Award-winning writer and photojournalist Paula McDonald’s photos of Mexican life and culture can be found at Galeria del Puerto, next to Restaurant Calypso, on Playa Zicatela. Or online at www.paulamcdonald.com
Call it the Viagra of authentic Mexican cuisine. A dish that Frida Kahlo loved. A dish so sensual that it was the star of the final chapter and the final sequence of Mexico's most popular book and movie export, "Like Water for Chocolate." The fabled chiles in walnut sauce prepared for that story's climactic wedding scene so overwhelmed every guest with waves of heated passion that all, from priest to revolutionary soldier to prudish matron, rushed off immediately after eating them to make mad, passionate love under wash tubs, in clothes closets, under stairwells, on the open riverbanks of turn-of-the-century Chihuahua.
Chiles en nogada is a dish so divine that the cliche "to die for" is but a pale description of its delights (and the story's main characters, lovers Tita and Pedro, actually do ignite and incinerate in a fiery volcano of light during the book's finale).
It is a creation so complex and seasonal that few restaurants attempt its preparation, and yet, it remains one of Mexico’s most popular and sought-after dishes almost 200 years after its first appearance.
Shortly after Mexico gained its independence in 1810, the new president Don Agustin de Iturbide paid his first visit to the central Mexican city of Puebla. In preparation, the finest cooks among the wives of local military and political leaders were charged with creating a unique dish in his honor. Their masterpiece was a poblano chile delight, stuffed with the finest seasoned meats, nuts and fruits of the region and completely covered with an exquisite snow-white walnut sauce. Accented with the blood-red seeds of local pomegranates and with perfect sprigs of parsley, the platter proudly bore the colors of the Mexican flag. But, because of the seasonality of ingredients during that era, the instantly popular dish could only thereafter be served during August and September. It was the fresh-picked walnuts with white, white meat that limited this short season. (As walnuts are stored, the meat matures to the light brown color that most of us are familiar with, but these darkened walnuts will hardly do for the authentic colors of the Mexican flag. The dish must be presented as striking red, white and green, not red, beige and green.)
Lucky us. Not only has modern transportation allowed for wider distribution of the special ingredients of this now famous national dish, but longer growing seasons allow us to enjoy it all over Mexico for a much longer time period. So, when traveling in mainland Mexico anytime between Easter and late fall, watch for hand-lettered signs that pop up in front of fine restaurants and humble mercado stalls alike: "Hay chiles en nogada." It means "There are chiles en nogada today." That happy news always sets a true fan's heart aflutter since this complicated dish is only attempted by Mexico’s most ambitious cooks. And each restaurant—indeed, each chef---puts a different spin on the traditional recipe, making the sampling even more interesting.
Here's what you need to know about the original concept and recipe to compare each treasure you find.
Traditionally, a fat poblano chile is roasted and peeled, then stuffed with an exotic mix of cooked ground pork and beef, finely chopped fresh fruits, nuts and spices. Depending on seasonal availability, expect apricots, green and red apples, pears, platanos machos (giant bananas), peaches, raisins, cashews, almonds, pine nuts, fresh nutmeg and a hint of cumin and white pepper.
The stuffed chiles are then covered with a thick sauce of stone-ground walnuts, mixed with cream, milk, aged ranch cheese, sugar and a touch of salt and pepper. Literally translated, "en nogada" means "a sauce of pounded walnuts and spice," and, at its finest, the sauce should be so thick with ground nuts that it covers the entire chile and stays in place. The taste and consistency is like that of a sweet walnut milkshake. But the varying combinations of contrasting flavors and textures as you take bite after bite are what make this dish an endless surprise. Most people who know and love authentic chiles en nogada begin to salivate just thinking about the multiple layers of tastes that play upon the tongue.
If you're not yet an initiate, keep watching for that simple sign wherever you travel in Mexico and then savor each bite. "There are chiles en nogada today."