September 28, 2011

The Nasty Bits

I want to go back to my trip to Puebla at Christmas time. Yes, there was the mountainous cemita at the mercado, but there was more...

It's a good time to mention that when I travel, I use the Couchsurfing network as much as possible. Sometimes this means I get a free place to sleep, or I may just connect with a local for coffee or a drink. It's not only a fantastic way to get the inside scoop on a place, it's how we, in the bigger picture come to understand each others cultures better. On my end, I have also hosted a couple of surfers and always had a great time sharing "my world" with them.

So thanks to Couchsurfing, in Puebla, I met Hiramo. And lucky me!–  it turned out he along with his parents and siblings operate a wonderful, and busy, neighbourhood restaurant where they serve popular Pueblan dishes  including two I had been curious about, but admittedly afraid to try: mole de panza  and tostadas de pata.

Mole de panza is the regional preparation and name for what you may know as menudo. Panza/pancita refers to the cow's stomach which is the featured ingredient. Now that stomach is called tripe in English, but the Spanish word "tripa" refers not to stomach, but to intestine and "tripa" is generally a taco filling, not in soup. So don't confuse stomach with intestine. Furthermore, the cow has those four stomachs– Panza being the whole thing. There's Cuajo (Honeycomb), Libro (Ruffled... like the pages of a book), Callo (also called Toalla- "towel" for its smooth texture), and Pancita, which is the smallest and most tender of the four. Many cooks will prepare the soup with all four types mixed together but some will use only the two considered best: Callo and Pancita. 

Like most of the traditional dishes, menudo or mole de panza varies regionally as well as from kitchen to kitchen. One thing that is agreed upon is that it's the grandaddy of all hangover cures.  From Friday morning to Sunday roadside stands and fondas hang out their signs reading "RICO MENUDO" indicating this is the place to stumble into for a bowl of this rescue remedy.

I'd tried menudo once in the mercado in Guanajuato. What was clear to me then was how important it was that the organ be properly cleaned. I had no trouble with the texture; it was the lingering ammonia aftertaste that repelled. Clearly someone was remiss in their duties.

So when Hiramo proudly offered me a bowl of his restaurant's Mole de Panza, I hesitated. Then in true Couchsurfing spirit, and in appreciation of the generosity of my host, sipped at the broth. It was so delicious my memories of the menudo from the past evaporated in the steam from the delicious red broth. The panza itself was tender and mild flavoured. Hiramo explained that the cleaning of it was laborious but obviously essential. He wrinkled his nose at the idea of rushing that phase of the preparation.

The next delicacy set before me, also met with hesitation. Pata de res. That is, pickled cow foot. I had noted a mysterious cemita filling earlier on in the mercado. Very pale almost pearlescent pink cubes glossy with the pickling vinegar, oregano and onion. Very suspect. And there it was before me, atop a tostada with shredded lettuce, crema and queso fresco. (In case you want to know more about different types of Mexican cheeses, click here for a pretty good guide)

Again, a moment of hesitation. Cow foot? Really?? This from the girl who gnaws every bit of cartilage from a bone. So naturally, with the first bite, I was hooked. The texture was firmly gelatinous and the flavour.. mildly sweet "essence of beef" with tanginess from apple cider vinegar and the distinctive taste of herbaceous Mexican oregano. Finished off with a zingy salsa, crunchy lettuce, it's a surprising win.

Now, a note on pata– I have had it since, and I believe it was overboiled in the preparation because it was not firm, but mushy-gelatinous. Unpleasant. Many Mexicans have told me they think pata de puerco is what's used, but they've never cooked it, so I put my faith in Hiramo and the multitude of Youtube posts that call for Pata de Res.

When in Puebla, do check out Hiramo's family's restaurant:
El Balcón Antojitos
Calle 7 Sur # 1301
Colonia Centro, Puebla

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