Eating the vines…
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.
Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante
A Gurrión 104 A, Oaxaca Centro
Phone number+52 951 516 8531
Strongly recommended that you call ahead for reservations, or stop in and make reservation in person if you are in Oaxaca
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 for Frutas 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.
To incorporate the flour into your baking, Refer to this RECIPE PDF FROM THE MAYA NUT INSTITUTE
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
Teeccino is one company using ramón seed in its beverages.
READ MORE ABOUT IT:
http://mayanutinstitute.org/ ( you can donate to their initiatives here)
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”.
“Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull
Article in full, here.
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….
Think you are seeing blueberries?
Wait…what are flavonoids again?
Just think about eating a broad spectrum of color – each colour group plays a role in protecting your body’s cells against disease and boosting function of organs. This particular red-blue family is understood overall to be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial; for guarding the liver against damage, reducing blood pressure, improving eyesight. And if you have heard before of “free radicals” these anthocyanins scavenge for them. Feel better? You should– free radicals are troublemakers; un-paired molecules that float around damaging healthy cells which, in the worst case scenarios, leads to cancer and heart disease.
Now that you know ‘why’, let’s talk about ‘how’ to enjoy garambullo fruits.
Any thoughts on other ways to use these special fruits? I’d love to hear your ideas!
It looked a lot like an alien invasion –’Day of the Triffids’ comes to mind. Enormous mounds of golfball-sized hairy red fruits, like peculiar creatures– swarmed the area around the market of San Cristóbal de las Casas in chariots wheeled around by local vendors. Rambutan is a fruit I was familiar with from Asian markets but for a moment, I was confused: Was it native to Mexico and I’d thought it was Asian?
In fact, no; The climate of the Soconusco region of Chiapas is well-suited to growing these and other exotic fruits of Southeast Asia. In the mid-1980s, Alfonso Pérez Romero, a Mexican specialist in botany, brought seeds, collected in Asia, of rambutan and other exotic fruits, recognizing the great demand by about 10 million Asians living in the United States (and Canada), not to mention the Asian population in Mexico itself.
It’s turned out to be a worthwhile commercial effort– thousands of tons of fruits are exported to the US each year, and its flavor is reported to be superior to the rambutan imported from SE Asia.
What was interesting to me was the flood of these into the streets of San Cristóbal. The trees must certainly be thriving, considering it’s only 30 years since the start of the efforts to establish them, and given the interruption by Hurricane Stan in 2005. After that storm, some of the exotic fruits that were part of the original project perished, but the rambutan thrived. It must be hardy, indeed, and my first question, then, is – is it invasive? And – what plants might be threatened by it?
More recently, however, another question came to my mind when I came across an article about a mysterious illness in India causing children to die suddenly – about 100 each year reported for 20 years (how many unreported deaths and over previous years?) . New research, published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests they were poisoned by a toxin contained in lychee fruits:
“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”
Lychee contains hypoglycin, a toxin that prevents the body from making glucose. Ackee fruit contains the same toxin and similar illnesses, though rarely fatal, have been reported in the Caribbean. Rambutan contains the very same toxin as both these fruits. In India, once health officials had a grasp of what was happening, and were able to deliver advice to parents that they should ensure young children got an evening meal and not eat too many of the lychees, the number of reported deaths dropped dramatically.
What about the children of Chiapas, Mexico? This new fruit is a novelty: sweet, refreshing and fun to eat. In this state where there is poverty and illiteracy, where this fruit has not been tested by centuries of traditional wisdom, it’s not a stretch to think that there may be not a few children who come upon these fruits and fill their little tummies. Has this information of the potential harm it can do reached those families who grow, harvest and sell this fruit? It’s fortunate that the native subsistence foods of corn and beans are ubiquitous and abundant where this alien fruit is grown.
Perhaps rambutan has been good for the economy of this region of Chiapas, but there’s always more to consider when it comes to agriculture and food supply.
Walking through markets and perusing street-side stands, yellow fruits and vegetables catch my eye with their cheerful, sunny glow.
It’s Springtime in Oaxaca City.
Chayote blanco, Chayotito (cha-yo-TEE-toh) / White CHayote
Little pale yellow chayotitos (also called Chayote Amarillo or Chayote Blanco), are nestled here amidst a variety of greens common to the Milpa, like verdolaga (purslane) to the far left and quintoniles (aka: quelites), which are the greens of any of a number of types of amaranth plants. Chayotito has a mild, sweet flavor with a tough, leathery skin – they need to be boiled whole, and then they can be peeled. Cubed or mashed with butter or olive oil and some salt they are a delicious substitute for boiled potatoes. And, like other chayote, you can eat the soft, flat, almond-shaped seed in the centre.
Where: fringes of markets, laid out on cloth on the floor.
Nanches / Nances (NAN-shez)
These little yellow “berries” are nances or nanches– an odd little fruit with a funky slightly tart, cheesy taste and dry, somewhat cottony texture, Definitely an acquired taste, which I have yet to acquire. I was told these were brought in from Puebla, a few hours north, as they are not in season in Oaxaca, but there is a demand for them, apparently. For the most part, they are preserved: in liquor (mezcal), in syrup (en almíbar), in ice cream (nieves) but here they are snack-ready– “enchilada” – with a hearty dousing of chile, lime and salt, because when in doubt…
Where: streetside, often from wheelbarrow/ cart
Mango en vinagre/Green Mango in Vinegar
When mango are abundant, and in season, at some point you have to accept that it’s not going to be possible to eat them all when ripe. In Oaxaca, the green fruits are peeled, halved and pitted and immersed in a fruit vinegar, usually made primarily of pineapple peelings. Chile spices things up and these are eaten as a snack. I can think of many ways to use these as a pickle/ chutney as you would see in Indian food, but I haven’t run across them used as a condiment here.
The same green mangos are also simply sliced up and served “enchilada” from bags – again as a refreshing, tartsnack.
Where: streetside carts, or in residential doorways or small shops along with numerous other preserved fruits and vegetables either pickled or in syrup
Flor de Chícharo (florr deh CHEE-chuh-roh) – Pea flower
I was so struck by these pretty bowls of edible flowers, which I found first in the corridor of Mercado Sanchez Pascuas, that I didn’t pay good enough attention to the type of pea that the vendor next to this was shucking. I had at least noticed that they looked starchy and weren’t the bright green of a fresh sweet Spring pea.
Now, I have gone on to find out that these are the the flowers of the pigeon pea, which originated in India and came to Mexico via African and the Caribbean. This would have been in the early days of the slave trade and by now, they are naturalized and are sometimes planted where the soil is poor. The pea itself, even when cooked, contains indigestible sugars, so it’s going to cause you some bloating unless sprouted… but the flower can be used as a green vegetable – blanched quickly and then sauteed with onions and garlic, or added to vegetable dishes, rice or egg dishes and so on.
Where: Look for these sold by vendors who come in from the villages — they set up on blankets or makeshift tables at weekly Tiánguis and some may have a little spot in/outside mercados.
Yuca (YOO-kuh) – Cassava Root or Yuca
Oftentimes you’ll see that savvy vendors, for the sake of economy, have taken care of some of the labor that can get in the way of preparing certain foods. Yuca is one of many tubers best boiled whole because they are troublesome to peel and they do take some time to cook. So first they are cut into 6in lengths, then into one big pot they go. Cooked, they are easy to peel. Some are cut into sticks and a blob of sweet syrup (‘miel’ can mean corn syrup as well as honey or a combination of the two) is added to give market shoppers a carb-fuelled burst of energy. I took a few whole cooked tubers home and mashed them with salt, pepper and olive oil for a healthier dose of this complex, fibre-rich carb!
Where: At weekly tiánguis, markets and streetside.
Have you experimented with any of these foods? Want to know more? Join us soon at a new site: FrutasyVerdurasMex.com where you will be able to participate in the conversation by sharing photos, stories and recipes!
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