Chiles and Chapulines

I love gastronomy. Good eating is an obsession of mine, and I’ll freely admit that at times I transcend mere foodie-ness and dabble in food snobbery.

As such, I find that one of the great joys of being in Mexico is ordering food. The cuisine itself is impressive and can often surprise with its complexity and depth. In the course of my Spanish studies, I’ve placed special emphasis on learning the proper ways to order food and the names of various dishes, which can be wonderfully expressive.

Red snapper goes by the playful name huachinango. There’s a traditional corn soup called pozole, and a jumble of corn, chiles, lime, and mayonnaise called esquites. Roasted chiles sautéed with onions and garlic make a satisfying dish with an equally satisfying name: rajas.

tacos de pato con mole coloradito

Tacos de pato con mole coloradito.

Leslie’s food of choice is chiles en nogada, the official dish of the state of Puebla. It’s a poblano pepper stuffed with spiced ground pork and minced fruits, covered in walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds (the red of the seeds, the white of the sauce, and the green of the pepper represent the colors of the Mexican flag). I, on the other hand, am partial to huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn and has a wonderfully rich flavor that belies its oysters-dipped-in-motor-oil appearance.

But, let’s talk Oaxaca, the site of our November wedding and Mexico’s culinary capital. When we were last there, Leslie and I had the great fortune of stumbling upon a restaurant appropriately named Casa Oaxaca. Sitting in its open-air interior courtyard, we had one of the best meals of our lives. And it all started with grasshoppers.

Chapulines, as they’re known in Mexico, are tiny grasshoppers fried to a golden-brown crisp. They were baked into the bread we nibbled on as we waited for our food—little legs and antennae poking out from the crust. The taquitos we ordered to start off our meal were stuffed with chapulines, jícama, and huitlacoche. Never had I been so happy eating bugs.

Then it was on to los platos fuertes—the entrees. Turkey and fried plantains sounded good to me, so I opted for the pavo con mole negro y plátanos fritos, while Leslie preferred duck and ordered tacos de pato con mole coloradito. Moles are sauces that are complex concoctions of chiles, seeds, and spices. Mole negro is slightly bitter and very dark, the color coming from mulato chiles. Mole coloradito gets its rusty-red hue from dried ancho chiles.

mole negro con pavo y platanos fritos

Mole negro con pavo y platanos fritos.

We closed it all out with nieves. As indicated by their name—literally, “snows”—they’re a sort of flavored, frozen milk with a texture

that’s at the same time smooth and icy. The flavors we chose were tuna—a sweet taste derived from a cactus fruit—and leche quemada. The leche quemada, sweet and slightly nutty from the caramelized lactose, was a highlight.

This May, Leslie and I get to do it all over again as we travel down to Oaxaca on a wedding-planning trip. While there, we’ll select and, more importantly, sample the menu for our wedding reception. I’m very much looking forward to that, as well as to sitting down at an outdoor café, ordering a couple of beers, and asking the waiter, “¿Me puede traer un plato de mole, por favor?”

Learn more about Simon Maloy’s adventures in language learning.

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Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is a Washington, DC-based media analyst and blogger. He studied Spanish in high school but had infrequent opportunities to practice it in the years following, and his speaking and comprehension abilities declined drastically. This became something of an urgent problem when he asked his Mexican girlfriend to marry him. Now he has a wedding in Oaxaca to plan and a whole new set of family members whose first language is Spanish. Simon used Rosetta Stone to reawaken his long-dormant Spanish skills and brush up on the basics, and now he's trying to build the expanded vocabulary and conversational expertise needed to assist his already-fluent fiancée in planning their wedding and to relate to his new in-laws in their native tongue. Simon is from Connecticut originally and graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in history. When not writing or learning Spanish, he makes pretty good ice cream and plays terrible golf.
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