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Can’t believe a year has passed since my 2010 Mexico trip. As you can see, I’ve not been posting to this blog for some time. But Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations this month made me want to revisit some of the backlog of stuff I never got around to posting.

So here’s a few (very rough) clips from around this time last year, right before the celebration of Mexico’s bicentennial.

My mom came to visit me for a week, and we went to Guanajuato, where we met two lovely guys at our hotel, El Zopilote Mojado (The Wet Buzzard). We joined a callejoneada, walking street party, on our first night.

But my mom was crowd-shy on the actual midnight celebration and stayed inside. So I went out with the guys the second night. We ran into La Katrina (Lady Death) and Miguel Hidalgo (Father of Mexico’s Independence) look-a-likes. The guys were donned faux mustaches in the style of Mexican revolutionaries.

Happy Independence Day, Mexico!

Check out FoodPress

One of my Mexico food pics (of Day of the Dead Bread or “Pan de Muerto”) got picked up on a neat new WordPress site called FoodPress. It’s amongst other fotos in a gallery of really yummy looking food.

I really like the idea of FoodPress gathering together other posts and photos of bloggers across the web. It’s neat to see all the other scrumptious things other food lovers are enjoying or creating!

You can read my original blog posts in which the foto ran:

In English — “Freshly Baked Bread of the Dead” or

In Spanish — “Pan de Muerto”

¡Buen provecho!

Bathrooms in Mexico

Bathrooms vary from country to country. In China, for instance, squatting is a helpful skill. In Mexico, you get get used to certain characteristics in the wash rooms, too.

Faucet

Faucets – In some bathrooms, the faucets were designed with a thin metal piece hanging from below the spigot. Kind of like faucets in airplane lavatories, which you must push to get any water flow, these faucets were a bit challenging to get a good scrub with both hands.

Toilets without seats – I’m not sure why this was so common in women’s bathrooms, but it was. (Someone, enlighten me.) It might have been a maintenance issue. But perhaps, the public generally prefers to sit on a thinner toilet rim or to practice 45-degree angle, mid-air squats for exercise. I usually went to the next stall.

Toilet minus seat

Showers: In Mexican homes, I found as in Asia, it’s not uncommon to have the shower and toilet in the same vestibule. After showering, you can then use a broom to squeegee the water toward a drain in the floor. A pair of flip flops come in handy.

T.P. in the waste basket - Another similarity with Asia — almost all bathrooms are equipped with waste baskets, which is where the toilet paper should go so as not to clog the plumbing. After a while, this becomes second nature.

Public water closets (or sanitarios): Water closets or public bathrooms are a widespread business across Mexico. Many W.C.’s charge about 3.5 to 5 pesos (about 40 cents) for bathroom use. Some bathrooms have dedicated cleaning staff that mop the floors, wipe countertops and empty waste baskets non-stop. Sometimes, though, I did not feel that it was necessary for a human being to dole out toilet paper to me.

Cleanest free bathrooms: Find them in Sanborn’s restaurant/department stores

[Note: This is an English version of an earlier posting I wrote in Spanish.]

Table spread with pozole, taquitos and a jug of limonade with chia.

During my time in Mexico, my host mom, Clara exposed me to a vast array of Mexican cuisine. Every day, it was something new — and she was always inventing new recipes. Here are some of the tasty items she whipped up in her kitchen during the six weeks I stayed in her home.

Juices and shakes (jugos, aguas and licuados)

Clara made numerous aguas – refreshing drinks of water mixed with the juice of tuna (cactus fruit), granada (pomegranate), carambola (star fruit), or limón (lime) sometimes with chia (a small seed). In the mornings, she often made freshly squeezed jugos or juices of mandarinas (oranges) or of toronja (grapefruit). And for the evening cena (or light dinner), she would sometimes make delicious licuados (or milk shakes) with strawberry or banana blended in. Mmm!

Sopa Milpa

Soups (sopas, caldos and cremas)

There was also a great variety of soups. They included sopa con fideos (a tomato-based soup with short noodles), sopa milpa (a soup made of squash blossoms, corn and zucchini), crema de elote (cream of corn), sopa de lentejas (lentil soup), pozole (a soup of pork, pig’s feet and HUGE corn kernels/hominy), crema de chayote (cream of chayote), sopa de verduras (vegetable soup), sopa de espinacas con huevos (spinach and egg soup), sopa de tortillas (tortilla soup), sopa de cebolla (French onion soup). You can view Clara’s tortilla soup recipe in English or in Spanish.

Snacks (antojitos or tapas)

Sopes - my favorite antojito

A Mexican mom wouldn’t be worth her salt if she didn’t also know how to churn out some antojitos, or snacks meant to satisfy a craving (antojo). These corn-based icons of Mexican food can be found everywhere, on the streets, outside of subway stations. Although technically, they’re considered appetizers, they can be quite filling, almost a meal in themselves. My hands-down favorite antojito was sopes, thick round tortillas with pinched edges, layered with yummy toppings, such as beans, meat, salsa, lettuce, etc. I loved the substantial, crunchy-but-soft-inside texture of the masa (corn-flour) base.

Other common antojitos included chilaquiles (a popular breakfast dish using leftover tortillas and salsas), taquitos (fried tacos with de slow-cooked lamb, chicken or potatoes as filling), enchiladas of various fillings covered with green salsa. My host mom also experimented once with tacos sudados (“sweaty tacos”) or tacos de canasta (“tacos of the basket”), which I later discovered is a very popular street food around Mexico City. The tortillas are filled with spicy chicken or mashed potatoes and then placed in a cloth-covered basket, which keeps them warm and steamy!

Nopales Salad

Chiles rellenos

Main entrees (guisados or platos fuertes)

This is where Clara would become really inventive. She’d throw together pollo con mango (chicken with mango) and make the best chiles rellenos I’d ever tasted (chiles poblanos filled with meat, almonds, apple, and plantains). Other yummy concoctions included tinga de pollo (a spicy chicken with chipotle), wild rice with almonds, cheese-filled squash blossoms, and an assortment of dishes made with nopales (chopped cactus paddles). Related link: You can view a video of me learning to de-thorn a cactus paddle in Mexico City in this posting.

Pastries and Desserts (postres, dulces)

Guava jam

Empanadas

Dinners were lighter than they are in the United States, and often a good time for some sweets. These sweets or pastries would sometimes carry over into the morning desayuno (or breakfast). My absolute favorite, bringing back memories of a marmalade my own mom would make when I was young, was Clara’s homemade guava jam (or mermelada de guayaba) spread over any kind of bread. Clara and her granddaughters one night also made an incredible banana-nut bread or pan de plátano that was to-die-for! Other desserts included buñuelos (fried discs of flour sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon) and empanadas filled with a corn-based custard (maizcena).

Huitlacoche

Cooking Lessons

Clara was always willing to share her recipes and answer questions about ingredients. She taught me and my fellow house guest Emily how to make salsa roja (of tomatoes) and salsa verde (of tomatillos) in my last week. Three of Clara’s sisters also came over during my last two days in Cuernavaca and cooked up a storm. They introduced me to three kinds of chayote (including one huge, fuzzy one) and huitlacoche, a kind of corn smut, frequently used as a filling for quesadillas. (It’s tastier than it looks or sounds!)

Food related expressions:

Below are some food-related expressions I picked up in Clara’s kitchen.

¡Qué rico(a)! / ¡Está riquísimo(a)! How delicious! / It’s delicious!

Estoy satisfecho(a). I’m satisfied.

Estoy muy lleno(a). I’m really full.

Está para chuparse los dedos. It’s finger-licking good!

Ya te puedes casar. (The food is so good…) Now you can get married.

Ya te puedes volver a casar. (The food is so good that if you are already married…) Now, you can get married again.

Mole

Se dice que los mexicanos están hechos de maíz porque comen mucho maíz. They say Mexicans are made of corn because they eat so much of it.

Se cree que alguien es ajonjolí de todos los moles. (Literally: He/She thinks that he/she is the sesame seed of all moles). It’s a way of referring to someone who appears everywhere or wants to know about what’s going on everywhere.

Para que quiero más agruras si con el mole me basta. (Literal translation: Why should I want more heartburn, if I’ve already had enough from the mole.) Why should I ask for more trouble than I’ve already got.

Note: Mole is a blend of many spices and ground sesame seeds, and can be quite heavy. You can view some pictures of mole in a slideshow in this posting.

Tortilla Soup made by my host mom

This is the recipe my host mom Clara gave me for making Tortilla Soup (a.k.a. Sopa Azteca), a very popular Mexican soup.

Ingredients:
Tortillas, oil, tomatoes, onion, garlic, epazote (a very Mexican herb), chiles de árbol, avocado, sour cream, Manchego cheese and chicken stock.

1. Cut the tortillas into strips. Fry them in a little bit of oil. Sprinkle on some salt. Set aside.
2. Fry red tomatoes with the garlic and onion. After frying, put in a blender and purée.
3. Put the puree into a saucepan with a little bit of oil. Add chicken stock, a liter of water and epazote.
4. Lightly fry the chiles de árbol.
5. Add the tortilla strips moments before serving. Serve in a deep dish or bowl with avocado, cream, cheese and chiles to taste.
Enjoy!

You can also read this recipe in Spanish. To read more about Mexican food, you can also read this blog entry.

Whew! What an experience. Taking a Mexico City metro (subway) last Wednesday during rush hour meant getting up-close-and-personal with some of my fellow travelers.

At Balderas station (where two subway lines cross), it was already a challenge to squeeze my way into a metro cab. With nothing to hold onto, some people gripped onto whatever they could, the ceilings, the light fixtures, other passengers. But at the next couple of stops, more and more people kept on boarding. And soon, I was butt-to-belly with several Mexican men.

People mostly kept their cool and were gracious despite the fact that we were smooshed up against each other. One guy joked the only place to go was “arriba” or up. That would’ve been interesting – a mosh pit party in the middle of the Mexico City metro.

When the train arrived at my stop, Pino Suarez, I and several others tried pushing our way out. But to no avail. The stream of other people pushing their way in was too strong.

Whoosh! We got carried off to the next station. This time, those of us who had missed our stop readied ourselves, weaving through the tangle of human bodies a little closer toward the exit. As soon as the doors parted, we pushed forward, hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, to make a human link off the train. Even then, I nearly fell out trying to break my way through the wave of humanity thronging in.

Ah! If only I had realized sooner I could have boarded the train from a blocked off part of the platform labeled “solo damas.” The metro reserves the first couple train cars just for women and children. There, you can find more room – usually.

A few tips for taking the metro or other public transportation

  • Don’t expect metro stations to carry maps of the metro. To secure a good map, visit one of the city’s tourist information kiosks, e.g. near the cathedral in the main zócalo. They can give you a magazine with a pull out section with not only a good color map of the metro, but also maps of a few places in town and metrobus stops. (AAA’s Mexico tour book also has a decent color map you can tear out.)
  • When you first get to a metro station, consider buying as many tickets as you think you’ll need for the day or next few days. Sometimes at certain stations and certain times of day the lines at the taquillas (or ticket booths) can get pretty long.
  • Metro tickets are cheap, about 3 pesos each (or about 25 cents), as of the writing of this blog post.
  • Generally, younger people respect elder passengers, and cede their seat. I also encountered some nice guys who gave up their seat for me.
  • If you decide to take the Metrobus, a red double bus which runs along Insurgentes, the main thoroughfare in Mexico City, you’ll see more of the city because it’s above ground, but it seems to have more stops and take a lot longer than the metro underground. If there are options to take a metro, and then a small bus (a pesero or micro) to your destination that may be quicker. The metrobus also requires you buy a card first to add money to (about $15 pesos).
  • Most peseros and microns cost between 3 to 5 pesos. A good deal!
  • If you need to buy gum, bread, a romantic ballad CD or a children’s multiplication table, not a problem! There are lots of roaming vendors who pass all day throughout the metro. Vendors with more merchandise also can be found in the underground passageways or lining the sidewalks at the entrance of any metro.
  • Rush hour traffic is probably heaviest on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. (into the city) and 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. (out of the city).

The hostel security guard is also an artist.

Where you lay your head at night definitely can color your experience while traveling. I was initially a bit wary about staying in a hostel for my last week in Mexico. I didn’t want to be surrounded by party-goer twenty-somethings bunked up in a bed 10-feet high in a cold, dark atmosphere without internet access in my room.

But the Hostal Regina, a brand-spanking new hostel that opened up in Mexico City last month, pretty much blew me away as soon as I checked in on Sunday. It laid to rest my initial fears and far exceeded my expectations.

The hostel combines great affordable prices with a hip and neighborhood atmosphere. The downstairs cafe provides loads of character. And it’s been great getting to know and travel with some of my fellow guests at the hostel.

Location: Just a few blocks away from the zócalo or main plaza of Mexico City, the hostel is actually located on a pedestrian street called Regina. So it’s close to all the major attractions of the center of the city while having a more authentic community feel. There are tons of little cafes, bakeries, and fruit/juice stands up and down Regina and the neighboring streets.

A Cafe with Character: I think the coolest cafe on Regina is right downstairs, where I get breakfast free as part of my hostel stay every morning. (Breakfast is usually excellent coffee served in traditional Mexican earthenware; freshly squeezed juice; and a changing menu with some variation on crusty, fresh bread, beans, eggs or some other kind of hot breakfast item). The cafe, affectionately called “Los Canallas” (which translates to “persons of low moral principles”), stays open until late night and is always full with locals. It has a superb play list of music, which simulates a concert atmosphere. And then there’s the daily sporadic mix of roaming live performers (huapango, impromptu theater, saxophonists, etc.).

Access to the rest of the city: Another big plus, the hostel is very close to several different metro stations — the closest of which is Pino Suarez, where two subway lines cross — super convenient!

Style: Whoever did the re-design of the colonial building deserves kudos. When I go take a shower, I feel more like I’m going to a spa than a hostel. Maybe its the wood paneling or the pretty black tiles. The balcony is also a great place for relaxing in an oasis-type atmosphere. And I’ve loved having the freedom to use a kitchen, where I’ve prepared my own meals at night. (Small quibble: I wish there were a few more tables and electrical outlets for people who like to work on laptops.)

People:

While I’m staying in a private room, I’ve gotten to meet other hostel guests in common areas. There are folks from different parts of the world well as other parts of Mexico. It’s been interesting hearing fellow travelers’ stories about why they came to Mexico.

-A couple from Switzerland wanted before their first child is born in April to realize a life-long dream to spend a few months volunteering in Latin America.

-A Korean art student from Canada decided to explore Mexico on his own before entering the job market. He has managed to connect with locals despite limited Spanish knowledge. Hand gestures and a notebook where he captures people and scenery in pencil sketches and watercolor have been all he’s needed.

-A man from Zacatecas came to the country’s capital city to turn a new page in his life — in search of love, health, spiritual peace and the amenities available in a larger city.  A lovely soul with a special touch when brewing calming teas from scratch (of fresh peppermint, azahar/orange leaf or lemon leaf).

-A script-writer from Los Angeles came to Mexico City on his way back to the United States after  spending nine months in Guatemala to research a project to adapt the book Bitter Fruit to film.

-A woman left work as an executive assistant at Chilcota, one of Mexico’s largest cheese companies, to pursue cooking classes in Mexico City for one month. Her next stop: Argentina for some more training in gastronomy. Eventually she might want to run her own restaurant.

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