Food Travels

For those of us located in the northern regions of the U.S., a winter vacation down south is a welcome blessing. For most, the sun, sand, and water are the highlights. But, I have to admit, despite enjoying all of the following, the food is most certainly the spotlight on my personal stage. My family’s latest excursion was to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Truly, this little island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, is a gastronomic extravaganza. Numerous restaurants line the tourist-laden walking streets, serving everything from Cuban and Mediterranean food, to “authentic” Mexican.

On my quest to experience some truly authentic Mexican food, I ventured off the tourist-laden walking street and into the downtown neighborhood of the island. I honestly never believed my husband would ever utter the word, “amazing,” to describe eating a Mexican dish, but sometimes pigs can fly, eh? Hands down, the food we ate at “El Charco,” was by far the best Mexican cuisine I have ever consumed in my life. Simple plates of handmade corn tortillas, piled with slices of chili relleno peppers, cheese, and strips of beef or chicken were served, along with various homemade sauces.

After stuffing our bellies, we ventured through the neighborhood and came across a make-shift corner restaurant, roofed with a draped plastic tarp and outfitted with a single plastic table and two chairs. I saw a sign that read, “tamales,” and despite having just eaten an enormous meal, purchased one tamale, lovingly wrapped in a banana leaf. Ok, so there’s no way I could have eaten it right then and there, so I saved it for breakfast the following day. My god! Was that tamale good. I had only ever had tamales wrapped in corn husks before. The banana leaf allowed more steam to remain inside the tamale while cooking, so the corn masa (dough) was much more moist. Nothing to say but delicious!

The best way to gastronomically experience a city while on vacation, is to venture into the local market places. I found the best breakfasts of poc chuc (a flattened piece of pork, served atop rice, with homemade corn tortillas), empanadas, and freshly squeezed juices all for about 1/4 of the price of the high-priced tourist restaurants. Butcher’s stands, with various cuts of meat, hung from the ceiling, and numerous stands sold colorful fruits and vegetables. I had seen mini bananas, or bananitos, sold in some New York City markets before, but had never tried them. I bought a bunch at the market and was pleasantly surprised to discover a much sweeter, intense version of a regular banana. And they were the perfect size for both my children! We ended up mashing some together with milk for breakfast one morning. Yum!

Then I came across what appeared to be a small, football-shaped fruit with fuzzy brown skin. I had seen men selling some by the side of the road and was intrigued by the fruit’s bright orange flesh. I decided to buy one from the market and finally taste one. When I returned back to my hotel, I inquired to one of the porters for the name of this alien fruit. The porter gave a large smile and said, “mah-meh.” I cut open the fruit and was surprised to find a single, elongated seed in the middle. I took my first bite and was pleasantly surprised by its intense sweetness, with a consistency much like that of papaya.
So wherever your travels may take you, try to eat as the locals do, and avoid all the tourist traps. Be curious, explore, and ask as many questions as the language barrier allows you! Happy travels and, as always, happy eating!!!


NYT: “Mexico Puts Its Children On A Diet”

The New York TImes published an interesting article on 3/14/11 about the battle being waged in Mexico to improve the quality of food that kids eat at school.  “One in three children is overweight or obese, according to the government,” and it seems that advocates are fighting hard to keep snack food companies and other junk food vendors from the school yard in order to prevent them from pushing their high-cal, high-fat, high-sugar and nutritionally-sparse fare on a captive audience of fledgling consumers.  Kids do not have the innate ability to always know what’s good for them, especially when it comes to making food choices.  But if children are given the opportunity to appreciate wholesome food without having the temptation of unhealthy snacks at their fingertips to corrupt them, they can begin to learn better habits to make a pattern of healthy decisions that may last them a lifetime.

As in the U.S., regulators, parents, and schools in Mexico need to take responsibility for protecting the children from the effects of unhealthy eating.  But the battle isn’t just against the producers of unhealthy snacks, but against the general mindset of society as well.  There are many people, young and old, who don’t know the importance of a healthy diet and the dangers that lurk in fried, fatty, sugary foods.  Mexican cuisine, to me, is very tasty, and it is steeped in custom and culture.  And much of the traditional fare that I have had the opportunity to try while spending time in rural Mexico is made from delicious fresh and local produce, such as mangoes and cactus leaves.  However, many people are still unaware of the lethal effects of frying foods in artery-clogging hydrogenated cooking oils, and this method is used heavily.  Therefore, the responsibility to push society in the direction of a healthier way of eating,  at home and in schools, lies with all of us.  Education and awareness are the keys.  In the U.S., as well as in Mexico, we need to keep conversation going about the importance of having access to fresh fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods and sugary snacks, such as soda, chips and candy.

Please take the time to read the full article, “Mexico Puts Its Children On A Diet”, and let us know what you think about the quality of food being provided to children in the schools where you live.