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Mexican Christmas Food Combines Basque Flavors with Nahuatl Tradition


Bacalao a la Vizcaína (Biscayne style cod). Photo taken from the Flickr account of Raul Pacheco-Vega under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For many cultures around the world, December is a month that brings with it a series of celebrations, of which Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year stand out in particular. These celebrations are traditionally shared with family, and in many cases, around a table. Therefore, as these occasions approach, Global Voices pays attention to two dishes served in Central Mexico that give a specific flavour to the festive season.

A considerable proportion of Mexican families have adopted the custom of eating turkey on these dates due to the influence of cultures such as that of the USA, where the dish is an essential component of Thanksgiving Day and Christmas dinners. Many families in the central region of the country (the capital, Mexico State, Puebla and Queretaro) however, prefer dishes emblematic of national Christmas cuisine: romeritos and bacalao a la Vizcaína (Biscayne style cod).

Romeritos — which shouldn't be confused with the spice called romero (rosemary) — are edible herbs which are accompanied with mole, and sometimes with dried shrimp tortitas (cakes) or croquettes. Nowadays, mole is a complex dish with many variations, so much so that it is worthy of an article all to itself. However, for the purposes of this introductory piece, one need only mention that it is a sauce or gravy prepared with chillies and spices, and that when made according to the original recipe, contains around a hundred ingredients.

This is how the official site México Produce explains the term ‘romeritos':

Los romeritos o Suaeda torreyana son un quelite, esta palabra deriva del náhuatl quilitl, que significa “hierba comestible o verdura”. En México este término es usado para referirse a los tallos tiernos, retoños o brotes de una planta que son comestibles, por ejemplo: los quintoniles, el epazote, el pápalo, la verdolaga, el huauzontle, los berros, los romeritos, entre otros.

Romeritos or Suaeda torreyana are a quelite, a word which derives from the nahuatl quilitl, meaning ‘edible herb or vegetable’. In Mexico this term is used to refer to the soft stems, shoots or sprouts of a plant which are edible. For example: quintoniles, epazote, pápalo, verdolaga (purslane), huauzontle, berros (watercress) and romeritos among others.

With regards to its use as a dish for all occasions, the website adds:

Se pueden comprar en los mercados populares por kilo o en grandes manojos y, a diferencia de los otros quelites, no se come crudo.

Esta hierba se convierte en el centro de atención de la cena navideña cuando, acompañada de mole, nopales, papas y tortitas de camarón, se transforma en el tradicional revoltijo.

They can be bought in popular markets by the kilo or in big bunches and, unlike other quelites, they aren't eaten raw. This herb becomes the centre of attention at Christmas dinner when, accompanied by mole, nopales (prickly pears), potatoes and shrimp cakes, is transformed into the traditional mish-mash.

Imagen del usuario de Flickr [ebarrera] utilizada en términos de la licencia CC.

Image by Flickr user [ebarrera] used under terms of the CC license.

Paulina, writing for the blog Curiosidades de Cocina agrees with regards to this explanation of the stew:

Los romeritos son muy comunes en la cocina de la Ciudad de México y estados circunvecinos. A diferencia de los otros quelites, no se come crudo: siempre se cuece primero en agua, se escurre y luego se añade a salsas o guisos. Cuando le dan este hervor reduce mucho su volumen.

Como les mencioné ya, es muy típico comerlo en las festividades de navidad, año nuevo y cuaresma, uno de los guisos más importantes hechos de este quelite es el revoltijo, que es un platillo con mole, nopalitos y tortitas de camarón.

Romeritos are very common in cooking in Mexico City and surrounding states. Unlike the other quelites, it isn't eaten raw — it is always cooked in water first, drained, and then added to sauces or stews. This boiling reduces a lot of its volume. As I have already mentioned to you, it is very typical to eat it during Christmas festivities, New Year and Lent. One of the most important stews made from this quelite is el revoltijo (mish-mash), which is a dish with mole sauce, nopalitos and shrimp cakes.

From romeritos we move on to bacalao a la Vizcaína (Biscayne style cod), something which has managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the Basque Country in Spain to make the journey into Mexican cuisine. As its name indicates, it is essentially made up of  salted cod — fish dried by salt — in a light tomato broth (caldillo de tomate), usually served with olives, chillies and spices. It is customarily eaten not only at the formal dinners during Christmas and New Year, but also on the following day when it is known as recalentado (reheated).

The author of the blog Los Sabores de México (Flavours of Mexico) commented:

Les aseguro y les garantizo que esta es una de las recetas de bacalao estilo México o nuestra versión mexicana del bacalao a la Vizcaína, de las más ricas que probarán en su vida, y lo digo con esa seguridad porque en mi familia se ha hecho desde generaciones y es la receta que mi abuelas, tías y mamá han hecho por años y años.  Les recomiendo que lo hagan unos días antes para que el día que lo sirvan sepa mucho mejor, este es uno de esos platillos que entre más se recalienta es mucho más rico su sabor.

I assure and guarantee you that this is one of the richest recipes of Mexican style cod, or our Mexican version of bacalao a la Vizcaína, that you will try in your life. I say this with such certainty because it has been made in my family for generations, and is the recipe which my grandmothers, aunts, and mother have made for years and years. I recommend that you make it a few days before, so that it tastes better on the day you serve it. This is one of those dishes that has a much richer flavour the more it is reheated.


By Luisfi (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (].

The website for the culinary institute ASPIC adds:

El bacalao a la vizcaína, es un platillo que como los romeritos, el pavo y la pierna no puede faltar en las cenas de Navidad y Año Nuevo.  Si bien es parte del menú navideño, este platillo fue creado en el siglo XVI, cuando los cristianos practicaban la costumbre de ayunar los días viernes y sábado santo, como preparación para el día de la resurrección, poco a poco su fama y exquisitez lo trajeron a la mesa de los mexicanos.  Se volvió tradición porque antes, en la mayoría de los casos, no había posibilidad de hacer un buen pescado fresco, fue donde la gente empezó a agarrarse para tenerlos en conserva y la mejor manera de hacer esto es a la vizcaína o entomatado.

Biscayne style cod is a dish which like the romeritos, turkey and leg, can't be missing at Christmas and New Year's dinners. Even though it is part of the Christmas menu, this dish was created in the 16th Century, when Christians would practise the custom of fasting on the Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, in preparation for the day of resurrection. Little by little, its reputation and exquisiteness brought it to the Mexicans’ tables. It became tradition because previously, in most cases, it hadn't been possible to make good fresh fish. That's when people began to rely on having them preserved, and the best way of doing this is a la vizcaína or entomatado.

But what does the preparation consist of for ‘a la Vizcaína'?

The same source clarifies:

La salsa vizcaína se prepara con cebolla, ajo, pimiento morrón, jitomate, aceitunas, tomillo y laurel. Lo más importante de esto son los chiles güeros que ya vienen avinagrados, esto es para darle carácter y mejor sabor a la salsa a la vizcaína.  Para prepararlo se debe remojar el pescado en agua desde el día anterior, para después desmenuzarlo en trozos pequeños y separar todas las espinas.

The Biscayne sauce is prepared with onion, garlic, sweet pepper, tomato, olives, thyme and bay leaf. Most important are banana peppers soaked in vinegar, to give character and more flavour to the Biscayne sauce. To prepare it, the fish has to be steeped in water from the previous day, and afterwards, chopped into small pieces with all bones removed.

This was only a look at two examples of Mexican food served at tables throughout the holiday season. In the past we have explored dishes such as ‘chiles en nogada’ (chillies in walnut sauce) which take up table space during another season.

Global Voices invites readers to share in the comments section, the dishes typically eaten in their regions on these days.

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