential to create employment for the impoverished local indigenous communities surrounding Hagia Sofia.
As we wander through this lush agro-ecological plantation carambola (starfruit) glistens in the sunlight.
Other exotics too, like poma rosa (rose apple), marañon (cashew apple)along with different types of maracuya (passionfruit) and vanilla, their vines wrapping around branches and trunks and sprawling along the ground. Let’s also not forget cacao – I had no idea how it grew from the tree! – and coffee. As native trees are cleared throughout Mexico to make way for commercial orchards, the work of people like Armando to preserve and protect native fruit-bearing trees and plants is all the more important. Different species of mango; trees of chicosapote, with its heavenly sweet fruit and the latex sap which is the origin of “chicle” : natural chewing gum, and other zapotes – negro and blanco.
Aside from fruits trees… oh, the exotic flowers! With all its lush growth, Hagia Sofia is a natural sanctuary for butterflies and birds.
As the sun climbs high in the sky and you’re sweating from a bit of an uphill climb (nothing treacherous), there’s an opportunity to cool off either in, or beside, the spray of the Magdalena river. It’s both refreshing and well-timed.
To top off the day, a lovely simple lunch is served from an open kitchen with wood-fired comal. The ingredients come, in part from the property, and the rest from the local community depending on what’s in season.
In words I have taken from their own website – because it can’t be said better: “Hagia Sofía is a paradise to return to nature and spiritual peace”.
“www.hagiasofia.mx” for all information and reservations can be made on email via “firstname.lastname@example.org” Right in town, near the surf shops by the docks, you can also go directly to the office of Hagia Sofia to book your visit.
Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. The cook stands in the middle. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.
~Phrang Roy “Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull
The Slow Food movement, the 100-mile Diet, Monsanto and other agriculture giants – awareness of the many issues we face as eaters have, for years now, influenced my choices any time I considered a recipe. Is it in season? (Living in Canada, the answer to that for 9 months of any year, would be no). How was it grown, what’s its carbon footprint… cooking is a responsibility.
As a cook in Mexico, it’s possible to go straight to the source, to cook and eat locally and responsibly. There’s almost always going to be a mercado or tianguis where you can go and buy your ingredients from people who are directly connected to where the food was grown or raised. It’s remarkably easy to stop supporting Big Agriculture.
As I write this, it’s a month after the earthquake. I’m in Mexico City, living in the Roma-Condesa neighborhood.
There was major destruction near my apartment, many lives lost, and while I was lucky to have been spared any damages – aside from lingering anxiety any time a truck passes, shaking the building – several friends who live nearby were displaced from their homes. Resources and assistance, by civilians and international aid, poured into this neighbourhood within hours of the disaster. To call it ‘heartening’ would be an understatement.
This was not true for a great many communities. In less wealthy, less tourist-oriented communities, assistance came too slowly, many said. No matter how you look at it, the poor don’t have insurance or emergency funds for repairs.
From Tlalpan and Xochimilco in the southern part of the city, to pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas, millions of poor were affected.
In these areas, subsistence milpa farms are the foundation of the local economies. From small, densely productive sustainable agricultural plots, comes beautiful food – the ingredients of their heritage, the base crops being corn, beans, squash and chiles. The community shares what is needed and sell or barter the rest.
In most towns and villages, aside from the mercado(s), tianguis –roaming markets– set up each week at set locations under colorful tarps. These tianguis are typical throughout Mexico –in Mexico City, the sheer number of them is astounding. Amongst the more “commercial” vendors, there are the true regional entrepreneurial growers who have travelled for hours in some case with their baskets of freshly picked produce. In many cases, they are women, sometimes bent and wizened, sometimes with small children in tow.
Outside the Mercado San Juan in the historic centre of Mexico City.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall this vendor’s name, though I did ask him at the time. He told me they were from Puebla, and for more than 40 years he has set up outside the market, along the sidewalk. The stalls inside were too expensive, he said. He is now blind, and was accompanied by his grandson and six year old great-granddaughter. While we talked he was teaching her how to add and make change. She goes to school ‘on some days’, she told me.
It is October, now, post rainy season and high time for harvest of the corn, beans, chiles and the other milpa crops. However, those who farm, harvest, glean and sell, have other serious matters to attend to like building shelter, and repairing what homes can be salvaged. More hands will be needed and this will undoubtedly affect the children whose families are poor – they will be kept home to help.
Floods of donations were collected to assist earthquake victims. But what can we do in the long run? What if each of us made a greater effort to support their work as agricultural guardians?
Given the choice, the supermarkets and big-box stores where shiny apples and perfect peppers grown for the masses by big Agro, are not where I want to put my pesos. Frutas y Verduras – A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico was my own small effort to make foods less known by us foreigners more approachable. I encourage you, now more than ever, to take the time to discover the beautiful foods grown lovingly by real people who work the land with their hands, who pray for rain and who trust in nature.
Until the end of this year, I will contribute 25% of all sales of Frutas y Verduras (both iOS and Kobo) to groups that I will personally be vetting, who are actively working on the re-building of pueblos especially in agricultural areas.
Craving Kale? Give Some of Mexico’s Local Greens a Try.
Kale has been, for a few too many years now, considered the superfood you must eat for good health. How that trend started, I have no idea, but be assured, there are other greens to rival it. Sure, now, you can find it in Mexico, in part because big Agro grows it here in Mexico to meet the demand in US and Canada, and also because the Norte American buzz has created a demand among the food-conscious and affluent (ask an average Mexican about kale (kel) and it won’t register). But who needs it in this country where there were already plenty of fantastic, hearty, and just as “super” healthful greens to be had already?
So let’s leave (my gripes about) kale aside, for a moment, shall we? “Hojas de nabo” (turnip leaves) are a cruciferous green that has been naturalized in Central and Southern Mexico and has become integrated over time into milpa plantings. When you buy this from a regional vendor there’s a very good chance it is grown organically (versus kale from the supermercado) as the milpa is a healthy, biodynamic and sustainable system.
“Nabo” means turnip, of no specific variety, and along with collards and broccoli rabe (rapini) are all of the same family.
When you refer to ‘Hojas’ de nabo’, you emphasize the desire for the leaves… likely a vendor will understand that to mean the type in the main photo with wide leaves more akin to collards. But by putting the word “Flor” in front of “nabo” (as in, flor de nabo) you can expect the flowering type like broccoli rabe with small yellow flowers, inflorescence like broccoli, and juicy stems.
As “naming” is largely a concept that is agreed upon, it can always happen that in any particular region, farmers have come to know their plants by certain names that may not follow conventions. Just be sure to ask ¿es para comer o para pájaros? (Is it for eating, or is it for birds?) If it’s for eating… just take it home and cook it as you would any other green. It’s all good!
Find out more about this and more than 50 other regional fresh ingredients of Mexico….
Frutas y Verduras – The Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico, is your handy digital “field guide” . Now available on iTunes and Kobo stores (Android, Windows and iOS using Kobo reading app)