It’s been weeks since I left Mexico City, but I’m finally ready to say ADIOS!
After Cholula, we found ourselves in Puebla- in a quaint city that reminded me of a much sunnier version of the compact, colorblock town of Reykjavik. Home to many handmade ceramics, local candies, and ornate churches, it also laid claim to fame for being the “birthplace” of Chiles en Nogada.
Named after its two main ingredients: The poblano chile and walnuts (nogal is Spanish for walnut tree), it is a dish that has been recreated year after year since its invention by Pueblan nuns in the early 19th century (the same nuns that invented mole? Almost too good to be true). A large roasted chile is stuffed with shredded pork and a combinations of aromatics and various in-season as well as dried fruits, topped with a creamy walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranates and parsley. This over-the-top, seemingly incongruous dish was originally conceived to celebrate a visit by the General Augustín de Iturbide who had helped Mexico secure its independence the aptly named, Mexican War of Independence. Iturbide has also been attributed as the original designer of the Mexican Flag. Thus, the colors of the dish are a non-accidental patriotic reference to the colors of the flag. In Mexico, church and state seemed to be inseparable in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The dish is also, uniquely, as seasonal as pumpkin pie. Traditionally offered in the months of August and September leading up to Mexican Independence day (Sept 16- NOT May 5), I can only wonder if this is this is the sole result of culinary history or if it is also the result of the actual seasonal availability of ingredients. I’ve read some blogs that say pomegranates and walnuts aren’t available any other time of year, but that leaves me skeptical. Left to my own deductions, I am led to a cause and effect situation here, for Chiles en Nogada are also not consumed at any other time of year. Hmm.
The combination of sweet and nutty flavors set me quite aback at first bite. But after slowly digesting (both mentally and physiologically), I realized that it was more complicated and quite tastier than my initial reaction. It reminded me of fall flavors with the apple, pear, and raisin type stuffing. It very surprisingly took me back to a Passover dinner we celebrated last year and the Charoset that I tasted for the first time. Referencing the two dishes and their respective ingredients side by side, it was obvious how my memory responded; nutty and fruity, the ingredients stood in solidarity with each other.
Everything about this dish- it’s patriotism to its country, its loyalty to history, its resemblance to other seasonal and religious meals, made it extra special to consume.
For a a great introduction on Chiles en Nogada and its preparation, visit this blog.
I was SO stoked to visit Cholula. Yessss, I thought to myself, I can plan a special tour for me and the DiploMan to visit the hot sauce-making plant. I can buy a case to get airmailed to our address in China. Maybe they’ll even have some special peppers for me to taste if I write to them ahead of time.
Before my hot sauce-saturated imagination ran off with endless pepper possibilities, I decided to Google the town to see exactly what the deal was. Part of me was not surprised at all to find that the small town of Cholula, about an hour outside of Mexico City, had no relation whatsoever to the famous hot sauce that I love and miss so dearly. Of course, the other part of me was completely devastated.
The Cholula that I had not expected to visit is a small town most famous for its yet-to-be-fully excavated pyramid. If you’re like me and think that all pyramids come in geometrically perfect triangles or sphinxes, you might be as disappointed as I was to encounter an utterly massive hill with a series of wide stone steps to the top.
On the other hand, after climbing to the top, and realizing that you’re sitting on a portion of a 400 kilometer x 400 kilometer manmade structure with the top razed by conquerors to house their church, you would start to realize (as I had) the magnificence and history beneath your feet.