by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
When we left the U.S. to begin our travels, I thought that I would never see Grey Poupon Mustard again. Was I surprised to see it everywhere we traveled except in Africa.
The first country we visited was Mexico where street stalls are piled high with vegetables and fruits. Some places have stalls piled with meat but we avoided those. However, there were a few items on the tables that I had never seen before. My Spanish was almost non-existent and so with hand gestures, I would try and ask how something was prepared. The ladies would laugh, then try and explain how to fix it. Most of the time, vegetables, and fruit are eaten raw so that was easy, most of the time.
The first thing we learned was that everything is sold by the kilo–bell peppers, eggs, bread, oranges, or limes. The food, including juices, is placed in plastic bags and weighed. At the little shops, I would take a plastic basket, and walk through filling it with whatever. It would be weighed and I would count out the pesos.
At one stall, there were long green bean like things sitting there. I picked up one and asked how? The lady broke it in half and I saw dark green beans in a bed of white foam like growth.
I popped the bean into my mouth and bit. UGH!!! The ladies in two different stalls burst out laughing as I spit the acrid bean out. Then the woman that had handed me the pod, took two fingers and bunched up some of the white foam, popped it into her mouth and began to chew with a big smile. I tried it and it didn’t wash out the bean taste but it wasn’t bad. Not good enough for me to try again.
Once, stuck in Guatemala for a few days, I bought a bumpy green ball from a lady sitting on a sidewalk with a basket on her lap. I didn’t know what the fruit was and asked a man who spoke English. He identified it as an Anona. I cut it in half and found the inside was a milky white custard like mass with bright black seeds scattered in the pulp. It was more than delicious and I was sorry when it was gone.
In all the countries we traveled through, there are large supermarkets in the big cities. In the smaller cities, towns and villages, there is always a market with stalls selling everything a person could want, from pot scrubbers to half a cow. In some places we could have bought live chickens, pigs or cows. We usually shopped in the market when we needed groceries. We used the supermarkets when we wanted packaged meat and canned goods.
As we traveled from Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, we were able to see and taste the different ways the meals were fixed. An Enchilada in California is very different from the one in San Jose, Costa Rica. The corn husks wrapping tamales were replaced with banana leaves and the masa (corn meal) thickness was increased and taste slightly different.
We also found that each state in the countries had their own variations of common foods. Chicken soup in Jalisco is a delicious dish with about half a chicken in a bowl. In Merida, the same soup is highly flavored with limes and is equally delicious. Every village or town makes its own cheese and I never did figure them all out. I did learn that the favorite of the nation is called Oaxaca and it doesn’t melt. Others are smooth, and some are salty.One of my favorite cheese dishes is a shallow bowl of melted cheese to be scooped out with pieces of corn tortilla.
Corn itself needs to be treated before it can be turned into tortillas. The government subsidizes corn meal and all over the country, trucks deliver the prepared meal to thousands of neighborhood shops which turn the dough into the common tortilla. I could always find a shop where a ball of dough is placed into a mold and turned into a raw tortilla. That is placed on a conveyer belt and cooked, bundled, and wrapped into packages of 1, 5, or 10 kilos. Every morning, little trucks (Toyotas or Nissan) deliver hot steaming tortillas in blue ice chests to millions of neighborhood shops. In our neighborhood in Puerto Vallarta, there were six shops a block away from our house. The smell of hot tortillas floats across villages and cities every day.
We did most of our own cooking but always enjoyed meals we ate out. We didn’t eat many pastries as they are usually very sweet. Mexican’s love candy and it comes in many colors and shapes. One of the most unusual is candy shaped as skeletons for the Day of the Dead celebration. Little white skulls and orange balls are sold on every street corner.
In Lake Patzcuaro, they serve little fried fish in wrapped newspaper cones. They are good when hot and sprinkled with salt and chili peppers.
At one week long celebration, the vendors built clay brick ovens and baked special bread every day. The smell of fresh bread mingled with the aroma of corn tortillas, pastries and other foods was wonderful.