Edible History: Chiles en Nogada
The other night I was having dinner with my boyfriend at the wonderful Mexican restaurant Mesa Coyoacán in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My boyfriend is the only other person I know who is as obsessed with Mexican culture and Mexican food as I am. We could talk about the history of urban planning (or lack thereof) in Mexico City, dream about the jungles of Oaxaca, and eat churros for days on end and never get bored. I know that there are many more people on the planet who love Mexico as much or more than, I do. But sometimes in a city obsessed with bahn mi tacos, artisanal elote, and infused libations of any sort, I feel it hard to find authentic Mexican food, with authentic prices, that isn’t just served out of shopping cart by a sweet old lady on Saturday mornings in the belly of Bushwick. Which don’t get me wrong, I totally love. But when I am waxing poetic about tacos al pastor from la merced, sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.
That quest brought me to the most amazing restaurant, and arguably one of the best Mexican restaurants I have ever eaten at — Tortillaria Nixtamal. We were lucky enough to shoot a spot on Nixtamal recently, so keep your eyes open for a feature on how they make their fresh ground corn tortillas and the most mouth-watering chilaquiles this side of the border. But alas, Nixtamal is all the way in Corona Queens, so I have to savor it on special occasions. And though I can be pretty persuasive, I can’t often convince my friends to travel one-and-a-half hours each way for homemade tortillas.
Which brings me back to my dinner in Williamsburg at Mesa Coyoacán. This upscale Mexican eatery, which is quite delicioso, has many authentic Mexican dishes that can be hard to find anywhere else in the city. But one dish that represents the pinnacle of authentic Mexican cuisine, is this: chiles en nogada — and something my boyfriend had never heard of. And if he had never heard of chiles en nogada, I then realized that many aspiring Mexiphiles have probably never heard of it or had the chance to try it either (as it is usually only served in Mexico on special occasions) — and something must be done!
First off, chiles en nodaga is a complicated dish. It can be made with upwards of 40 ingredients and generally consists of roasted poblano chiles filled with picadillo, a mixture of ground or shredded meat (usually beef or pork), panochera apples, sweet-milk pears, criollo peaches, and spices. Once stuffed, the chiles are sometimes dunked in egg batter and fried, then always smothered in a crema sauce made with walnuts and fresh cheese. Finally it is dusted with a cover of pomegranate seeds and parsley. Simple, yet visually stunning, it is a tantalizingly divine encapsulation of the tricolor Mexican flag.
Aside from the fact that chiles en nogada is incredibly tasty, it also holds a space dear to my heart and to the heart of most Mexicans. The last time that I was in Mexico City (the fall of 2010), it was the double-decker anniversary of the 200th year of Independence from Spain and the 100th year of the Mexican revolution. In 2010, after some tough political times, Mexico was bursting with pride and ready to celebrate their historical achievements. For months, everywhere I went there were Mexican flags waving in the wind, sparkling gold streamers hanging from every doorstep, and ¡Viva la Revolución! posters plastered everywhere. And at practically every restaurant the daily special was chiles en nogado. But why was chiles en nogada so special?
I was incredibly lucky to have at the time a wonderful teacher and mentor in Mexico, Eulogio, who generously shared his culture, cuisine, and family traditions. At almost the exact moment I tucked in for my first meal of the trip, he explained the importance of chiles en nogada in Mexican culture and how I simply could not visit the country during its pinnacle celebration without trying the dish. Just a few days later, I sat at his mother’s kitchen table in Naucalpan, having one of the best meals of my life and devouring the tricolor with abandon.
The dish is considered a symbol of Mexican independence, as it was first prepared in 1821 for Agustín de Iturbide, the seminal commander who built a successful military coalition that marched through Mexico City, decidedly ending the Mexican War of Independence. He later became the Emperor of Mexico from 1822 to 1823. The story goes that in August of 1821, Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba, which gave Mexico its independence from Spain. On his way to Mexico City from Veracruz (where the treaty was signed), Iturbide stopped in the town of Puebla.
The people of Puebla wanted to hold a feast to celebrate Mexico’s independence and to honor Iturbide on his saint’s day, which is the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, August 28th. Nuns of the convent of our Mother of Santa Monica created a new dish in Iturbide’s honor, employing only indigenous, seasonal ingredients — most notably the poblano chile (which was selected out of over 200 chiles that are used in Mexican cooking), walnuts, and pomegranate seeds. Pomegranates and walnuts are in season in Mexico during August and September, and still today most places only serve chiles en nogada during these months.
It is said that Iturbide was fearful of being poisoned at the feast in his honor and thus ate nothing throughout the evening. At least, nothing until the chiles en nogada came out. He could not resist the colorful and decadent dish, fully enjoying many helpings. While it is rumored that Iturbide was also served another tricolor dish that day — a salad consisting of green nopalitos, red tomatoes, and white onions — chiles en nogada was the one that stuck and to this day remains a symbol of Mexican independence.
While chiles en nogada is the hot ticket dish on menus through Mexico at the end of every summer, now that we live in a world where ingredients can be had anywhere at any time, I am sure that it is possible to find it somewhere in Mexico City any time of the year (or in NYC in December, like me). But really, don’t you want to stay true to tradition and eat the dish during the celebration of the revolution? Although if you find yourself at Mesa Coyoacán anytime soon, I hardly think you should resist temptation.