Thursday, July 2, 2009

Breakfast in El Zócalo

Cuernavaca, Mexico

“Traveling in Mexico 101” teaches you to head right to the zócalo to establish your bearings in a new town. The zócalo is the central square, often times flanked by government buildings, old palaces turned into museums, cafes and, except in the case of Cuernavaca, it will most definitely be dominated by a church, chapel, convent or cathedral. The zócalo can be found in the heart of the Historic District, if the town boasts one, and always in the middle of the action. An immediate sense of a city and its history can be ascertained by one stroll through the plaza. It is essentially a park-- beautifully landscaped, with benches and fountains, walkways and spaces for people to meet and kids to run.

Our hotel is never far from the zócalo, so first thing in the morning, I walk through the quiet streets towards the z’lo in search of the tamale vendor. So far, I have not been disappointed, he is always there. This morning, we woke up in Cuernavaca. Hunger pulled me from my bed out into the crisp fresh air; like a zombie, I marched towards the z’lo. The tamale cart was parked on a busy street corner of the plaza and was easily spotted by the long line of growling stomachs backed-up behind the steaming vats on wheels. Three types were on offer this morning: green, red and sweet. First, I should explain what a tamale is for those who have not had the pleasure. The only real constant of a tamale is that it begins with corn ground into a dough called masa. The masa is filled with all different muy yum ingredients, depending on where you are in the world, then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed.

Staying true to the many regional differences found throughout Mexico, I was presented with a new variation of the tamale: I had the option of having my tamale natural or en torta. Served en torta means the tamale was cut in half and put in a freshly baked bun. I bought one of each, unadulterated, piping hot in the corn husk. The green was pork with chili verde and the red was a less spicy version filled with pork and chili rojo. The sweet tamale was a Strawberry-Shortcake-on-crack color from the strawberry puree that was mixed in with the masa. They were all delicious, and with each bite I proclaimed the one in my mouth the favorite.

However, the tamales we ate every morning in the z’lo in Oaxaca City, a few months prior, cannot easily be outdone. After the first morning, we raced back every morning and my ideal Mexican breakfast was born: a hot cup of organic Veracruz coffee alongside a tasty tamale treat. The tamale vendor in Oaxaca served a different kind every day. After the second day, I stopped asking what flavor they were, and relished in the element of surprise that lay inside the greasy wet banana leaves. Unwrap it like a present, then take a bite to really know the gift you have been given. My favorite one was a moist thin layer of masa surrounding a healthy portion of shredded chicken, soupily-sauced in a thick rich Oaxacan black mole. Incredible!

The early-bird gets the tamale. The man in Cuernavaca sells 200 tamales by 9 a.m. and calls it quits for the day, giving up his prime real-estate for steaming cauldrons of boiled corn kernels with chili and herbs, or free-wheeling flat-tops that sear hot dogs wrapped in bacon and cheese – daytime fare. It is obvious to me why the tamale is eaten during festivals: it is laborious and requires days of work. But, why is this (usually) savory meat-filled corn-cake a breakfast food? Hard to say, but it really hits the spot and is a great way to start a day of walking and eating. Perhaps, in the future, I will answer that question while bowing to the early-morning groans of my belly.

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