Food

Purists unimpressed by modern twists to 200-year-old Mexican dish


View of a ‘chile en nogada’ dish (Chile ‘Poblano’ with walnut sauce) served in its ice cream version, in Puebla. — AFP pic
View of a ‘chile en nogada’ dish (Chile ‘Poblano’ with walnut sauce) served in its ice cream version, in Puebla. — AFP pic

MEXICO CITY, July 17 — For purists of the iconic Mexican dish “chile en nogada,” new ingredients and even ice cream, tortilla chip and pizza versions have them up in arms as the recipe associated with Mexican independence turns 200 years old.

The celebrated fare traditionally uses around 30 ingredients, not least the poblano chile — grown mainly in the central state of Puebla — which is stuffed and covered in walnut sauce.

“The chile contains seasonal fruits such as pear, Creole peach and panochera apple, which is different due to its hard texture,” said Olga Mendez, a member of a committee formed in Puebla to mark the bicentennial.

“They are combined with almonds, raisins, cinnamon, cumin, oregano and brown sugar, and ground pork and beef are added.”

The dish was born in what is known as Puebla’s “convent kitchen” — where Spanish nuns and their indigenous helpers created legendary recipes combining ingredients from both traditions.

“It’s a representative, iconic, elegant, Creole dish. We’re proud of it,” said Mendez, who also heads a restaurant union in Puebla.

With its red, white and green ingredients, the dish represents the Mexican flag.

The stuffed chile, often coated in an egg batter, is covered in a white walnut sauce and decorated with green parsley and red pomegranate seeds.

According to historical accounts, the dish was served to Agustin de Iturbide, the first ruler of independent Mexico, when he passed through Puebla after signing the Treaty of Cordoba establishing independence from Spain on August 24, 1821.

It is traditionally eaten between July and September — the ideal harvest season for pomegranates, walnuts and poblano chiles.

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Reinventing a classic

Traditionalists are worried that the original ingredients are being replaced, partly due to the use of poblano chile seeds from China that are cheaper but yield less spicy peppers.

The innovators defend their efforts to give the classic dish a modern-day twist.

“I didn’t invent it. I just transformed it,” said Gerardo Morales, an artisan ice cream maker in Atlixco, Puebla, whose version has the same red, white and green colours as the original dish.

“The ice cream has everything that a chile en nogada has: pomegranate, parsley, walnut, pear, panochera apple, pork,” he said.

“Now we are in a time in which we have to innovate, not destroy,” Morales said.

There is also a chile en nogada version of chilaquiles — a popular breakfast dish of tortilla chips bathed in salsa — cooked up by Lulu Reyes and her husband Gerardo Castillo at their restaurant La Birula in Atlixco.

“It is nothing more than chile en nogada, but presented differently,” Reyes said.

In Mexico City, meanwhile, some restaurants offer vegetarian and vegan versions of the iconic dish.

Mendez accepts that some change is inevitable, but she draws the line at a sauce made from pine nuts instead of walnuts, or using other types of meat in the filling.

Not to mention the hamburger or pizza versions of chile en nogada that some have tried to create.

“We should value the dish that has given us a place in Mexican gastronomy,” she said.

Restaurateurs hope to serve up a record 3.5 million chiles en nogada for the 200th anniversary, in a welcome boost to Puebla’s pandemic-ravaged tourism industry. — ETX Studio

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