Dinner in Guadalajara
Ensalada de Tomatillo y Tequila (Tomatillo Salad with Tequila Dressing)
The town of Tequila, just 40 miles from Guadalajara, is the birthplace of… tequila! Pulque is an ancient drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant that originated in the Olmec civilization as early as 1000 BCE; pulque is still popular (especially for Día de los Muertos), but its shelf life is about three days, so it’s not available outside of Mexico. Fast forward a few thousand years, and you get the tequila we know today. La Rojena distillery is the oldest tequila distillery in the world, and produces the Jose Cuervo tequila that so many of us have probably loved (and then hated) in our lives! This salad is a delightful mix of raw tomatillos, red onion, cilantro, and cotija cheese, all dressed with a tequila-lime vinaigrette. Tomatillos are native to Mexico, and while you might mainly know them in their roasted and salsa-fied form, they are a bright and tangy addition to a salad! (Contains dairy; no gluten, vegetarian.)
Esquites (Corn Salad)
Corn and beans were the primary foods of ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, and the importance of corn (maiz) has not diminished through the centuries. Corn is used for tortillas, for tamales, in cakes and soups, and eaten plain. One of the most popular street foods today is elote - corn (on the cob) spread with Mexican cream, seasoned with chile powder and lime, and topped with salty cotija cheese. Esquites contain all the same ingredients, but the corn is cut off the cob, so you can eat it even faster! (Contains egg, soy, dairy; no gluten, vegetarian.)
Frijoles Charros Estilo Jalisco (Pinto Beans and Pork Soup)
Central Mexico has a great tradition of horsemanship and rodeo (charreada or la charreria) that dates back to the haciendas of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. A charro is a skilled horseman - he might also be a vaquero (cowboy), but he might be skilled at horse-handling and rodeo. Mexican women also have a tradition of skilled horse-handling and rodeo; these women are escaramuzas charras. In any case, as we mentioned in our Dinner in the Rio Grande Valley write-up, giant pots of beans have been feeding horsemen - be they charro or vaquero or escaramuza - for centuries. Often the beans were seasoned with inexpensive bits of meat, until the dish took on a life of its own and people started to relish frijoles charros for reasons of taste, and not simply reasons of frugality. While these beans are now synonymous with Northern Mexico, they were originally from Jalisco. As with many other Mexican dishes, there are regional variations, and what makes these typically Jaliscan is their soupier texture (Tapatíos love their food saucy!) and the use of bacon, chorizo, ham, AND sausage. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Birria de Res (Beef Stew)
Birria is a stew that originated in Jalisco, in the town of Cocula. Pre-Hispanic people ate mainly wild game, seafood, and turkey for protein, but the Spanish brought goats, sheep, chicken, and cattle with them, and goats were generally considered the least delectable of these meats. Birria, in Spanish, is a term for something of little or no value, so this stew was originally made with the least likeable meat - goat (which made it birria de chivo). In order to make it more palatable, it was heavily spiced, and stewed for hours. It is now beloved all over Mexico (and more recently, around the world!). Now it is just as commonly made with beef (birria de res), lamb, or chicken, and it is delicious! Traditionally, the meat and broth (consomé, below) are initially cooked together and then finished separately, before ultimately being served together in the same bowl, with fresh tortillas for dipping and scooping. More recently, this historic dish has gotten a new lease on life by way of social media. Sometime around December of last year, when people were stuck at home and all sorts of comfort food variations were going viral on TikTok and Instagram, a quesadilla-like concoction with birria filling began to trend, and before long, the internets were full to the brim with photos and videos of “quesatacos” (or quesabirria) - a cheesy, crispy concoction stuffed with birria. We’re providing the goods for you to try it both ways! (No gluten, no dairy if you omit the cheese.)
Consomé (Beef Broth)
The birria is the bulk of the stew - the meat to be scooped up with your tortilla, and the consomé is the broth, though it’s not a clear broth the way we typically think of French-style consommé. This broth is thick and rich and incredibly flavorful. It’s seasoned with four different kinds of chiles, and a long list of spices that varies from birrieria to birrieria, but almost always includes cinnamon, cloves, oregano, cumin, and black pepper. If you’re trying the recently famous quesabirria, you’ll dip your tortilla in the consomé fat before filling it with meat and frying it, which gives the red color and crispy texture you’ll see if you go searching for #birria on social media! (No gluten, no dairy.)
Tortilla de Maíz (Corn Tortilla)
Tortillas are undoubtedly one of the most important items in Mexican cookery. They were the bread of ancient Mexico, before the Spanish introduced wheat (which the Mexicans in Northern Mexico promptly made into tortillas also). There are countless dishes that incorporate tortillas - they are used for thickening soups, for enchiladas, quesadillas, flautas, burritos, panuchos, tostadas, and of course, tacos. Traditionally, corn would have been laboriously processed in several steps to make tortillas: first, the corn was boiled with lime to make nixtamal; the nixtamal was ground on a metate (an oblong stone specifically for this purpose) with a metlapil (stone rolling pin) to make the corn flour; the flour was mixed with water to make masa (dough); the masa was shaped by hand into thin rounds; and finally, the rounds were cooked on a comal (a very hot iron or clay surface). Today, you can buy masa harina at the store, and there are tortilla presses to shape the rounds. (No gluten, vegan.)
Salsa Taquera (Taqueria Salsa)
Since a salsa is just a sauce, it stands to reason that there would be infinite variety in such a category. But even if we dial the category back to include only the tomato - or tomatillo- based condiments that are ubiquitous in Mexico, there is still infinite variety. Some differences are regional, some are based on personal and family preference, and some are dictated by the dish which the salsa is intended to accompany. Birria is typically had with a spicy, arbol chile based salsa to cut through the richness of the broth. This is a classic taco-stand style salsa that can be used with multiple dishes. It’s smokey and spicy, with chiles (arbol, guajillo and morita), garlic, and onion, in addition to the tomatillos - perfect for dolloping onto the rich birria stew and/or birria tacos. (No gluten, vegan.)
Chocolate con Leche (Hot Chocolate)
The cuisine of Mexico has had a profound global impact, but perhaps no other food has been so thoroughly adopted and so completely integrated into other cultures as chocolate (from our perspective chilis and tomatoes are the only other contenders for this title). Exactly when cacao consumption began is difficult to pinpoint but it’s known that the Olmecs and Mayans both consumed cacao as a drink, both with daily meals as well as during important ceremonies. The importance of cacao was even greater to the Aztecs, with beans used as currency and the elites enjoying frothed chocolate with chilis. The powerful Aztec ruler Moctezuma was renowned for his consumption and is believed to have first introduced chocolate to Hernán Cortés at their fateful meeting in 1519. Chocolate con leche is still a popular drink in Mexico today and here we’ve made a semi-traditional version using Taza Mexican dark chocolate, vanilla (also native to Mexico!), cinnamon and sugar. (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten).
Nothing goes with spicy food quite like a cold beer, and ranking 4th in the world in production by volume, Mexico has a lot to offer in terms of brews. We’d recommend something light and easy drinking to temper the heat of the more than half dozen different chiles featured in this menu. Look for Mexican imports such as Modelo (we’re partial to Modelo Negro), Corona or Tecate.
If you’re looking for something a little more bracing but still refreshing, you can’t go wrong with a good Margarita. There are more competing origin stories of who invented the margarita than there are ingredients in this classic cocktail, but there is no doubt that it is one of the most iconic culinary exports of the Jalisco region of Mexico, more specifically the city of Tequila which is just 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara. In fact, all blue agave tequila, technically, can only be made in Jalisco and certain adjacent municipalities. We like to keep our margarita traditional; 3 parts good tequila, 2 parts Cointreau and 1 part lime juice, shaken and poured over ice in a glass with a salted rim.
Mexico has been inhabited for over 13,000 years; generations of sophisticated indigenous civilizations (Olmec, Toltec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec to name just a few) thrived across the country for thousands of years before the violent arrival of the first Spanish explorers in 1517. After a tragic and bloody conquest, Mexico remained under Spanish rule for 300 years, until the Mexican people began a concerted fight for independence in 1810. After a decade of struggle, Mexico declared independence from Spain on September 28, 1821. Mexico’s history since independence has been marked with revolution, civil war, and boundary battles with the United States. Today, Mexico is struggling under the twin burdens of powerful drug cartels and systemic government corruption. Its harrowing history can not obliterate the rich culture of this country, though. Historic and contemporary Mexican culture - including music, dance, architecture, visual arts, and food - is a vibrant mixture of indigenous and European influences.
The city of Guadalajara was founded in 1532 by Spanish colonizers, but had to be moved twice before arriving at its current location in 1542. Today it sits about four hours inland from the Pacific coast, in the state of Jalisco. It was the capital of the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia, and as such, it has a number of impressive colonial historic sites: the Guadalajara Cathedral, the Governor’s Palace, and the Hospicio Cabañas (a hospital and orphanage complex which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997). Today, it is one of the largest cities in Mexico, and a top destination for Mexican tourists. It has highly-regarded art galleries and museums, a lively nightlife, temperate weather, and incredible food. The northern Pacific coast region of Mexico includes Jalisco, along with the states of Sinaloa, Colima, and Nayarit. The region is mainly agricultural, and produces many staple crops for export to the rest of Mexico. An abundance of seafood and fresh produce distinguishes the cuisine. Jalisco is the birthplace of mariachi music, tequila, and birria (beef or goat stew).
There is no single way to precisely characterize Mexican cuisine; Mexico is a vast country, with great regional variation in history, climate, and culture. Across the country, though, food (like so many aspects of Mexican culture) is a blend of indigenous tradition and European influence. Ingredients native to Mexico are common across many regional cuisines: maize (corn), squash, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, avocados, and chile peppers are staple foods. While we mention UNESCO designations quite a bit (UNESCO designates both World Heritage Sites and Intangible Cultural Heritage listings), and there are many food-related designations, the entirety of traditional Mexican cuisine is on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The designation begins thus: “Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques, and ancestral community customs and manners.” (See the resources below for the entire text of the designation.) What makes Mexican food “Mexican” is so much more than the ingredients - it is the history and the people. There are many rituals and ceremonies that go into the cultivation, harvest, preparation, and consumption of food; at the same time, food is an integral part of many of the traditions, festivals, and celebrations of Mexico.
Día de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd every year - mainly in Mexico, but increasingly around the world wherever there are people of Mexican descent. November 1st is Día de los Inocentes, and is a time to commemorate infants and children who have died, and November 2nd is designated to celebrate adults who have died. Día de los Muertos is a festive holiday - it is a time to summon the spirits of ancestors and loved ones, to remember their lives, and ask for their protection and guidance. Families will go to the cemetery and decorate graves with ofrendas (altars) that include favorite foods, beverages, candies, incense, and photos of the deceased. Día de los Muertos has its origins in pre-Hispanic traditions honoring the dead, and incorporates European influences that make it similar to the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day (November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2). In Aztec culture, death was not an end to be mourned or feared, but a critical part of the cyclical nature of life, and Día de los Muertos celebrates the journey of our souls - through this life, and into the next. The spirits of ancestors are welcomed back and treated as guests at the festivities. Food is a major part of Día de los Muertos celebrations; calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls) are a symbolic treat, and often decorate ofrendas, and pan de muerto is a traditional sweet bread baked that day. Families gather for big meals to celebrate the day, and to reminisce about loved ones who have died.
It may be difficult for us, as Americans, to celebrate the death of a loved one, but maybe, for a few minutes, we can try to embrace the cyclical nature of life and consider that death might mark the beginning of a new journey. Here’s hoping that the next phase of the journey (whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or, you know… the afterlife) is a wonderful one!
Featured Recipe: Ensalada de Tomatillo y Tequila
Serves 4 as a side
For the vinaigrette:
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp tequila
1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp EVOO
For the salad:
275 g tomatillos, seeded and diced (from ~½ kg whole tomatillos)
70 g red onion, finely chopped
12 g cilantro, finely chopped
60 g grated cotija cheese
Combine the lime juice, tequila, and sugar in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir in the EVOO until combined
In a large bowl, combine the tomatillos, onion, and cilantro. Toss gently with the vinaigrette.
Serve with a sprinkle of cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper
Recipes Inspired By:
The title says it all for this one: the definitive Bible of Mexican recipes in English, plus Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s regionalization makes it super easy to see where each dish is from.
La Capital: an incredible online cooking blog by a guy who really knows his tacos.
Jauja Cocina Mexicana: another incredible YouTuber who is sharing her family’s recipes.
Check out Netflix’s Taco Chronicles - season 2, episode 6 is all about birria!
Read the full UNESCO designation of Mexican cuisine as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Some interesting background on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and how they came to coincide with indigenous rituals surrounding ancestor worship.
Disney/Pixar's Coco is an insightful and fun look at Día de los Muertos.
Here is some background on how birria suddenly became so famous all over the world.