It’s bad enough that many Americans think of fajitas, strawberry margaritas and acres of greasy cheese on everything as real Mexican food. But come on, people, we don’t even have their holidays right.
“Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican independence day,” explains Sylvia Rallo, owner of Consuelo Mexican Bistro and El Jardín Tequila Bar in San Jose’s Santana Row and Colibri Mexican Bistro in San Francisco.
However, when the real Mexican Independence Day takes place, it’s a good excuse to consume some authentic dishes that showcase Mexico’s wonderful regional cuisine. Nachos grande need not apply.
A native of Cuernavaca, Rallo notes that Mexico’s equivalent of our Fourth of July starts on the night of September 15th with speeches by notables, flag waving and cries of “Viva Mexico!” In her homeland, she reports, “Everybody screams and you drink and that’s it.”
The most anticipated part of the holiday happens the following day, says Rallo, when Mexicans celebrate by consuming a cornucopia of beloved dishes, which north-of-the-border Mexican restaurants sometimes serve on September 16th as well.
Front and center is chiles en nogada — “our national dish,” says Rallo. A piquant green poblano chile stuffed with meat, fruits and nuts sits proudly in a pale walnut sauce with rosy pomegranate seeds as garnish. “It represents the colors — red, white and green — of the Mexican flag,” she notes.
Savory, sweet, tart, creamy and slightly spicy, this seasonal dish is sometimes joined at Rallo’s holiday table by another tasty classic: barbacoa, which Rallo makes with goat but lamb can be substituted. Traditionally, the leaf-wrapped meat is cooked in an underground pit but Rallo’s recipe produces fall-off-the-bone meat slow-cooked in the oven with tequila, spices and herbs, then mounded into soft tacos.
Residents of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas have their own favorite local dishes eaten on September 16th, says Enrique Gomez, owner of Mexxi’s Taqueria in San Ramon. One dish that highlights the bounty of the region is Manchamanteles — which means “tablecloth stainer” — a luscious tropical mole with chicken that is brick red in color.
Another delicious regional dish is tostadas with beets, says Gomez. “It’s colorful and easy to make.” Were he back in his homeland, he might switch the protein in the dish from poultry to a similar-tasting local specialty — iguana. “When I was a kid, I’d go by the train station and the ladies would get off the train with a bundle of iguanas on their head,” he recalls. “They were going to the market, not to the pet store.”
As for that spring holiday that so many gringos mistake for Mexico’s day of independence, Gomez politely explains that Cinco de Mayo is a lesser event in Mexico to mark the day when rebels defeated the army of Napolean III near Puebla, while the bigger holiday commemorates victory over the Spanish. The most significant aspect of Cinco de Mayo, he says, is that “if they hadn’t succeeded, we’d be speaking French.”
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