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   Date: 2/10/09

Smith Abroad

Rachel Miller ’09, student writer for the Gate, wrote about her Interterm experience researching Mexican food for a special studies with Nancy Sternbach, professor of Spanish. Miller will compile her findings in an article this semester.

The writer takes a break from food to explore Mexico's Mayan ruins.

A Tasty Tour of Mexico

By Rachel Miller ’09

It wasn’t what you’d call a classic “eat-off.” There were no hotdogs, chicken wings or boiled eggs. But there was a time limit, and I was surrounded by millions of veteran eaters.

I was in Mexico, and my assignment was to visit as many cities and try as many site-specific gastronomical rarities as possible. For a month, I worked my way through steaming stacks of corn tortillas, pints of creamy guacamole, and jugs of fresh-squeezed pineapple, orange and watermelon juice.

Do I miss it? Yes and no. Read on.

My tour began in the state of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-haca) south of Mexico City, where I had the best gelato of my short life. In Mexico it’s called nieve (snow), and it’s pure frozen juice. Nieve comes in every flavor you can imagine, and some you simply can’t. My travel partner and fellow taste-tester ate mango with coconut. I tried something a little more unusual: guanábana with tuna.

In English, guanábana is called soursop. It’s a spiky green fruit and it makes a cream-colored ice with tangy starfruit and softer banana flavors. Tuna comes in two varieties in Mexico. The one I tried was bright red and tasted like a young raspberry—not one bit fishy.

Grasshoppers, called chapulines, are another specialty of Oaxaca. They come in various sizes, toasted with garlic, salt, lemon juice and sometimes chili. Mexican lore has it that visitors who eat chapulines are guaranteed a return trip to Oaxaca, while queasier snackers won’t be able to get past the leggy crunch. I closed my eyes and chomped. To my taste  the grasshoppers tasted like a compact, garlicky potato chip. (At least, according to lore, I’ll be going back—but not for the grasshoppers!)

On the beach.

Just two hours south of Oaxaca City you hit the ocean, which I do miss—that and the giant chilled coconuts. In Puerto Escondido, a town for Mexican tourists and devoted surfers, a woman hacked the top off a green coconut as big as a basketball and gave us each a straw. A local, who was sipping next to us, claimed that the coconuts down the beach just weren’t as sweet. We believed him.

San Cristobal de las Casas is an overnight bus ride from the ocean, heading northeast toward the center of the Yucatan peninsula. It’s a small town in the mountains of Chiapas, nestled about 2,100 meters above sea level. High altitude means perfect coffee beans, and it was in this quiet, chilly town that we drank the perfect cup of coffee. It was full-bodied and nutty, without bitterness or dusty aftertaste, and though I dearly love our Northampton cafés, their espresso just doesn’t measure up. How could it?

In Mérida, a city on the north side of the Yucatan peninsula, not quite on the ocean, we ate panuchos, a saucer-sized corn tortilla filled with a thin layer of bean paste and deep-fried until it shimmers and puffs. Toppings include juicy shredded turkey or chicken, soft avocado and mango bits, lettuce, and the vinegary, spicy purple onion salsa ubiquitous throughout the Yucatan.

The markets everywhere were full of strange fruits, some dangerously spiky (like guanábana) and some, such as mamey, scaly brown on the outside and tantalizingly magenta when cut open. The papayas are bigger than footballs and dripping with juice. Limes are everywhere, in small and even smaller versions. The mandarins are nearly as big as the grapefruit, and the grapefruit as sweet as mandarins.

The thought of freshly squeezed juice, or a banana licuado—just-ripe bananas whipped with milk and sugar – makes me want to buy a one-way ticket back.

After a month of pork and tortillas I have to admit: as soon as I landed back in this country, I bought a juicy hamburger with cheddar cheese and extra pickles. I’m still having unwelcome dreams of floating tortillas.

But give me a week and watch: I’ll be doing my best to recreate those crispy-golden panuchos in my own kitchen.


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