Mexican Nostalgia: Chiles en Nogada, a Celebration of Independence
Mexican Independence Day, celebrating Mexico's independence from Spain, takes place this week, on September 16. The preparation and consumption of the traditional Mexican dish, Chiles en Nogada, precedes the Independence Day celebrations.
"Walking through the gardens of memory, I discover that my recollections are associated with the senses."—Isabel Allende
There are many advantages to living close to the Mexican border, just 45 minutes for me. If you were born on the US side, the proximity to the border can offer the opportunity to explore another culture at the tip of your fingers. For the those like me, who were born on the other side in Mexico, but live in the United States, it means the ability to respond to the call of Nostalgia.
The call of Nostalgia? Yes, not the one defined as being homesick, because how can you be homesick when you are at home? It is difficult to explain this feeling to those who have lived in the same city or country since they were born, where the meaning is fond memories of the past. For those of us, who not only live far away from family, but also live in a country with a different language and customs, nostalgia is also a yearning for identity.
It is an understatement to say I miss my origins. Nostalgia, for me, is an ongoing condition in which no matter how happy or content I am with my present life or the country where I live, I mourn the country and people I left behind.
I am driving down the hill to pick up my children from school and I feel a change in the air. Summer is over and the leaves smell like September, the month Mexico celebrates its independence; and patriotic celebrations take place the entire month.
I remember the flags and the discourses on national heroes, but my fondest September memories are of my grandma and her sisters sitting in the kitchen making Chiles en Nogada.
Nogada comes from the word "Nogal" which is the Spanish word for walnut tree. This historic dish was created in Puebla to honor Agustín de Iturbide, the general who led the fight in Mexico's War of Independence.
My grandma and I would walk every year to a market full of flowers and exuberant fruits and choose the greenest poblano peppers, the ripest apples and peaches, and of course the walnuts.
Choosing the walnuts was the highlight of the day, because the walnut sellers were not permanent vendors at the markets. You only saw them once a year, and they carried their product in small baskets. It was like a dream in a way, because they were there, and then like waking up, they were gone again.
Creating the dish began with peeling fresh "Castilla" walnuts. That was an important task, as leaving even the tiniest fragment of the skin of the walnut can ruin the sauce that decorates the most iconic and patriotic dish in all Mexico.
Once the Chiles were washed, they were put into the fire on grandma's gas stove to cook until the skin burned, so they could be more easily peeled. This was easier said than done; I still remember getting blisters on my fingers from the endless peeling.
My aunts poked fun at my grandma because she did not cook the chiles in the traditional way, on a Comal (a cast iron griddle). They told her it was the "lazy" way to cook, but she paid no attention.
Then it was time to cook the picadillo, used to stuff the Poblano Peppers (chiles). Picadillo is a mix of pork and beef with almonds, peaches, apples, onions, garlic, pine nuts and raisins. "No, No, No," my grandma would say, "that is not the correct order. First you fry the meat and you put it away, you don't mix everything together!"
It's like chemistry: each element affects the flavor so, first the onions and the garlic are cooked, stirring constantly so they do not burn. The incredible smell was intoxicating--onions sizzling on the stove, then apples and peaches, and then the raisins and nuts were added. Lastly the concoction was mixed with the cooked meat.
The sauce ingredients include peeled, fresh walnuts, fresh cream and goat cheese. I still remember my disappointment when I found out walnuts in US supermarkets are dried. It is a pity, as fresh, skin free walnuts taste like mana from heaven. It's a subtle flavor, though, and needs something strong and light like goat cheese to bring out more flavor. The exact amount of cream decreases the density of the sauce and turns it into a white velvety liquid that is used to cover the picadillo stuffed poblano pepper.
Finally, a topping of Pomegranate seeds elevates the dish to the patriotic realms of Mexican fervor. The tart, sweet, acidic pomegranate seeds balance the flavors of the dish to perfection and complete the colors of the flag (green, white and red). The Mexican flag is on your plate, enjoy.
The whole cooking process was a wonderful experience for me as a child; the sounds of the Mexico City streets, the colors of the market, my grandma and expertise, my aunts and their stories, the smells of the kitchen, the splendid portrait of the flag—all in one dish.
Chiles en Nogada is more than a culinary experience, it is the call off Nostalgia. The memory yanks me from my content life, as I yearn for the flavors and experience of my past.
As soon as I get out of work I drag my kids to the car and convince my husband that no, I am not pregnant or crazy, this is Chiles en Nogada season and we must go to Mexico now. We cross the border at about 6:30pm enroute to a restaurant in Tijuana that claims its Chile en Nogada ingredients are brought straight from Puebla and thus the flavors are truly authentic.
"Authentic"- an interesting word. I wonder if the Chiles, even if brought from faraway places, can taste like the ones I ate at my grandma's house in Mexico City. Is authentic something that brings the flavors of the past to your table? How can they taste the same if they were not prepared among the stories and the laughs of my aunts? Did the person that peeled the peppers and the walnuts get blisters on their fingers too?
My pepper arrives and the presentation is phenomenal. The sauce is perfectly white, the pepper is tender and the picadillo has the exact amount of sweetness. The first bite brings back so many memories. I share those with my children and I hope they will remember this day as special, as I remembered my first encounters with Chiles en Nogada.
Although my kids' memories will not include my grandma or aunts, the experience is still full of colors and flavor, like the drive into Mexico! The streets, the colorful homes, the sounds of the city of Tijuana, and of course their mom who is full of childish excitement, sharing treasured stories of Mexico City.
Now we can return to our life in the US, content. The call of Nostalgia has been subdued.