Eating and Travel in Mexico

Monday, July 21, 2008



If you do have a weak stomach or difficulty adjusting to new foods, the milk products are probably the ones to avoid at first. The milk that you buy in a mass manufactured container from the supermarket is no different than what we drink in the United States. However, the milk that is sold out of the back of a truck is what is called leche bronca and is what comes directly out of the cow. It hasn’t been homogenized, pasteurized, or any number of other processes that American stomachs are used to. In addition, jocoque, a thinner version of sour cream, is made with the cream from raw milk and can be difficult for an unaccustomed stomach. If you find that you have a stomach upset, whatever the reason, I wholeheartedly recommend Pepto-Bismol. There are any number of herbal remedies and any number of elderly women who would be more than happy to prepare them for you, but I have found that Pepto works better than anything else.

The guy who brings raw milk to my neighborhood drives it up in the canteros (the silver containers it comes in from the dairy) and honks his horn to let everyone know he has arrived. You have to bring out your own container, nothing is prepackaged. It costs 8 pesos a litter, so naturally it is somewhat of a luxury item. When this milk comes in, the first thing we do is separate it into a couple of smaller metal containers and put those in the fridge. This lets the cream rise to the top where it can be skimmed off to make jocoque. A common confusion in vocabulary is that sour cream as we know it in the United States is called crema whereas the cream that rises to the top of the milk is known as nata. So, if you go to the store and ask for crema, you are not going to get anything that you will want to put in your coffee. However, since good coffee is hard to come by, that probably won’t be an issue anyway (see: drinks).


Our quest for Chongos began several months ago when we came down in November. We travelled to a dairy in La Paz so that we could purchase a sufficient quantity of leche bronca (raw milk) in order to make these things that nobody could quite describe to me in a way that made them seem like something one might actually voluntarily eat. However, I was repeatedly assured that they were delicious and I was in for a real treat. To get to La Paz we drove about 30 minutes on highway 15 which is a toll road and therefore reasonably well paved (the toll is 37 pesos). We were driving happily along when suddenly the driver (my brother-in-law Jose Manuel) slowed his speed drastically and put on his flashers. My mind raced to high alert and I inquired what was wrong.

“We’re here.” Jose Manuel replied calmly. At this point, we made a 90 degree turn onto a dirt road from an interstate with a 110 km/hour speed limit. Nobody blinked an eye. Apparently, the exit that could be taken to go to La Paz was inconvenient and out of the way and so the people had just made their own exit. So, suddenly we were in the country on a bumpy, narrow dirt road. We drove on this for another 15 minutes until we reached a bend where the ruts were too deep for our van to traverse. Luckily, my other brother-in-law had been following in his truck, so we all (18 of us) piled into the back of this pickup truck and trundled further down the “road”.

We pulled into the dairy and I was hit with an odor that can only be described as pungent. 50 – 60 cows were waiting for their turn at milking and food. I watched as two men, positioned on low, three legged stools milked cows whose backlegs had been tied together to prevent kicking. The cows didn’t seem to mind at all. It was not work for the faint of heart and I must admit I was a bit disturbed by the number of flies present. A huge bull who was tied off in the corner eyed us all suspiciously and I found myself trying to remember anything from physics class that would let me ascertain the chances that he could pull loose from the tie.

We got something like 40 liters of milk and a special substance called “el cuajo.” Cuajo is rennet, the acid from the lining of a cows stomach. When half a cap of this liquid is added to 40 liters of milk, it causes the milk to separate and the curds are then collected for the chongos. Unfortunately, we left the cuajo in a borrowed truck and were unable to get it back until the next morning by which time the fresh milk had already turned (it was too much to keep in the refrigerator). My mother-in-law made a valient effort to make chongos anyway but what we ended up with was a very large tub of spoiled milk and it all had to be thrown away.

This time, we appointed my husband as official “keeper of the cuajo” and made a point of asking him approximately every thirty seconds if he still had the stuff in sight. We returned to the same dairy where it was no less fascinating to watch these men milk the cows. It’s a family business and the father who at 42 already had a six year old grandchild told me that they work 365 days a year from about 6:00 am until 9:00 pm at night.

“It’s a job that makes you old.”

They have about 50 – 60 cows and their dairy produces approximately 1,200 liters (or 300 gallons) of milk a day. This time they had some mechanized milking equipment and the father milked with the pumps while the son milked by hand. The noise from the milking machine was nearly deafening. While he was cleaning the equipment, the father complained that business was getting harder as the price of feed was increasing faster than the price of the milk. After the last cow had been hearded out of the milking shed, one stood looking in and mooing in a high, desperate tone. This cow was expecting and they told me they can only milk her in the morning but she’s used to the schedule and wants her evening milking.

We bought 15 liters of milk and put it in a sports cooler, like the kind filled with gatorade at football games. At 5 pesos per liter, it felt like a pretty good deal. We bound the cooler in the back of the pick up truck. loaded our human cargo back in (this time, only 12 people) to go back up to the van, and to buy more cuajo. We went to an unmarked building that was the cheesemaker’s shop in La Paz and my son called out for assistance.

Inside the shop, a 50 gallon barrel was filled with separated milk and a woman was repeatedly dipping plastic mesh containers into the liquid and pulling out what looked like cottage cheese. This cheese is called panela. The water liquid left behind was funneled into a large silver bowl to be cooked over a gas flame until it turns (magic?) into requezon. There were blocks of cheese ready to eat, slabs of butter, and a tupperware container filled with crema. When the milk is brought in, the nata is first skimmed off to make crema (it sold here for 30 pesos kilo, in the city it is 38 pesos a kilo). The liquid that is left is mixed with cuajo to make the table cheese cotija. The liquid left after that was what I saw the woman straining for panela. Finally, any liquid that is left at that point is cooked until it evaporates into requezon. Nothing goes to waste.

So, this morning, my mother-in-law showed me that the milk had separated and when I left the house, she was pulling out handfuls of whey and putting them in another container. I have no idea what to expect from this but I know it involves a lot of cinamon

Thursday, July 10, 2008


In our neighborhood, on Sundays, a woman makes Churros in front of the church. You have to get there early because they are gone pretty quickly, and they are absolutely delicious. She brings out a gas can flame, sets a big metal bowl on top and fills it with cooking oil. When it is the right temperature, she gets out this mechanism that looks like a giant caulking gun. She fills this with the batter and squeezes it in circles into the hot oil. After it has reached crispy, heavenly perfection, she fishes it out and puts it in a large, shallow ceramic dish filled with cinnamon sugar. You can buy either the whole coil or broken off pieces that you hold with butcher paper. The crunch of a hot churro is absolutely marvelous.

In the evening, she comes back and makes churros rellenos. These are churros that are round and formed by hand. The batter for these has leavening in it and so it puffs up when thrown into the hot oil. After she pulls them from the hot oil, she cuts an opening in one side and spoons in a sinfully wonderful syrup called cajete. Cajete is when condensed milk is cooked until it caramelizes but is still liquid. Pepe used to make cajete in the restaurant he cooked in by taking a can of condensed milk and putting it in a pot of beans to cook over night. In the morning, the cocineros (cooks) would come in and pull the can out with tongs. It would be runny and a brownish color and they would eat it on top of hotcakes (which is the Mexican word for pancakes). Here, they also eat regular lechera (condensed milk) on top of pancakes – remember when I warned you not to come to Guadalajara if you are on a diet?

You can also buy the long, skinny churros filled with something, lechera, cajete, chocolate, or miel (honey). To fill these churros, they inject the filling with a large syringe. Messy to eat, but yummy as well. I like the regular churros the best, there’s something about the oil and sugar. I’m so glad they don’t make them in the US or I would be too large to fly here on commercial airlines.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Choosing a Taco Stand


Mexico is a place to eat. If you are on a diet, I strongly recommend against travel in Guadalajara. There is food for sale on every corner, on the backs of bicycles, from the back packs of children, absolutely everywhere. Mexicans don’t have the same proscription against public eating that seems to exist in Europe. The great difficulty in Mexico is figuring out where to throw the garbage that is the byproduct of your food purchase. Public trashcans are few and far between (see Guadalajara – Garbage). I usually carry a small plastic bag in my purse so that I can store wrappers and containers and such inside it until I get home and can throw it away. Many people simply throw their garbage on the curb. Although this practice is wide-spread, if I ever see you do it, I’ll be forced to give you a piece of my mind.

Street Vendors

If you are looking at a food stand and trying to determine whether or not you should eat there, use your senses.

Look: Are other people there? If other people are eating there, there is a good chance that the food is good. Most food stands are semi-permanent, if they were terrible or made people ill, nobody would return.

Do the employees look healthy? I don’t mean do they appear to have high blood pressure or a limp, but in general are they the kind of people you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on public transportation? I always look for bandages - I refuse to eat food if someone has significant portions of her/his head or body covered in bandages. Either, they are so clumsy that you never know when a finger is going to end up in your taco (question: waiter, is this a finger in my taco - mecero, hay un dedo aqui en mi taco?) or they've got some sort of something that would kill your appetite to know about. Limes and hot sauce kill bacteria, though, so always feel free to load your food up with those, they should be provided (free of charge) with everything you can possibly order in Mexico except for desert (limes and chili are available for consumption with fruit and quite popular too).

Does the cook occasionally reach out, grab a live cat out of a bag and throw it on the grill? Well, live cats are a-okay, it’s the ones who are grilling (planchando) the ones that are already dead you have to worry about - who knows how they died. Actually, the rumor that the meat being served to you at food stands is dog or cat is greatly exaggerated. If you’ve ever eaten at Taco Bell, the chances are that the meat you are eating at a Mexican food stand is of higher quality.

Smell: Does the food smell good? This is probably the most important aspect. If the food doesn’t smell good, don’t eat it. If you actually decide to ignore your body’s natural way of telling you not to eat something, then I’m not entirely sure that this guide book will be of any use to you. This is also an indicator of sanitation problems - rotting garbage too close for comfort for example.

Listen: Is someone selling shrimp out of a Styrofoam ice chest strapped to the back of their bicycle at 3 o’clock on a hot summer’s afternoon in a town 6 hours from the nearest possible source of seafood? If you don’t have a recommendation from someone local that you “buy shrimp from Carlos the bici guy” then probably a good idea to steer clear. If he’s selling Tamales out of that chest though, take a look and a smell. Just because something is being sold by someone who doesn’t have an “establishment” doesn’t mean it’s not good. People will enthusiastically give you directions to their favorite place, sometimes to the point where you find yourself edging away and praying for some type of distraction.

Taste: Just like at Baskin Robbins, you can always ask for a taste of something. There aren't any small, pink spoons, but it's a good way to determine the level of commitment you want to make to a particular fonda. Does the food taste good? Then eat it!

Any place you eat in Mexico will provide you with the basic condiments: lime, chopped onion, cilantro, and hot sauce – if that is what you are supposed to eat with your food. Don’t worry about putting the wrong thing on your food, generally speaking, most food stands specialize in only a few items that are easy to prepare in a limited area with little or no cold storage. Therefore, the foods prepared are often closely related and the same condiments usually go with everything you could possibly order. If you want to know if a particular sauce is hot, just point to it and say “picante?” if the answer is no, and you have a sensitive tongue, you can follow up your question with “picante por un Americano?” There’s no guarantee, however, that you have the same heat gauge and so it’s best to try a little bit before dumping it all over your food.

Mexicans don’t adhere to the same breakfast (desayuno) ideas that Americans have. In touristy areas or places with a lot of ex-pats, you can find a cup of coffee, scrambled eggs, and maybe even bacon. Most places though, people eat tacos or some other lunch like food for the early meal. It can take some getting used to, but now I wake up hoping for barbecue.

Food stands are either operated at large carts or in the front part of the house known as the “cochera”, what Americans would think of as a garage. If someone has a grill or large vat of frying oil out in the garage and the doors are open, it’s a food stand. Sometimes they have signs out front but sometimes they don’t. Again, use common sense – if you smell something you would like to eat and you see people cooking it or eating it outside, just ask them where you could get something like that. They’ll either invite you to eat or tell you where they got it from.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jack's Photo Shoot

Jack got a hold of my camera and worked with his favorite subject - himself.

Tacos de la Vuelta

When people think of Mexican food the first thing they usually think of are tacos. Tacos in Guadalajara are different from those in the United States. They are made exclusively using corn tortillas. Usually the tacos have a double tortilla, a legacy of the poverty that exists in Mexico, it’s cheaper to fill up on tortillas than on fillings. For those on low carb diets, Mexico can be hazardous as tacos may be topped with diced potatoes. If you are looking to just eat the fillings without the tortilla, ask for a plato instead of an order of tacos.

This morning I had the opportunity to film the prep work for the tacos shown in the photos. This taco stand is just around the corner from Pepe's house and we try to eat there as regularly as possible. One of the reasons we really like to eat there is because it is close but it's also delicious and cheap - a helluva combination if you ask me. We get the tacos de barbacoa which is meat that has been slow cooked and then drenched in a tomato/mirasol chile sauce. The tortillas are dipped into sauce before they are cooked on a plancha, the flat griddle shown in the picture. That makes the tortilla nice and crispy and gives it a wonderful flavor. These are double tortilla tacos and she puts sauce on them after they are cooked and so the double tortilla prevents the taco from just falling apart in your hand.

Mago (the woman who runs the Taco stand - it's short for Margarita) lays out the limes, salsa, and chopped onions that are typical accompaniements to Taco heaven. However, she also makes a bowl of sliced onions, chopped habaneros, and lime juice. I can't eat very much of it, but just a little bit of it on a taco adds such a nice flavor. One time I did eat too much and thought I might actually die. Pepe still thinks I was being overly dramatic. If you ever do eat something that is too hot for you to handle, the best solution is to suck on a lime (another reason why they are ever present at the Mexican table, the other being that lime juice does a great job of killing any wee-beasties that might be living in your food). You can also consume a dairy product as a way to help ease the pain - don't drink water unless you simply have no other option because it just spreads the acid that causes the burning around in your mouth. However, if you have no other option, holding some cold water in your mouth for a bit and then spitting it out at least provides momentary relief. It always passes though and you learn one hell of a lesson about your tolerance.

A good thing to do before you eat anything that could potentially be spicy hot (picante) which is nearly everything you could consume in Mexico with the possible exception of Churros is to ask if it is hot. Just say "picante" so that your inflection rises at the end - maybe tilt your head endearingly to one side so they think you are cute and don't decide to say no just for laughs (which may not seem friendly but one of the best ways to know if you are liked is whether or not people play jokes on you - if they are always respectful and serious they probably hate you.) Unfortunately, for most Americans the definition of Picante is significantly different from that operating in Mexico. In that case, the best thing for you to do is to develop a frame of reference. Figure out how you feel about Jalapenos, Habaneros, and Lettuce (Lechuga). Then you ask if the particular food/salsa in question is hotter than Jalapenos/Habaneros/Lechuga and guage whether or not that means that you should avoid it.

When in doubt ask if you can have a taste. Most places will be more than happy to watch you taste a small portion of something. In Guadalajara, because there are not large amounts of tourists, especially in the parts I frequent, people are very devoted to making sure that I am taken care of and have the opportunity to try anything I am interested in. So far that's the way I've gotten out of eating entire orders of things that I would most likely find disgusting. If you are offered a taste of something you should generally accept. If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to try something try to invent an excuse of sufficient seriousness that you don't insult your host's/friend's/random person who wants you to try something's feelings like "I'm allergic, if I eat that my tongue will turn purple, and I will swell up and die" (loosely translated: si como esta cosa me lengua va ponerse morado y yo inchare y morire - you won't learn those kinds of helpful phrases anywhere else.)

At this taco stand around the corner, we eat 8 tacos, a large chocomil, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a coca-cola (the national beverage of choice - well, other than tequila) for 58 pesos, about $5.50. Can't beat that with a stick.

When I come home - I'll do the cooking.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Forget the flour tortillas and melted cheese, not that I dislike melted cheese. As a child one of my favorite things to eat, when I wasn't spooning strawberry jam directly into my mouth or taking surreptitious swigs from the Hershey's syrup bottle, was to put a slice (or 4) of cheese on a plate and microwave it. That's why I have a hard time buying the "obese people are just that way because they eat too much" argument. By all accounts then, I should weigh in at well over 600 pounds, rather than the diminutive weight of whatever the hell I am.

Enchiladas in Guadalajara are nothing like the ones that you can order in Mexican restaurants. Special enchilada tortillas that are thinner and somewhat smaller than others are used for this dish. This reminds me to tell you that tortillas actually have two distinct sides. There is an inside and an outside. If you tear a non-industrial tortilla in half lengthwise, you will see the two parts are only connected at the edges. The inside is the half that is much thinner. This thin part soaks up the juice and the thicker part keeps the tortilla from disintegrating in your hand. This happens because of the order in which the masa (dough) is laid out to cook.

I learned all of this because I live next to a tortilleria that smells absolutely heavenly although it emits a somewhat grating, high-pitched squeal as the tortillas come down the conveyor belt. It's approximately 70 pesos for a kilo of fresh, hot tortillas. I could live on them. Some of the taco stands I've been to actually make their own tortillas right there as your order. Those stands (fondas) usually have long lines too. Sometimes, there are old women walking around in a food market with baskets of hot tortillas that come in an amazing variety of diameters, colors, and thicknesses. Then, you just buy your filling by the kilo (or half kilo or whatever) and make your own tacos at the counter.

However, these aren't the enchilada tortillas, and that's where I think I was going when I started all of this although now I’m so hungry it’s hard to recollect.

They are soaked in a tomato salsa, made with garlic and oregano, and then the tortillas are deep fried. The filling is queso fresco (fresh cheese) mixed with dried oregano and chopped onions. They can either be rolled up or served flat, usually that depends on how crispy they are. To my mind, the crispier the better, the edges get nice and browned too. They are then topped with shredded lettuce, a couple of spoonfuls of a mild, thin tomato sauce, and then sprinkled with a thicker chili based hot sauce.

Living to Eat Another Day

I've begun work on my book about Tapatio food culture. There's so much to say and so many things to taste that I hardly know where to begin. The question I get asked most often about my travels in Mexico is: How many times did you get sick? The answer to that question is: once. and it wasn’t unwashed lettuce, poorly preserved meat, or ice cubes made from tainted water. No, it was something much more powerful than all of those things combined - my three year old son. He gets diseases that make your average CNN in Africa Special Edition: Looking at Sick People, segment of the nightly news seem tame by comparison. I am a highly adventurous eater and have consumed food from a wide variety of sources and so many of them are wonderful - don’t let yourself be scared out of eating in Mexico.


You should take some reasonable precautions, but these are the same precautions that Mexicans living in Mexico take - in other words, use your head. The people who live in Mexico do not drink water from the tap if they can help it. If you’re at all nervous, don’t even use it to brush your teeth. In Mexican homes, 5 liter bottles of water are delivered via local truck services and set into wire contraptions that allow for easy pouring. A 5 liter bottle of water costs around 11 pesos, approximately the equivalent of one US dollar.

I use tap water for washing dishes, even for washing out baby bottles, taking showers and any other non-drinking activities. I have brushed my teeth with local water but feel more comfortable using purified water. My husband brushes his teeth with water from the sink and he has never gotten sick. And although he is from Mexico, it has been ten years since he has lived here and so any advantage his body might have had from being accustomed to local bacteria is long gone. My now four year old son is nearly suicidal in his desire to drink water from sources I wouldn’t use to wash my cats paws in and he too has never gotten the famed Montezuma’s revenge. I think, maybe, Montezuma is finally at peace.

About Me

My photo
I have a fabulous husband, Pepe, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico. We spend a couple months each year in Mexico together. I also have two fabulous children, a son named Jack who was born in 2004, and a daughter named Violet, who was born in 2007 and whom we call Viva.