Visiting Mexico City not too long ago, I spent time with two women, Araceli Piña and Susana Rangel Gutierrez—neighbors, good friends, and great cooks. They live in Azcapotzalco, a community with ancient roots, once a leafy suburb of Mexico City, swallowed up years ago by the city’s unremitting outward expansion, now a post-industrial urban neighborhood that not many tourists make it to. Cooking at home with Susana and Araceli, I got to know the two women a little bit better, and I asked a lot of questions about what food means to them and to their families. They seemed kind of amused by the whole thing, but happy to talk about what they love doing. Cooking, I found out, is what brought these two friends together in the first place—and what has provided them both, at different times, consolation, a livelihood, and a sure sense of their place in the world. I’m forever trying to get to the bottom of what makes a food culture like Mexico’s so consistently excellent. How do Mexican cooks, from housewives to high-end chefs, receive and impart that incredible wealth of knowledge and skill? In the kitchens of these two extraordinary cooks—who happen to consider themselves perfectly ordinary—I set out to better understand.
The market where Araceli and Susana do their shopping, in Azcapotzalco’s bustling main business district, is housed in a cavernous public building lined in gleaming white tile. Outside, indigenous people from all over Mexico State arrive early in the morning to sell produce, much of it foraged–edible plants like quelites and huanzontle that have been sold on or very near this spot since long before Cort¿s stormed Tenochtitlan. Inside the market, what a scene: gorgeous displays of produce, meat, fish, cheese, purply-black dried chiles, massive rippled sheets of chicharron (you can see some of that ethereal fried pork rind in the background of this photo, behind the ladies). There are also stalls turning out tortas (sandwiches) and fresh juices and tacos stuffed with juicy pork carnitas that you can eat as you allow the current of shoppers to carry you through the maze of market stalls. When I visited the market, on a Saturday, I followed Araceli and Susana around as they called on their favorite vendors. At a stand selling dried chiles and prepared mole pastes, Susana nodded gravely and said, “I know who to go to. At this place, they don’t wet their chiles to weigh down the scale.” At the fishmonger, Araceli was thrilled to find a fish called extraviado. The name translates literally as “lost,” and the fish is, in fact, hard to find, with a very brief season; the fishmonger had just one for sale that day, caught off Veracruz, he told us. “It’s very rich, but with a delicate flavor,” Araceli said. “The other sellers won’t have this, not extraviado. The fish here is always the best, very fresh. And the prices are reasonable.” Penny De Los Santos
At Susana’s apartment, her 13-year-old daughter, Diana Laura (pictured here at left), pitched in to help her mom prepare dinner. As they worked around each other in the small kitchen, peeling, chopping, toasting, blending, the pressure cooker was shuddering and hissing on the stove, with a pork loin simmering inside. Diana Laura kept jamming a butter knife under the lid to release steam; she giggled when I asked her to promise it wasn’t going to explode. The pork was destined for a quick version of cochinita pibil, the bitter orange-marinated pulled pork of the Yucatan, a favorite dish of Diana Laura’s. Some of that wonderful chicharron–the extra-wonderful kind, honeycombed all over with hunks of meat, called chicharron carnudo–was broken up and added to a dish of bright green salsa made with tomatillos, chopped cactus, and boiled potatoes. And then there was the centerpiece of the meal, pollo relleno, a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and manchego cheese and roasted in the oven–a recipe that Susana originally clipped from a magazine, and one that’s become a favorite among her catering clients. Penny De Los Santos
As the meal took shape, other family members began assembling in the next room–Monserrat, Susana’s 23-year-old daughter, and her boyfriend, El Deseo; Gerardo, 22, Susana’s son (pictured here, center), and his girlfriend, Mariana. They knew their mother was making some of their favorite foods. Their father, a security guard, was at work that day, but there would be plenty for him, too, when he returned home later that night. Susana looked on proudly as Gerardo, who is enrolled in a culinary course and plans to become a chef, put the finishing touches on some of the dishes–though she refused to take any credit for teaching him to cook. “I learned from television,” he told me, smiling wryly. “Iron Chef!” Still, he’s helped his mother in the kitchen for years, beginning when she had a business selling quesadillas, gorditas, and tortas, and now in her current venture, selling tamales from a cart at the entrance to their apartment complex. They also cater events together. “Last week it was a quinceañera, cooking for 300 people,” Susana told me. Susana learned by watching her own mother, who was a vendor of chiles rellenos and other foods outside a nearby factory. Penny De Los Santos
The low-rise apartment complex where both Susana and Araceli live was until recently–and still very nearly is–the largest public housing project in Latin America. Susana has lived there for 20 years and recently paid off her mortgage. Each morning she rises at 2 A.M. to make the tamales she sells beginning at around 8 o’clock; often, she sells out of all 60-70 tamales in well under an hour. The morning I met her and Gerardo at the spot where they set up their stand, a line of customers was forming before they’d even gotten up and running. That day they were selling tamales stuffed with rajas (roasted strips of poblano chile), tamales verdes stuffed with pork and green salsa, rosy-pink tamales dulces flavored with strawberry, and, to my mind, the piece de resistance: her tamales Oaxaqueños, fat, square, and filled with rich mole negro and shredded chicken. These she learned to make from her mother-in-law, who came from Oaxaca; the others she learned to make from a neighbor. When she first began selling them a couple of years ago, it took a little while to build a clientele. Araceli, then a stranger, was one of her first customers. She was walking by on the way to work one morning, and stopped to ask, “What’s in the pots?” The two women got to talking about cooking and became fast friends. The next time Araceli stopped by Susana’s tamale stand, word had spread about her delicious tamales, and customers were lining up. Penny De Los Santos
Whereas Susana was taught to cook by her mother and mother-in-law, Araceli is largely self-taught, and her cooking is all the more impressive for that. Her mother died when she was two years old; raised partly by her grandmother and partly by her father, who remarried and had another family, Araceli learned to take care of herself at an early age. Cooking was a comfort. “I just started inventing things,” she told me with a shrug. She was also clearly a keen observer, and with so much cooking going on in the street, all the time, all over Mexico City, opportunities to learn were everywhere. On the day I visited her apartment, she made pambazos, sandwiches of chorizo and potatoes on a roll that’s bathed in intense red salsa and then pressed and griddled. “Muy del Distrito,” she told me–which translates as “Very much of Mexico City.” Pambazos are indeed one of the city’s emblematic street foods. “Because I like them a lot, I would watch the vendors as they made them,” Araceli told me. “But then I improved on them. Often, in the street, they mash their potatoes–the texture isn’t as satisfying–and they skimp on the chorizo. Not me.” Penny De Los Santos
Araceli has become something of a celebrity for her pambazos, in fact. A mother of four, she works as a maid for various families in the center of the city. One of her employers, an American expat writer named Michael Parker-Stainback, told me that soon after Araceli began working for him, she took pity on him–“A bachelor, living alone!”–and started cooking for him from time to time. “The food was just amazing,” Michael said. “I felt incredibly lucky.” Before long, he was hiring her to cater his parties. “I always put Araceli’s name on the invitation,” he said, “because I know it boosts attendance.” Sometimes her friend Susana will contribute dishes, as well. For a recent party, Araceli told me, she made 80 pambazos, “and they ate them all up!” To begin making them, she put some potatoes on to boil–waxy ones make for a better, firmer texture in this dish, she said–and then removed the skin from some chorizo and began browning it on the stovetop in a ceramic cazuela, breaking up the sausage as it cooked. She diced the potatoes and then added them to the browned chorizo, mixing thoroughly to allow the potatoes to soak up plenty of the meat’s flavor. To make the sauce, she took some leathery guajillo chiles that she’d allowed to soak for a while in hot water and pureed them, along with the water they’d soaked in and some onion and garlic, until she had a smooth sauce, which she then passed through a strainer. “You want it fairly loose,” she said, “not too thick, so the bread will soak up plenty of it.” Penny De Los Santos
And then it was time to construct the sandwiches. Araceli scooped out some of the crumb from the inside of the rolls and stuffed them generously with the chorizo-potato filling, pressing them together firmly with her hands. Then she dipped each one into the brick red salsa, allowing it to penetrate the dense bread. On a very hot cast-iron comal, she griddled the sandwiches on both sides, pressing down with a spatula, until the surface was crisped and dark brown. She finished the sandwiches by adding a little shredded lettuce, some tangy grated queso canasta, and a drizzle of thick crema. Biting into one of these pambazos was a messy, totally absorbing act, with so many flavors and textures to process: the bread, drenched in piquant salsa and caramelized to a complex sweetness where it had met the griddle; the salty, spicy chorizo and starchy potatoes; the freshness of the shredded lettuce and the richness of the crema and the cheese. Amazing, what a perceptive cook can learn on the streets of Mexico City, where food is a collective fixation, a topic of passionate conversation, a basis for lasting friendships, and a home with doors that are open to everyone. Penny De Los Santos