Medium Cool

Some -- but not all -- like it hot

Once, I was just like most people. My thinking was that all Mexicans ate the same. How ignorant I was.

Now, I've done extensive traveling and studied Mexican cuisine from all aspects and regions. And here's the skinny: The perception that all Mexicans eat their food muy picante – screaming hot – is erroneous. In fact, I found that most of Mexico's cuisine is subtle in heat and rich in spice and flavor.

Foods from the northern part are grilled, stewed or broiled meats usually topped with a medium hot chile sauce. Although the dried chile is king in this region, the sauces produced by this flavorful chile are mostly medium in heat.

The south serves up, in my humble opinion, the best of the regional foods. Here you find the complex moles that are perfectly balanced between sweet and savory. The vinegar and chile guajillo-based adobado marinade is bold and flavorful leaving a grilled chicken delighting your palate. Furthermore, in the southern region of Mexico, the food is diverse and simple, yet complex all at once. The rain-blessed region is home to such exotic treats as quesadillas de flor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms quesadilla) and huitlacoche, known in the United States as corn smut (a fungus that grows directly on the corn during the rainy season).

On the Yucatán peninsula, the foods are tropical by nature coupled with more than a thousand years of culinary perfection. Take famous cochinita pibíl, for example; this dish has been made in the same fashion for more than a thousand years. The word "pibíl" means "pit," and "cochinita" is a diminutive word for "little pig." A complex and well-condimented blend of the seeds of a tropical plant called annato and more than a dozen different spices made into a paste-like rub is diluted with sour orange and then rubbed on the pork. The pork is then wrapped in banana leaves, placed into a pit and covered for 12 hours to yield some of the best pork in the world. In this tropical region you can also find a salsa that is perfectly matched for the cochinita pibíl. It's made with cilantro, tomato, onion, radish, sour orange and the king of all spicy peppers, the habanero. This sauce will knock your socks off in flavor and heat.

Of course, stereotypes usually have some basis in fact, and many Mexicans do love their food muy picante. My dad liked his food very hot – I remember how he sweated after eating extremely spicy peppers like the habanero and tepín. But not all Mexicans are like my papi. The mild and sweet poblano pepper is the most popular of all chiles in Mexico. But myths die hard, and for most Americans a trip to a Mexican restaurant won't be the same without a chip dripping with salsa hot enough to make their eyes water.

The author is a local chef and restaurant owner.

 
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