(Published in Pacific Pearl's April 2019 issue)
If I ask you what Mazatlan’s traditional ceviche is, nine out of ten people would say shrimp ceviche. You know the one with shrimp, cucumber, tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice. Even though this might be the most famous version, there is a lesser known ceviche that is often overlooked. You may have seen it at the fish monger or on a street cart, with its striking orange color. It is Mackerel ceviche or Ceviche de Sierra in Spanish.
In Semana Santa (Holy Week) mazatlecos will go to the beach in their hundreds. Not because they can’t go any of the other 51 weeks, but because it’s…. Tradition! Part of this tradition are the snacks that are packed to camp out on the beach for a whole day. Obviously the beverage of choice is our beloved Pacifico beer. Besides the beer you will also find home-made mackerel ceviche served on a wheat-based Duro toast or on a corn tostada. Mackerel ceviche is prepared with ground mackerel (ask for it at the fish monger), shredded carrot, finely chopped onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper. Each family has their own ‘perfect’ recipe with a unique twist. Some will leave out the carrot and put cucumber, others will add mayonnaise and peas to the ceviche (really that’s a must-try!). I would go as far to say that mazatlecos are born with the skill to make at least three different kinds of ceviche. Whenever you organize a potluck dinner, be ready to try at least four different ceviches between shrimp ceviche, mackerel ceviche, aguachile or sashimi tuna. You see how it isn’t hard to keep a seafood diet in Mazatlan!
Most people turn their nose up when I say mackerel ceviche. You think of the smelly oily fish you get back home. The trick to a tasty mackerel ceviche is curing the fish twice in lime juice, to get rid of the fishy flavor. Now you could get cooking and whip up a mackerel ceviche yourself, but it’s more fun to eat at a traditional marisqueria (seafood restaurant). Here are a few popular spots!
“Para todo mal tamal, para todo bien… también! Translation: if things go wrong, have a tamal and if things go well… also have one!”
It’s the perfect ‘energy bar’ with its spongy corn dough, savory filling, wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves. Luckily tamales are available all year round. But if you ask which celebration is connected to tamales, most people think it is Christmas or New Year’s Eve. True fact is that most Mexican households will only make tamales during the holiday season when there is an army of family members (mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces) who can pitch in with the preparation. But there is a one day a year where tamales are the mandatory meal, which is Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd.
Dia de la Candelaria celebrates the presentation of baby Jesus in the temple, which is 40 days after Christmas. This day is linked to a previous celebration, which is Dia de Reyes (Three Kings Day) on January 6th. On Dia de Reyes Mexican children traditionally receive their gifts from the three kings, although nowadays many families give gifts on December 25th. Apart of the presents you share a ring-shaped bread called Rosca de Reyes. The person, who finds baby Jesus in their slice of bread, has to offer tamales on February 2nd. To keep up with this culinary tradition, here are some local favorite options.
Tamal de Elote/Piña
These corn or pineapple tamales have a sweet flavor (yes sweet tamales are also a thing!) and they are typically served as a side dish with a Sinaloa-style breakfast. The other essentials are Machaca shredded beef and Rajas poblano peppers in sour cream sauce. Tamales de Elote are made with freshly ground corn kernels, contrary to savory tamales which are made with Masa corn dough.
The most traditional location to buy sweet corn tamales is Tamales La Cuchillita. It’s located on Av. Juan Carrasco 317, one block before the intersection with Aquiles Serdan street. The unmistakable green cabin has been the favorite tamales shop for generations of Mazatlecos. Opening hours: 12-3pm, arrive early because choices are limited: sweet corn, pineapple or poblano pepper. Don’t let its unassuming appearance fool you though: fantastic flavors hide inside!
Tamal de camaron
Shrimp capital of Latin America, it should come as no surprise that Mazatlan has great shrimp tamales. The original shrimp tamales come from Escuinapa, where unpeeled shrimp is added to the corn dough, hence its name Tamales barbones or bearded tamales. However in Mazatlan shrimp tamales are made with peeled shrimp.
The Masa corn dough used for savory tamales is the same as used for tortillas. Most Tamales shops will specifically look for authentic corn dough, made from dry corn instead of instant corn flour. What if you’re allergic to shrimp, or if you don’t feel for sweet tamales? Don’t despair because you can also buy beef, chicken, pork and vegetable tamales or bright-red Tamales colorados. And if you’re lucky, you might see street carts selling Oaxacan tamales steamed in banana leaves. Hungry already? Score your savory tamales at these spots:
Tortilleria Zaragoza in down-town Mazatlan is the place to go if you want authentic tortillas made from real corn. Nowadays other tortillerias have opted to use corn meal to make tortillas, which is less time consuming and cheaper. But mr. Rafael Tostado has dedicated his life to continue this century-old tradition of making tortillas from the corn grains. Originally from Nayarit state mr. Tostado started his tortilleria 50 years ago. In those days people ate much more tortillas, but Mexican diet has changed through the years.
The process to create Mexico's favorite staple food start by boiling corn kernels in limewater. Then the grains are ground into a dough called 'masa'. The 'masa' is pressed flat into small patties and cooked on a very hot 'comal'. This process has been mechanized by creating a tortilladora machine.
Mr. Tostado uses a local corn variety called 'Garañon' instead of other genetically modified options. Sometimes it's hard to find the right product, depending on the harvest and climate. He is proud to continue this tradition, even though his business has remained small. "Why would I want all the riches and power of a big business? God has given me everything I need in life, so why ask for more?"