Traditional dishes from Zirita, a culinary workshop, in Morelia.
Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacán, Mexico, is quietly beautiful, the kind of pretty where the dowdy female lead takes off her glasses, shakes out her ponytail, and wows the guy at the end of a rom-com. The food, though, is exactly the opposite: It’s the mean girl with the tiny waist who knows how to wield a fierce high heel—or, in Morelia’s case, a fierce tamale. A recent eating whirlwind through the historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site sprinkled with pale pink stones, revealed a ferocious food culture: hot with chile negro, strong with the bold flavors of local fruits and vegetables, and woven together with the influence of the local native Purépecha people. Here’s a little primer on what to look for while exploring Morelia.
These tamales are made from fresh, rather than dried, corn, and they’re cooked in fresh, not dried, corn husks, giving them a smooth texture and imparting the natural sweetness of the corn. Topped with thick Mexican-style crema and salsa, they’re a sweet and spicy meal unto themselves.
This is another local style of tamale, peak-shaped and wrapped in the actual leaf of the corn, as opposed to the husk. Traditionally, corundas—which have pre-Hispanic, Purépecha roots—are served with a salsa or as the starch for a bit of stew.
It’s not that you haven’t had avocado before; it’s just that you probably haven’t eaten them skin and all, as you can do with the local criollo type here. Or maybe you haven’t had your lamb roasted over avocado pits. Or have seen avocado leaves used to add depth to your stews, or lyophilized avocado sprinkled on top of your avocado ice cream. Avocados grow in nearby Uruapan, and so they are found everywhere, in many forms. Take the opportunity to encounter the avocado in unexpected ways here, where they might know the fruit better than anyone else.
Morelia’s enchiladas placeras bear little resemblance to the cheese-drenched Tex-Mex version, trading gluttonous indulgence for a refined focus on texture. The meat comes on top of the enchiladas, which are simply tortillas dipped in chile sauce and lightly fried. The “fillings” (potatoes, carrots, cheese, chicken) we’ve come to expect inside are then served on top. The dipping and frying process leaves the tortillas with a wonderful slight chew to them, like perfectly al dente pasta.
It can be hard to get over the idea of gazpacho as a cold soup, but in these parts it’s something totally different, kind of an adult version of the fruit cup from your school days. Not adult as in alcoholic, but as in carrying a punch-packing flavor in the enormous cup of fruits that might include jicama, mango, watermelon, pineapple, or other seasonal fruits. Additional flavor comes from the toppings: orange juice, crumbled cheese, and a hit of chile.
Ate de Frutas
Morelia is renowned for its candies and sweets, and one of the most common is ate, a thick paste that’s hardened to the point of being moldable and sliceable. Simple ingredients are prepared traditionally in large copper pans. The fruit—most often guava, peach, fig, or strawberry—is boiled with sugar, then reduced. Once it’s very thick, it’s molded or shaped before cooling. It can be served on its own as a sweet or alongside some cheese as a picturesque dessert.
About the author: Naomi Bishop is also known as the GastroGnome. Being a GastroGnome does not mean sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages, but rather exploring the wide world of culinary creations. You can read more from the GastroGnome at www.thegastrognome.com and find her on Twitter @gastrognome. She last wrote about eating in Avignon, France, for Eat Your World.