I’ve got to show a hint of appreciation to a lackluster Airbnb for having introduced me to one of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever tried.
Marajillo, a small, noisy restaurant and bar in the middle of nowhere touristy Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was mostly a bright spot during my brief stay in that tourism hub. Although I cannot recommend the comparatively bland and insipid ceviche Vallarta, the pulpo zarandeado, chicharrón de pescado (fried fish resembling pork rinds), and aguachile were excellent.
Although the verb zarandear generally refers to shaking and jostling something, in cooking, it refers to a style from the central western Mexican state of Nayarit. In this case, it means to split something — usually fish — from head to tail, and grilling it on a rack over hot coals. My dish at Marajillo was pulpo, or octopus, one of my favorites from the wide world of mariscos mexicanos, or Mexican seafood:
Of course, I was there to eat. Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – I was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.
This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons. One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious. Two, it’s a locavore’s delight. And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.
Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding this pueblo, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.
My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener. Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of hyper-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.
After meeting some affable Mexican folks in my travels – including through becoming an impromptu translator in China – I started traveling more throughout their country, increasing my awareness of regional Mexican cuisines. I will cover more of these food discoveries stories in later posts, but for now, we’re going to take a look at the tlayuda, the Oaxacan specialty affectionately known as the “Mexican pizza.” Hmm.
Tlayuda are eaten either with granulated sugar, or with any number of savory ingredients…
Savory tlayuda are first, smothered in a mix of refried beans and pork lard, the latter called asiento. Then…whatever! For the one above, I ordered it with ground chorizo, squash blossoms, quesillo (Oaxaca cheese; roughly similar to mozzarella), radishes, avocados, tomatoes, and a couple of flora unique to the region.
On the left, the green pod is called guaje. Although the pod is inedible, the seeds have an eclectic flavor profile, something of a grassy pumpkin seed. More importantly, the guaje, being plentiful in the region during the time of Cortés, lent present-day Oaxaca its name. Since the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the plant, they abridged it to become Oaxaca. So much easier, right???
And on the right, pipicha, or chepiche. Does it bear a striking resemblance to tarragon? Yes…but the flavor is more like a citrus cilantro, with a hint of minty licorice. Used by Aztecs and other ancient tribes to treat the liver, pipicha also are high in antioxidants, and can be used to cleanse the palate after a meal. I felt that the flavor was quite strong, so I would recommend using it sparingly.