This is the second Christmas in México for Leslie and me, and this year is much busier than last. We’ve already had the Riviera Alta neighborhood Christmas party and the annual Carol Sing and Pot Luckat St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. We’re joining other families for Christmas dinner at the home of neighbors Barbara and John, and dropping into at least one “open house.”
We also enjoyed the CASA — Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic— Christmas party. Leslie presented in the “appetizer” category: Polenta Bites with Mushrooms. She overcame some problems with the polenta and won first place! Her presentation was very good, but the consensus was that the taste of the mushrooms was maravilloso (mara-vee-YOH-so, marvelous)!
And I’m not trying to brag here because my part in this is very small, but the St. Andrew’s choir has been hitting it out of the park the last few weeks. We did “Ave Maria” by William Gomez (a native of Gibraltar) a few weeks ago — in Spanish. Click on the link to hear a small choir (like ours). If you’re interested, go to this video to see the words at the bottom of the screen. Our friend Judy had people in tears with her soaring mezzo-soprano solo. We’ve worked hard on the Christmas Eve anthem: “There Is No Rose” by Philip Stopford. The chorus in that video performed a cappella, and we will too.
Here in México, Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is more important than Christmas Day. Families usually go to church for the Misa de Gallo (ME-sah day GAHY-oh), a late-night mass celebrating the Messiah’s birth. Family is very important to Méxicanos, especially on Nochebuena. A big family dinner may include tamales, pozole (poh-ZOH-ley, a hearty corn-based soup) or roasted chicken for most. Richer families may be able to afford a Spanish stew of dried cod and potatoes called bacalao a la vizcaina (bahk-ah-LAHO a la veez-cah-EEN-ah), or a dish called revoltijo (rev-ol-TEE-ho) that combines wild greens with dried shrimp fritters in a rich mole sauce. There’s more, like traditional turkey (pavo) with a rich stuffing based on ground meat or sausage, but I’m getting hungry!
Family members often exchange gifts on Nochebuena and the niños try to bust open a piñata. These are special piñatas with seven points, representing the seven deadly sins. The person trying to break the piñata is usually blindfolded to represent blind faith as a way to combat evil. Here’s a short video I took during the Christmas party at Olé México, where I’m taking Spanish classes:
The festivities often go into the wee hours — sometimes until dawn — with music playing constantly. That means Christmas Day is usually quiet, since most are still sleeping.
This post is all about real Méxican food, particularly food from the Yucatan Peninsula where Mayan culture is important — especially at dinner time. If you’re not hungry right now, you will be in the next few minutes. So grab some chips and salsa and pour yourself a cold Pacifico or make a pitcher of margaritas.
Since we arrived in México, especially since we made it to the Yucatan, Leslie has wanted to take a cooking class. We struck that one off the list yesterday (June 28) at México Lindo Traditional Kitchen, Workshop & School in Puerto Morelos, between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.
Leslie and I joined five new friends from Florida to learn some basics in the art of Méxican cuisine, and to taste hot chocolate, green juice, and Méxican coffee with cinnamon and orange rind.
After learning about different kinds of chiles and picking up some knife skills for cutting tomatoes and onions, the Florida group departed. That’s too bad, partly because they were fun people and partly because they missed an incredible lunch!
Leslie and I got individual attention for the next few hours as we prepared our meal with instruction from Chef Alexandra, the owner of México Lindo. The recipes we used were her grandmother’s recipes, although Chef admitted she has made a few revisions over the years.
We made ceviche, shrimp broth, green rice with poblano peppers, black beans and red snapper filet, all Veracruzana style. And we polished it off with flan. As we cooked, we also learned about Méxican cooking.
There was a lot of hands-on work. I chopped and diced, using my new-found knife skills, and got to use the blender a few times. Leslie did a lot of the actual cooking — stirring and seasoning, asking questions and writing down notes. We each got copies of all the recipes, and we got to keep our “I Cooked In México” aprons.
As we sat down under the big palapa, Mari was making tortillas by hand. She invited us both to try our hand at making them. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Several times my work started to look like a tortilla, then some of the masa stuck on my fingers, leaving holes in the round of dough, forcing me to start over.
Leslie fared a good bit better. Mari is a Mayan woman, probably in her 70s, who has been making corn tortillas by hand since she was eight. In addition to making the tortillas (among the best I’ve ever tasted), Mari also worked very hard in the kitchen all day, mostly cleaning up. As we arrived, she greeted us in the Mayan language.
If you’re ever in Cancún or Playa del Carmen on vacation, you should take the class. The menu is different every day, so check with Chef, online or by phone, before you sign up. It’s a full day and there’s some work involved. But the meal is definitely worth it, as is sharing food and conversation with Chef Alexandra and sous chef Claudia.
But wait — there’s more!
Last Thursday (June 22) , we joined guide Francisco on the “Walking Food Tour of Downtown Playa del Carmen.” Nine different stops, only four of them actual restaurants and only one in the main tourist area known as Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. We spent about four hours with Franciso learning where the locals eat out, and getting a little history lesson too.
The first place we stopped was a taqueria that was full of locals. No touristas in this joint. In fact, we were the only non-Méxicans in any of the places we went. We sampled tacos al pastor as well as beef tacos, ceviche, Méxican ice cream, fruit juices known as aguas frescas, and tamales from a street vendor.
“You might be concerned about eating street food in México,” Francisco said. “The one thing you should not worry about is tamales. These ladies make the tamales at home and bring them here. In fact, I think many restaurants in Playa serve tamales that one of these ladies cooked in her home and sold to the restaurant.” I thought it was one of the best tamales I’ve tasted. On the other hand, Leslie thought the sauce was too spicy for her taste, and didn’t care for the masa.
We finished off the evening at a more familiar (and more touristy) place called Ah Cacao. It’s like a Méxican version of Starbucks, only way better. Their motto is, “Let’s Look After Our Planet — It’s the Only One With Chocolate.” They serve a variety of drinks made with coffee and cacao, and a number of chocolate-laden pastries as well. I had a Chocolate Maya drink — cacao and a variety of Mayan spices. Wow!
Just a little over two weeks now before we end Phase One of our search for a place to retire, then we head back to Chicagoland. We’re going back for some routine, but necessary, doctor appointments and to see friends and family we have missed very much.