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.

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.