The African Face of Veracruz
When Hernan Cortes first landed in Mexico in 1519, he brought with him an African slave he’d bought in Cuba. Thousands more would follow in the coming centuries, forever changing the face, the rhythms and the flavor of Mexico.
Mexico is commonly thought of as the meeting place of the Spanish and native Mexican worlds. But in the Caribbean states--and particularly in Veracruz, where the conquest of Mexico began--the African slaves and their descendants have played a significant role.
It was in this lush and steamy paradise that the Spanish first settled and where they built their first port. They named it La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross), and it soon became the only way for goods (including food) to come and go between the Old and New Worlds.
Veracruz is still the most important port in Mexico. Huge cargo ships, ocean liners and fishing vessels crowd its harbor, and the boardwalk is always abuzz with strollers and sailors. Visitors immediately sense a different Mexico--exuberant, extroverted and joyful-with a distinctive tropical flair, a legacy of commerce and communication between Veracruz and Cuba, where the Spanish had established their first outpost.
The land in Veracruz is fertile, with temperate and tropical zones. These, combined with plentiful rainfall and a generous climate, make it ideal for growing not only the cornerstones of New World food-corn, chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, squashes, avocados and tropical fruits-but Old World plants introduced by the Spanish: citrus fruits, rice, coffee, plantains, pineapples and sugar cane. With the Europeans also came foreign diseases, and the native people--once they had been subjugated and made to work the fields--died off in alarming numbers. To replace them, slaves were imported from Africa. To discourage uprisings, the Spanish were careful to separate tribal communities and families, and dispersed the slaves all over the prime sugar cane-growing area in what is now central Veracruz.
A tragic consequence of this enforced separation is that within a few decades much of the original African culture was lost, which probably explains why there seems to be little sense of a black identity in Veracruz. The slaves married Europeans and native Mexicans, creating a community that proudly calls itself jarochos. An Afro-Cuban influence can be felt in all aspects of jarocho culture--music, dance, improvised poetry and, most particularly, the food.
(Though the Spanish achieved their goal for the most part, in 1608 an African prince named Yanga led a group of slaves and disgruntled natives, and staged a successful coup against the authorities. They were granted the right to establish the first free slave community in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, now called Yanga.)
A lively mestizo (mixed-blood) cuisine evolved in Mexico. The Spanish had brought Old World ingredients such as wheat, onions, garlic, olives, capers and almonds, as well as herbs--thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, cilantro and parsley--and spices, such as cloves, canela (true cinnamon) and black pepper. They brought cattle and dairy products, chickens and eggs, pork and cooking fats such as lard and olive oil. The Spanish also introduced cooking techniques, including frying and sauteing, that had been unknown in the New World.
An exciting exchange took place, and a new cuisine was born.
When native tomatoes and chiles (sometimes given the Moorish treatment of pickling) were paired with onions, garlic, olives, bay leaves and other herbs, all gloriously redolent of olive oil, the result was the classic salsa veracruzana . It swiftly rose to stardom when paired with huachinango (red snapper) and other local fish. Soon moles (pureed main-dish sauces) were fragrant with spices and enriched by slow cooking in lard, and corn masa antojitos (snacks) were being fried and topped with cream and cheese.
Peanuts would be on anyone’s list of great African gifts to the Veracruzan kitchen, where they grace everything from sweets to drinks to savory sauces. Ironically, they are native to the New World, not Africa. The Portuguese took them from South America to West Africa, where there was already a long tradition of eating and cooking with several native species of “ground-nuts” (principally Voandzeia subterranea ). Because their thinner shell meant they were easier to crack and their higher fat content made them infinitely more satisfying, peanuts received an enthusiastic welcome in Africa.
Though the peanut had undoubtedly been known in Mexico before Cortes arrived, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of it being a major player in the pre-Hispanic diet. Africans, on the other hand, added peanuts to stews of meat, dried shrimp, fish and vegetables or pounded them with ginger into a paste that they slathered on meats to be grilled (somewhat like the Indonesian satays ). They also pureed them with chiles and onions to make sauces that were probably very similar to traditional Mexican pepianes (seed-based main-dish sauces).
Now peanuts are a key ingredient in the classic mole poblano (from the state of Puebla) and in the Veracruzan encacahuatado served with chicken, pork or as a sauce for enchiladas called encacahuatadas .
Peanuts appear in other guises, too. One specialty of the Sotavento region (the heart of jarocho country) is the powerful, knock-down drink called toritos (little bulls), a sort of peanut butter/cane liquor milk punch. In gorgeous Tlacotalpan--the jewel of this area, where the making of sweets is a major cottage industry--peanuts are combined with sugar (another legacy of the African slave trade, slaves having been imported to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations) and turned into all sorts of sweetmeats. And peanut ices are the rage all over the state.
But my favorite peanut concoction is the addictive salsa macha of central Veracruz, made by grinding peanuts with garlic, comapa chiles (a floral local variety) and plenty of olive or vegetable oil.
Plantains also came with the Africans (via the Canary Islands) and grow all over Veracruz, where every part of the plant is put to good use. Plantain trees, called tutores (tutors), provide shade for delicate coffee plants in the misty hills of central Veracruz. The leaves make a fragrant wrapper for barbacoas (slow-cooked marinated meats) and tamales (including the gigantic sacahuil of the Huasteca region, made on a frame of banana trunks).
And the fruit is eaten at every degree of ripeness. Besides making great fried chips, green and ripe plantains can be cooked and mashed with garlic, jalapeno chiles and lard for machuca de platano. Both green and ripe plantains are mixed with corn masa and turned into tortillas or sweet or savory gorditas infladas (like Indian puris) , a beloved breakfast dish. Ripe plantains add body (and sweetness) to the famous mole ziqueno (mole from the town of Xico) and even show up in omelets along the Costa Esmeralda.
Now as in the early days of the colony, plantains and other starchy tubers including yuca , malanga , taro and sweet potatoes (collectively called viandas ) recall the comfort food of African slave kitchens. These, as well as some West Indian pumpkins, took the place of the yams the Africans had eaten back home. These vegetables needed little tending, were dense and satisfying when cooked and nourished not just the body but also the soul.
Now they can be found in kitchens at every level of society. The most important native tuber is yuca , also called manioc or cassava ( Manihot esculenta ). Yuca al ajillo (in garlic sauce) is rich and delicious, and I’ve also had crisply fried yuca croquettes swimming in a spicy tomato caldillo (thin sauce).
Fritters are also made with shaved coconut and malanga, a type of taro that is also used to make atoles (porridge-drinks) and dessert tamales. Sweet potatoes are mixed with corn masa and made into the wonderful layered garnachas de masa cocida or slow-cooked with pineapple (another plantation product) and caramelized sugar for a classic dulce de cazuela .
Peanuts, plantains and tropical roots give a unique color--unique in Mexico, unique in the world--to this cuisine. Like the music and exuberant street life of Veracruz, it derives from the rich cultural heritage of three continents that meet here.
For me, the dish that brings home the special and magical melding of Spanish, native Mexican and African traditions is the puerco con calabaza (pork stewed with pumpkin) that I discovered in the Lake Tamiahua area, a place where there are many people of African descent. The sauce has a nice kick from small dried chiles (called serrano seco in Veracruz--in this country I use chile arbol or something similar) but is also perfumed with coriander seeds and cumin that recall the spices of North Africa. The pork was the contribution of the Spanish conquistadores .
With every bite I feel I am reliving the encounters that created the modern Veracruz culinary melting pot.
Martinez is co-author of the newly published “Zarela’s Veracruza” (Houghton Mifflin, $35) and star of the companion PBS series. She is also a restaurateur in New York City and has just opened Danzon, which is devoted to the cuisine of Veracruz. She will be teaching Sept. 25 at Let’s Get Cookin’ in Westlake Village (818) 991-3940. The class is $70.
Plates from Sur La Table stores.
Pork with Mashed Pumpkin (Puerco con Calabaza)
Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours
Pumpkin-meat combinations are a hallmark of the Afro-Caribbean heritage in Veracruz. This tradition is still being superbly upheld by Santiago Careaga and his wife, Elena Gutierrez, the chef at Santiago’s Club in Tamiahua where I tasted this dish with its unexpected North African accents of cumin and coriander seed. Not surprisingly, their daughter, Dora Elena Careaga Gutierrez, is a noted expert on African culinary contributions in Veracruz and co-author (with Raquel Torres) of an excellent recipe-collection, “La Cocina Afromestiza en Veracruz.” Be sure to choose a winter squash or pumpkin with very firm, dense flesh, such as a kabocha, hubbard or butternut squash. The best pumpkin is the kind sold as a “cheese pumpkin.” Or go to a Latin American or Caribbean market and buy a wedge from one of the huge West Indian squashes.
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small onions, 1 unpeeled and halved, divided
4 cloves garlic, 2 unpeeled, divided
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, divided
4 to 5 dried serrano chiles or chiles de arbol
1(2 1/2-to 3-pound) pumpkin or winter squash
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons lard, preferably home-rendered, or vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Place the meat in a large saucepan or small Dutch oven with the unpeeled onion, unpeeled garlic, half of the peppercorns and 2 teaspoons of salt. Add water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat; at once reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil and skim off any froth that rises to the surface. Cook, partly covered, until tender, 45 minutes. Lift the meat into a bowl, letting it drain very well. Strain the stock back into it. You should have about 3 to 4 cups.
Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the dried chiles and cook, uncovered, until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Cut the unpeeled pumpkin into 8 equal-size chunks, removing any seeds and strings. Add it to the stock, along with water--if needed--to completely cover the pumpkin, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Lift out the chunks of pumpkin. Place in a colander to drain well, and let cool to room temperature. Reserve about 1 cup of stock.
Scrape the flesh of the pumpkin from the skin and into a bowl; discard the skin. Mash thoroughly with a potato masher or pestle. Set aside.
Place the pumpkin seeds in a small, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Toast, stirring and shaking the pan, until they begin to swell up and pop, about 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.
Grind the coriander seeds and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of peppercorns in an electric coffee or spice grinder or a mortar and pestle until finely ground. Coarsely chop the remaining onion and garlic; puree in a blender with the pumpkin seeds, ground spices, chopped tomatoes and chiles.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the lard to rippling over medium-high heat. Add the pureed mixture, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until the fat starts to separate, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved mashed pumpkin and the vinegar, stirring to mix well, and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Taste for salt and add more to taste, up to about 1 teaspoon.
While the pumpkin mixture cooks, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of lard in a large skillet. Add the meat and brown lightly for about 5 minutes, letting it get a little crisp but not dried out.
Spoon out the seasoned pumpkin onto a platter and top with the meat.
4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:
402 calories; 421 mg sodium; 105 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 2.98 grams fiber.
Seasoned Mashed Plantains (Machuca de Platano)
Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes
If you have ever eaten the fufu of West Africa and the Caribbean, you’ll recognize the original of this dish. Fufu was once made (and still is in some areas) by laboriously pounding some cooked starchy ingredient by hand in a big tub or mortar until it came together in a ball and could be eaten. The track of African slaves in the Caribbean is also the track of fufu.
The big variable in machuca de platano is the ripeness of the plantains. The dish is most suave and unctuous when made with ripe plantains. Green plantains (which would have been cheaper and more available) produce a very starchy mash that tends to become leaden if not eaten quite hot. Experiment if you like, trying to remember that plantains go through more stages of stubbornness and tenderness than can be exactly timed in any recipe. My own preference is to choose them on the semiripe side, yellow without a lot of black spots.
My recipe is adapted from a version of machuca de platano in Raquel Torres and Dora Elena Careaga Gutierrez’s important collection “La Cocina Afromestiza.”
3 large yellow plantains
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 jalapenos, stems removed, coarsely chopped
1 white onion
3 tablespoons lard, preferably home-rendered
1 teaspoon salt, optional
Cut the tips off the plantains; cut each crosswise into 3 chunks. Place in a medium saucepan with water to cover by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and cook until a knife easily pierces the skin and flesh, 20 to 30 minutes. If you are using less ripe plantains, the cooking time must be increased. Green ones may take 30 to 40 minutes and will not be as sweet as yellow ones. Drain well and peel, using a knife tip if necessary, to help detach the skin. Return to the pan and mash as smooth as possible with a wooden spoon or potato masher.
While the plantains are cooking, crush the garlic and jalapenos to a paste using a mortar and pestle, or puree in a mini-processor. Chop the onion.
In a small skillet, heat the lard to rippling over medium-heat. Add the garlic-chile mixture, onion and optional salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir the mixture into the hot mashed plantains. (Alternatively, heat the lard and cook the aromatics in a large skillet, then add the hot mashed plantains; the texture will be more dense but just as good.)
Cook, stirring, until the flavors are well blended, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve at once. (You can make the dish several hours ahead, but it will seize up to a most forbidding texture when it cools and should be briefly reheated in a microwave to restore the original consistency.)
6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:
87 calories; 121 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 1.23 grams fiber.
Chicken in Peanut Sauce (Pollo en Cacahuate)
Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours
Looking through Maria Stoopen and Ana Laura Delgado’s important work “La Cocina Veracruzana,” I found a pork-based version of this dish that I’ve followed with good results. But I think the sauce works as well or even better with chicken. Like moles and pepianes, this is one of those Mexican dishes with a modest amount of meat or poultry swimming in a large volume of sauce. People in Veracruz usually roast raw peanuts for sauces as directed here (or toast them in the oven, or fry in hot fat). I confess that when I make the dish at home I use store-bought roasted peanuts and have never seen any problem with the flavor. Canela and hoja santa can be found at Latino markets.
2 ancho chiles
1 cup shelled and skinned peanuts, raw or roasted
1 (3 1/2-to 4-pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground canela or cinnamon (from about 1 1/2 to 2-inch piece of stick)
2 tablespoons oil, plus more, if needed
1 French roll (about 3 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch slices, or 4 (1/2-inch) slices of French baguette
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large fresh hoja santa leaf or 2 to 3 dried leaves
1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
2 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/3 cup red wine
Place the ancho chiles in a small bowl, cover with boiling water and let sit for 20 minutes. Drain, then stem and seed; set aside.
If using raw peanuts, place them in a small, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat and dry-roast, stirring constantly and shaking the pan, until they are golden, about 15 minutes. Do not let them scorch. Set aside to cool. (Omit this step if using pre-roasted peanuts.)
Lightly sprinkle the chicken all over with salt and the ground canela. In a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil to rippling over medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces and cook, turning once, until lightly browned, allowing about 6 to 7 minutes per side. Lift out the chicken and set aside. Add the bread slices and fry, turning, until golden, about 1 minute per side. Lift out onto paper towels and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan and set the pan aside. (If no fat remains, add 2 tablespoons of oil.)
Working in batches, puree the peanuts, fried bread and drained ancho chiles in a blender along with the tomatoes, hoja santa, onion, garlic, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, pepper to taste, sugar and the chipotles. The consistency will be heavy and pasty; add up to 1/2 cup of the chicken stock if necessary to help the action of the blades.
Return the pan to medium heat. When the fat ripples, add the pureed mixture and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly to keep from scorching, for 15 minutes to deepen and melt the flavors. Stir in the chicken stock, vinegar and wine. Add the chicken pieces and cook until the meat is tender, about 25 minutes. (It helps to add the breast pieces about 5 minutes after the leg pieces.)
Variation: For Puerco en Cacahuate, replace the chicken with a 2 1/2-to 3-pound piece of center-cut pork loin, browning it well on all sides in the oil and cook about 45 to 50 minutes in the sauce.
8 servings. Each serving: 432 calories; 964 mg sodium; 83 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 2.95 grams fiber.