Respuestas to frequently asked questions

December 2004By Comments

What would possess a person to eat a prickly pear cactus?   Well, they’re abundant and cheap—and free if you gather them yourself. Called nopales, the pads have a mild vegetable flavor with a lemony zing. The taste of the fruits—called tunas—varies widely and can resemble anything from watermelon and honeydew to berries and cucumbers.

What is the difference between migas and chilaquiles?   Both of these breakfast dishes contain fried tortillas, but the similarities end there. Migas are basically crushed tostadas scrambled with eggs, tomatoes, chiles, and onions and topped with cheese. Either a pan-cooked dish or a casserole, chilaquiles consist of fried tortillas simmered in a sauce; they can be topped with cheese and crema. Confusingly, restaurants sometimes use the names interchangeably.

What is “interior” Mexican food?   ”Interior” basically means un-Americanized Mexican food, the exotic stuff like papa-dzules (tortillas in pumpkin-seed sauce) or pescado tikin xik (fish in a sauce of orange juice and achiote) that you encounter deep in the heart of Mexico. But culinary citizenship is readily granted in Texas, and as immigrants sweep north, they take their regional recipes to restaurants across the state. What was “interior” twenty years ago (ceviche, mole poblano, and huachinango a la veracruzan a) is today as familiar as the dishes of bedrock Tex-Mex: tacos, enchiladas, and tamales.

Coca-Cola used to taste better in Mexico than in the U.S., but that’s not so anymore. What’s going on?   Mexican Coke used to be sweetened with better-tasting cane sugar rather than less-expensive high-fructose corn syrup. But recently we found a Mexican Coke label stating that it may contain “High Fructose Corn Syrup, and/or Sugar.” An era has ended. Guess you’ll have to trust your taste buds on this one.

Are refried beans really refried?   No. Refried beans are fried only once. The confusion comes from the Mexican term frijoles refritos, which means “well-fried beans.”

Why does Tex-Mex use yellow cheese and other Mexican dishes white cheese?   White cheese was a rare and exotic food in Texas in the first half of the twentieth century, when Mexican restaurants were opening left and right. But yellow cheese—including Velveeta—was widely available and popular. Savvy Tex-Mex restaurateurs served what their customers liked.

Why do Mexican restaurants sell pralines at the cash register?   Until the sixties and seventies, only simple sweets were offered in most of Texas’s Mexican restaurants: pralines and sherbet (and sometimes ice cream). When more-elaborate desserts appeared, pralines moved to the sidelines.

What is a Mexican lime?   Mexican limes, called limones, are the key to an authentic margarita and are distinct citrus fruits, not just little limes. Small, round, and green or yellow, true limones are identical to key limes, but beware, because smallish, dark-green limes imported from Mexico are often misleadingly labeled “Mexican limes.” They are not the real thing.

What is the traditional way to do a shot of tequila?   First, lick the skin between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand (if you’re right-handed) and sprinkle salt on the spot. Next, lick the salt, shoot the tequila, and bite into a juicy slice of lime. But don’t do this with a premium tequila; that would be a sin.

Where did tequila get its name?   Founded in 1530 by a Spanish conquistador, Tequila is a town in Mexico’s central western state of Jalisco that is the epicenter of tequila production. The town gave its name to both the distilled spirit and the species of blue agave from which it is made: Agave tequilana Weber, blue variety.

Is there really a worm in a bottle of tequila?   Nope. The legendary worm is found in some brands of mescal, a more rustic agave liquor, and it’s not a worm at all but a moth larva that feeds on the plant’s roots and leaves. According to legend, it possesses magical properties, and swallowing it will bring you good fortune. Or, at the very least, impress your friends.

Since you mentioned mescal, what’s the difference between it, tequila, and sotol?   The differences between tequila and mescal are few but important: Tequila is made only from the species of blue agave called tequilana Weber, blue variety; mescal is usually made from another agave species, angustifolia Haworth. While the tequila agaves are cooked mainly in steam ovens these days, mescal agaves are cooked over wood fires, which lends the finished product a smoky flavor. Sotol is made from the sotol plant, Dasy-lirion wheeleri, an agave cousin, and is hard to find north of the border. If sotol is well made, the taste is similar to tequila and mescal.

Why are burritos named after donkeys? Should I worry about the meat?   By no means should you worry about the meat in your burrito (unless, of course, you worry about your cook). One story is that miners, ranchers, and cowboys in northern Mexico (where flour tortillas were common) would carry their lunches of tortilla-wrapped meat or beans in the saddlebags of their little burros, or burritos. The name of the transport got applied to the victuals.

Is a tomatillo a little green tomato?   No, but both are members of the nightshade family, as are potatoes and tobacco. In Mexico the tomatillo is also called tomate de cáscara (husk tomato), tomate verde, and fresadilla.

Do all moles contain chocolate?   Not all. The most famous one—mole poblano, created in the Mexican city of Puebla—does, and so does Oa­xaca’s renowned mole negro. But many moles are based on chiles, nuts, and seeds (mole comes from the Nahuatl word molli and basically means “sauce” or “mixture”).

What’s the deal with menudo? Is it really made from a cow’s intestines?   The celebrated hangover remedy is made from honeycomb tripe, which comes from the meatiest and most desirable part of a cow’s stomach. Basically a chile-spiked tripe-and-hominy soup, menudo has a distinctive flavor that is addictive for those who like it in the first place.

Why does so much pan dulce taste alike? And why is it so dry?   The different colors of sugary toppings on pan dulce are strictly for looks and all taste basically the same. Also, because these “sweet breads” are made with shortening or lard instead of butter, they are drier than the pastries Americans are used to.

Why are chiles hot? And where is the heat concentrated?   Chiles get their fieriness mainly from a nearly flavorless, odorless alkaloid called capsaicin that is found in the spongy ball of tissue inside the top of the chile that the stem grows out of, as well as in the veins and seeds. Other capsaicin-related compounds round out the burning properties.

How can I put out the fire of a really hot chile?   Nothing helps much, but milk, yogurt, and ice cream do some good. A substance they contain called casein breaks down the bonds the capsaicin has formed with the pain receptors in your poor mouth.

Why did old-time Tex-Mex restaurants serve sherbet for dessert?   The dairy element and the temperature helped quench any residual fires on diners’ tongues, and sherbet was so light it didn’t push overstuffed bellies past the breaking point.

If I cut myself while seeding a jalapeño, what should I do after I stop screaming?   First, you should have been wearing rubber gloves. But if your hands do get burned, rub them with vegetable oil and then wash them with a strong dishwashing detergent.

Can man (or woman) live by beans and corn tortillas alone?   Yes—good news for the starving artists and poor college students among us (although it would be a rather boring existence). The proteins in corn and beans complement one another and, together, provide all the amino acids the human body requires.

Why are corn tortillas made with lime (calcium oxide)?  The process of simmering the dry corn kernels with water and lime before they are ground makes the corn even more nutritious because it releases niacin in the kernels.

Who invented the margarita?   We wish we knew for sure. A much-promoted theory holds that a San Antonio society hostess named Margarita Sames invented the drink for her cocktail party guests in Acapulco in 1948. But this is contradicted by the claim that it was invented at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles in the early forties; so popular was the drink that in 1945 a Jose Cuervo tequila distributor named Vern Underwood came up with the famous ad slogan: “Margarita—it’s more than a girl’s name.” We, however, like the story that credits Pancho Morales, a forgetful bartender at Tommy’s Place, in Juárez, who is said to have improvised the drink in 1942 when he couldn’t remember the recipe for a Magnolia (gin, lemon juice, cream, and grenadine). The customers loved his mistake, and the rest is history.

What’s the trick to eating a crispy taco without its breaking apart?   Wrap it in a soft tortilla. Taco Bell has capitalized on the idea by enfolding the crispy shell in a flour tortilla, with a layer of beans between the two to hold the whole mess together.

Are chicken fajitas really fajitas?   “Fajita” refers to the cheap cut of beef known in America as skirt steak. (In Spanish, faja means “belt,” and this cut comes mainly from the cow’s diaphragm.) But over the years, gringos have applied the name “fajita” to any and all strips of protein grilled with onions and peppers and stuffed into flour tortillas. And there’s no such thing as tofu fajitas either.

Does mescal have anything to do with mescaline?   Nope. This cousin of tequila is unrelated to the similarly named psychedelic drug. 

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