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Two worlds collide.  The Old one brings the New one an array of gifts: Christianity, guns, horses, Small Pox and steel weapons, changing the fate of it’s people forever.  And what history-changing items did the New World give to the Old? Some excellent foods – potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate and corn.

Traveling in Latin America, I often puzzle over which aspects of the contemporary culture are indigenous and which came from the conquerors.  So much here can be traced back to Spain.  But at least one aspect of the culture here in Mexico, seems to be pretty much Mexican – the cuisine.  There are, of course, plenty of outside influences.  But to this day, Mexican food revolves around maíz – corn.  And corn, that humble starch, is actually a fairly miraculous and mysterious food.

Dricker94's photo of corn

Miracle food? Photo by Dricker94

There’s More to an Ear than Meets the Eye

Scientists have puzzled over the evolution of corn for decades.  Wild relatives can easily be identified for other grains such as wheat and rice, but corn appears suddenly in the archeological record and there are no wild plants that are similar.  How did this happen?

Long before Monsanto started telling farmers they couldn’t save seed (isn’t that what farmers do?), corn had already had its evolutionary path altered by humans.  Ten thousand yeas ago, at the dawn of agriculture, early Mexicans used selective breeding to develop corn from a grassy ancestor called teosinte.  The two plants are so different that it took a long time for botonists to figure out that they are related.  But it is the closest relative to modern corn.

The Milpa and the Maza

When I was growing up, my father was a little bit anal about the garden.  Before seeds could be put in the freshly tilled soil, he’d have us smooth it out with a 2 x 4, then use a piece of string stretched between two stakes to make sure we were putting the seeds in a straight line.  Next neat little labels were added. Intermingling of different plants would not be tolerated.  A milpa would have killed him.

A milpa is field in which three crops are grown together – corn, beans and squash (a trifecta that also happened to the base of the Meso-American diet).  Here’s how it works.  You plant corn, a great food staple, but a plant which is not so easy on the soil.  Next to it you put a bean seed.  Beans are nitrogen-binders, good for the soil.  But beans need something to climb on.  How convenient that there is a corn stalk handy.  Then squash, which has big, broad leaves which shade the soil and help prevent water evaporation.  You can still find milpas all over Mexico.  And fields continue producing for centuries without the aid of chemical fertilizers.

Huerta Agroecológica's photo of a milpa

Not my father’s corn field. Photo by Huerta Agroecológica.

This ingenious way of farming was followed by another brilliant maneuver.  The ancient Americans boiled their dried corn with slaked lime.  This process softens the corn, loosens the hulls from the kernels and allows for the absorption of niacin.  Thus, the flour made from this treated corn- called maza, delivers a great deal more protein, vitamins a minerals than corn eaten in its natural state. From this flour they made tortillas, and on tortillas they built a cuisine.  Even in the good ole’ days, corn was a highly processed food.  But processed in a way that made it more, rather than less, healthy.  It was a food a staple fit to build an empire (or two) on.  And they did.

Even the fungus which grows on corn, known as corn smut in the U.S., was and is considered a delicacy.  It looks kind of gross, but I decided to try it.  It was good.  I recommend that anyone traveling in Mexico give cuitlacoche a try.

 Scot Nelson's photo of corn smut

Cuitlacoche aka “corn smut”. Photo by Scot Nelson.

The People of the Corn Take to the Streets

You are what you eat.  The ancient Mayans referred to themselves as the “People of the Corn”.  Their creation myth tells how they were made from corn. It was not only their primary food source, it was the basis of their culture and their spirituality.  For many, it still is.

They are wise enough to recognize that that cultural heritage is threatened by modern agribusiness.  On May 25th activists held a “Festival of Corn” in Mexico City and made their feelings about Monsanto, the multinational company which produces pesticides and genetically modified corn, known.   Monsanto is a big monster to be up against, but these people know that they have everything to lose.

We’re Number One (unfortunately)!

Mexico now has the dubious distinction of having surpassed the United States to lead the world in obesity.  Thirty-two point eight percent of Mexicans are obese as opposed 31.8% of Americans.  (I was glad to see that there is a whole percentage point of difference.  If it were less than that I’d have to wonder if my moving here tipped the balance.) No one would argue that traditional Mexican corn-based foods – tacos, tamales, enchiladas- are low in fat.  But Mexicans have been eating those foods for centuries and obesity only recently became a problem.  What’s going on?

Part of the problem may be due to eating corn in a relatively new format – high fructose corn syrup, mixed with water, caffeine, phosphoric acid…As it happens, Mexico is also at the head of the pack for consumption of Coca-cola.

I’m not going to give up on tamales and enchiladas.  But if I’m to accompany them with a grain-based drink, it’s going to be a michelada.

If you spend any serious amount of time in China, you will most likely be wined and dined by Chinese friends who want to impress (and show off) their foreign guests.  This is what happens if you’re lucky.  If you’re unlucky, they will try to accomplish this by taking you to karaoke.  In that case, my only advice is to drink heavily.

Eating in a fancy Chinese restaurant can entail a number of new experiences, so here are some etiquette tips for fine dining in China.

First Thing First…

Entering a posh Chinese dining room for the first time, I naturally slid around to the chair that was in the back corner, farthest from the door, closest to the wall.  I thought of this as being humble, trying not to draw attention to myself.

Dead wrong.  The place in the back of the room, farthest from the door is where the most important person at the meal is supposed to sit – the head of the table (the table is, of course, round), as it were. Oops!

Sometimes there will be one setting where the napkin is folded differently (rolled and protruding from a glass in a phallic manner) than all the others.  This is another way of indicating the most important seat in the house.  Don’t sit there.  If your host tells you to sit there, argue and tell him that it’s his seat.  Status is a big deal in China and you should always defer to your hosts.

Dining room in a fine restaurant. Photo byWilliam Murphy.

Weird Stuff You Just Have to Roll With… 

Are we in a restaurant or an aquarium?

Walking through the doors of a palatial building where you’ve been invited dine you might suddenly wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn.  Ahead you see tank after tank of  sea life: fish, shellfish and turtles.  The idea here is freshness.  You can select your dinner while its still alive. Literally, you can point to which fish you want and they will kill it and cook it for you.

Or maybe they won’t kill it.  A few times, I was served “drunken shrimp”.  A bowl of live shrimp is brought to the table and liquor is poured over them.  You get to eat them as or after they die in drunken bliss.  During the process however, it’s not unusual to see an inebriated crustacean fling himself out of the bowl and flop around on the table!

Drunken shrimp. Photo by James Creegan.

Enough Food Already!

There are four of you, or maybe six or eight, but your hosts have ordered enough food for twenty.  I like to eat as much as the next person.  Actually, I like eating more than most people.  And I want to sample as many things as I can.  But even I was shocked by the amount of food served at these meals.

Shocked and disturbed.  Don’t they know we grow up being told not to waste food because there are starving kids in China? At one point, I expressed my concern to my host and he admitted that they find the waste disturbing too.  But he went on to say that he would be a bad host if he didn’t order too much food.  So this is something you just have to roll with.  Nothing you can say will convince your host not to order at least twice as much as needed.

I was raised to be a member of “the clean plate club.”  The same logic that impels your host to order enough food for an army means that you should leave some food on your plate.  An empty plate means that you were not given enough and will likely signal someone to pile more food on your plate.

Epic Fireworks' photo of a chinese feast.

Good enough to eat! Photo by Epic Fireworks.

Chopsticks in the Food

Uuh? The same sticks that go in my mouth go into the serving dish? Yep, they sure do.  As a matter of fact, it’s not unusual to snag something out of the serving dish with your chopsticks and put it straight into your mouth. As Westerners we tend to think, “yick- germs!” But seriously, if it was really that dangerous, would this country have over a billion people? Just roll with it.

How to Be Polite, Even When They Tell You Not Too 

The Chinese way of telling you to help yourself and dig in is to say, “Don’t be polite.”  Of course, you do want to be polite, even while your pigging out.  Here’s how you do it.  Let’s say I’m eyeing the braised eggplant which is on the opposite side of the table and flanked by the crab dumplings and the congealed blood (Mao’s favorite dish I’m told).  Rather than spin the lazy-susan around to nab some eggplant, I pretend to be concerned about the lack of dumplings on my neighbors plate.  I gently turn the table so that the dumplings (and coincidentally the eggplant) come over to my side.  Then I offer my neighbor some dumplings, even going so far as to put one on her plate.  This will prompt her to reciprocate, and she will likely address the appalling lack of eggplant on my plate. Thus, I get what I want while appearing to act out of concern for someone else. Very sneaky!

Cheers! 

Wherever you are in the world, if you see Chinese businessmen dining, you’re likely to notice that they toast a lot.  Not only are they having a good time, they are being courteous.  You see when dining in China, it’s rude to partake of your alcoholic drink without toasting.  Every time you drink, you need to click glasses with your tablemates.  So when you need a gulp, think of something to drink to.  Don’t worry about coming up with something profound. “New friends” or “handsome men and beautiful women” are standards everyone will be happy to drink to.

As with everything, there is a right and a wrong way to toast.  When you click your glass up against someone else’s, hold your glass lower than theirs.  This conveys respect and indicates that you see the other person as having higher status than yourself.

A server may be at your table dedicating herself to keeping your glass full.  As she pours, it is polite to tap lightly on the side of the glass.  This is a way of saying “thank you” and can be used whether drinking alcohol, tea, or anything else.

Where’s the Rice?

A Westerner at one of these fancy feasts might be puzzled by the lack of rice, which we all believe to be the staple food of Asia.  Rice is the staple food, but the Chinese are smart.  They don’t want to waste space in their bellies with a cheap, starchy-filler when there are all those yummy dishes on the table.  Therefore, rice is brought out at the end of the meal to top you off in case you’re not already full.

Also, don’t expect fortune cookies.  They were invented in San Francisco and I never saw one in China.

Eat well!