Did you know that mountains of Sinaloa are brimming with precious minerals? For centuries hardworking miners have extracted gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc from these mountains. It boosted prosperity in towns like Concordia, Pánuco and El Rosario and drove the creation of the port of Mazatlan in the 19th century. Nowadays mining is still an important industry in Sinaloa, but fisheries, agriculture and tourism have taken over. Many residents of former mining towns have moved away, leaving few jobs in the logging industry and small-scale farming. It isn’t only doom and gloom: there are traditions, long-gone in the cities, are proudly preserved here. Flavor Teller obtained rare access to the seasonal sugarcane harvest, also known as La Zafra, and the preparation of artisanal cane sugar or piloncillo.
So what is piloncillo and how do you use it? It’s a natural sweetener made by reducing raw cane sugar juice into a thick syrup and then pressing it into dense bricks or cones. You have probably seen it at the market. Piloncillo has a smoky, caramelized, sometimes fudgy flavor. It is used in desserts like arroz con leche or capirotada bread pudding or hot beverages like café de olla or atole.
What struck me most about artisanal piloncillo, is the knowledge and dedication that goes into making it. During the lengthy process there were lots of hands available to grind or stir, but it was the sugarcane elder that decided when the syrup was ready. Of course it was only his voice that counted: who could beat 70 years of experience!
The process starts by manually harvesting the sugar cane. Contrary to big sugar cane plantations, the fields aren’t burnt to eliminate excess foliage. This creates a fudge color, compared to the darker commercial piloncillo. The sugar cane stalks are stacked up next to a horse-powered (or man-powered) mill and the juice is extracted. By the time enough juice is collected, they light up the fire pit and hang two huge cauldrons over it. The mixture has to boil down to a thick syrup, which can take up to eight hours. As you can imagine, the heat of a wood fire isn’t exactly a precise temperature all the time. That’s why there are always two people supervising the sugar mixture to avoid spills. With big metal strainers they stir and cool down the concoction, spreading a magic waft of sweetness. Meanwhile the wooden molds are pre-soaked with water, so the piloncillo can be easily removed afterwards. Once the sugarcane elder gives the thumbs-up, the cauldrons are removed from the fire pit. It is a race against the clock to cool down the syrup. A spoon, the size of an oar, is used to whip the boiling blend. It’s a grueling heavy job (talk about a core workout!), so they takes turns. The movement creates a deep African drum-like sound in the cauldron, which slowly turns into a lighter sound as the syrup cools down. Finally the piloncillo is poured into the molds.
The piloncillo blocks almost look like gold ingots, with their golden fudge color. And it’s a product with a high demand. Most of the yearly production is already sold ahead of time to residents of neighboring villages. While we were there, many people came down to pitch in. I asked where they came from and most people said: “We’re part of the family”. So this small settlement of four families increases its population during La Zafra sugar harvest. It’s a wonderful example of how communal work and dedication can have such a sweet outcome.
Published in Pacific Pearl february 2021
In Mexico you need essential vocabulary to get around, like ‘Por favor’ and ‘Gracias’. Or how about ‘Una cerveza más’ or ‘La cuenta por favor’? Those who love food, learn additional words like ‘sin chile’ or ‘con cilantro’. Many of you will recognize the Spanish words restaurant or taqueria, but how about ‘cocina economica’?
Last month I read a request on a Mazatlan Facebook group about where to get frozen meals for a sick friend who couldn’t leave the house. It made me realize that there are certain things that don’t translate well from one culture to the other. You see, in Mexico we are not used to frozen meals. We would rather order ‘comida corrida’ or day menu at a ‘cocina economica’.
The cocina economica loosely translates to ‘affordable kitchen’. It’s the homey place where you go for an affordable and complete meal. The concept is simple: every day there is a fixed menu with an entrance, a main course and a beverage. If you’re lucky, it even includes a dessert. A cocina economica is usually open from 11 a.m. until 3.00 p.m. making it the perfect place to enjoy Mexican lunch or ‘comida’.
The roots of the cocinas economicas go back to colonial Mexico, when taverns and inns offered food and refreshments to hungry travelers. These places were referred to as fondas. In the 19th century the French word restaurante became fashionable and menus started to include imported products from Europe, in an intent to distinguish themselves from the common fondas. Nowadays there is still a perceived class difference between a restaurant and a cocina economica or fonda, although the quality of the food isn’t any less at the latter. The majority of Mexican cocinas econonomicas are run by one or several women, usually of the same family.
What type of food do they offer at a cocina economica? It’s mostly traditional Mexican dishes like marlin, meatball soup, ‘milanesa’ (breaded beef) or ‘chiles rellenos’ (stuffed poblanos chillies), almost always with refried beans as a side. If you want to try home-cooked local food, this is the place to go.
There is one dish that might cause confusion. If you see ‘sopa’ on the menu, you might easily translate it as soup. You would think type vegetable soup or tomato soup. Here’s the catch: there are two types of sopa: ‘sopa aguada’ and ‘sopa seca’. I can see some are rolling your eyes, reading this last term. How come there is such a thing like ‘dry soup’?!? Sopa aguada or watery soup is served as first dish (primer tiempo) and could be a chicken or beef broth sometimes with pasta. Sopa seca or dry soup is served as second dish (segundo tiempo) and it could be macaroni with a cream tomato sauce or cooked red rice.
Feeling hungry and ready to order? The majority of the cocinas econonomicas offer take-away and some even do deliveries. The order sizes can be charged per portion (‘orden’), per volume (‘litro/medio litro’) or sometimes per weight. There are plenty of options around Mazatlan. Just use Google maps to find the one that’s close to you.
Buen Provecho! Enjoy your meal!
Published in Pacific Pearl January 2021 issue
Who agrees with me that 2020 was the year that we look back on and think “Thank goodness it’s over”? Onward and upward we go into 2021 with positive energy. The best way to cope with tough times is a smile and good food (hello corona pounds!). So let’s talk about something that makes us smile: say ‘cheese’!
Talking about countries that are famous for their cheeses, you might say France or Holland. But what if I told you that Mexico also produces a large variety of cheeses. A visit to a ‘cremeria’ or cheese shop shows you that there is a world beyond Cheddar. Mexican cheeses can be divided in two type: the fresh cheeses and the aged cheeses. Fresh cheese is cheese in its youngest, purest form and it’s sold a one or two days after it was produced. Aged cheese has a longer shelf life and can be transported across the country.
Did you know that there is a traditional cheese town about 15 minutes outside Mazatlan? The town El Quemado produces the majority of fresh cheeses sold in the city. Many cheese makers are small-scale artisans that have a limited production. The cheeses that they make are panela and queso fresco. Panela has a mild flavor similar to ricotta and a texture that softens but does not melt when heated. Queso fresco has a slightly saltier flavor with a crumbly texture. It goes well on top of refried beans.
Flavor Teller was invited by Don Modesto Insunza in El Quemado to see the action up close. He has been in cheese production for decades. As the granddaughter of a Dutch cheese maker, this was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.
The process starts early when the pasteurized milk is brought in by local ranchers, who supply them with 1000 liters or 265 gallons daily. This will make a total of 250 kilos or 550 pounds of cheese. “The quality of the milk is key for our products”, says Don Modesto, “we can spot bad milk immediately, because it doesn’t give the same yield.”
The milk is curdled with rennet for about half an hour, after which the whey is manually strained out. The curds are salted, mixed and divided in cheesecloth covered rings. All in all the whole process takes a good two hours. Running into his seventies, Don Modesto has one employee and a teenage apprentice. “The boy is still in school, but with the pandemic he has been helping me out. Good thing he is a quick learner, you need dedication to be a good quesero”, he says.
Ready to try local queso fresco or panela? You can find them at the Pino Suarez market or at the cheese section of the supermarket.
Published in Pacific Pearl Magazine december 2020 issue
Everybody knows that we love beer in Mazatlan, especially our beloved Pacifico. For more than 120 years the local brewery has been brewing billions of gallons of this amber nectar. Thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the German immigrants and their thirst for ‘das Bier’, it has been produced locally since the 19th century. The first intents were taken by Celso Fuhrken who brewed Gambrinus beer, referring to the legendary European inventor of beer and Jacob Lang who brewed Lager, Porter and Ale. Both breweries and others who followed did not succeed commercially, because of lack of funding and high production costs. In 1900 five German businessmen with investment of the Melchers Company, started the Pacific brewery. Initially the Pacifico brewery offered two types of beer; the Munich dark beer and the Lager clear beer. It was delivered by horse-drawn carriages. The latter was more popular, so that is what we now know as Pacifico beer. In the 1950’s the Pacifico brewery was bought by Grupo Modelo. Since 2012 it has become part of the Belgian consortium Anheuser-Busch InBev, making it available to Pacifico beer fans in the US.
Now for those of us who like beer with more punch than a Pacifico, there were sadly only few options. The seasonal highlight was the arrival of Noche Buena bock beer, which translate to Christmas Eve or Poinsettia. This specialty beer is only available from October through December, so you need to stock up if you wanted it to last into the New Year. It continues to be sold in Mazatlan’s supermarket.
Mazatlan’s craft breweries
For some local beer fanatics, this wasn’t good enough. They took matters into their own hands, In 1995 Valentino’s opened the first microbrewery of Latin America by master brewer Rogelio Fontes. He organized the first local beer festival in 1996. After a few year unfortunately this brewery closed. But the passion for craft beer didn’t disappear, it went ‘underground’. Groups of beer tasters and home brewers popped up around town. Mazatlán’s home brew club ‘Los Fermentonicos’ organized internal competitions, stimulating younger home brewers to try their luck. One of them, Edvin Jonsson, took it a step further and opened the Tres Islas microbrewery in 2016. Several others like El Navegante, La Cueva del Diablo and La Bichola followed in the following years.
Cerveceria Tres Islas
This brewpub opened its doors in 2016 in the industrial harbor quarter of downtown Mazatlan. This hasn’t stopped any thirsty drinkers finding their way to this tucked away location. The first year consumption often exceeded production, which was obviously a good problem to have for a startup. You can find IPA, Hazy IPA, Pilsner, Porter, Scottish and Blonde ale on tap. They boast four awards in the Copa Cerveza MX national beer competition, winning a silver medal with their Porter in 2016, twice a gold medal with their Scottish in 2017 and 2018 and another gold medal with their Black lager in 2019.
The brewpub is currently closed because of roadworks in front of the brewery. But you can find Tres Islas beer at the tap takeover at Mano Santa restaurant in the Marina area or at Hector’s Bistro, Piquillas, Angelinas, Water’s Edge, Sports box and Bier Garden. At Mano Santa you can also get growlers to go. The small one-liter growler costs $190 pesos including the bottle or $100 pesos for refills if you bring a Tres Islas growler. The larger 1.9 liter (1/2 gallon) growler costs $330 pesos or $200 pesos for refills.
Cerveceria El Navegante
This brewpub on the Malecon started welcoming guests at the beginning of 2019. Its name ‘the sailor’ refers to Mazatlán’s maritime past and the British pub exterior combines perfectly with the craft beers you can enjoy inside. There is a wide range of options, ranging from Golden ale, Weiss bier, brown Ale, Porter, Stout and IPA. Their Golden ale won a bronze medal at last year’s Copa Cerveza MX national beer competition. They have recently reopened after a pause due to the pandemic. The opening hours are Thu and Sun 1.00-9.00 p.m. and Fri-Sat 3.00-11.00 p.m. For refills you can bring your own clean growler, even if it’s another brand and they charge $100 pesos per liter.
Cerveceria La Bichola
A recent addition to local brewpubs is Cerveceria La Bichola. This flashy pub with full-glass exterior is located on Ejercito Mexicano Avenue, which isn’t your traditional party area but worth the detour. Its name is a fun twist on local slang, where ‘bichi’ means naked. You can find four craft beer varieties: Pale Ale, Porter, Pilsner and IPA. Opening hours are Mon-Sat from 1.00-10.00 p.m. You can listen to live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Get your takeaway 1.9 liter (1/2 gallon) growler for $350 pesos or $230 pesos for refills. They don’t accept growlers from any other brands.
Mother Teresa once said: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one”. The COVID-19 pandemic might leave us wondering what we can do as individuals, with so much hardship happening around us. Street food vendor Francisco Gastelum, better known as “El Veneno” (the Venom), didn’t give it too much thought and gave back to the community that has helped his food stand grow.
Last Saturday and the week before he went out with his wife Alma and two sons to buy food. After finishing their day at the food stand and with help of some suppliers, they carried out their plan. Between the four they cooked up a healthy fish stew, served with tortillas. In the afternoon they drove out in the family’s “Pulmonia” taxi to start the drop-off. They first stopped at the fisheries docks, then headed to La Juarez neighborhood and finished at the poorer periphery. They gave away over 300 meals, without any charge. Mister Venom told me he couldn’t believe how positive everybody’s response was. “It really fills my heart with joy that I can share my blessings.”
The Veneno food stand is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 7.00-11.00 a.m. serving crunchy breakfast tacos (take-away only).
(Published in Pacific Pearl magazine april 2020)
Standing out with bright yellow and red colors on street carts around the market, or on the beach balancing on the head of a street vendor; you may have seen Cocadas or Mexican macaroon more often than you think. And did you know there are several kinds: traditional, fudge or oven-baked. Why not indulge your sweet tooth with an artisanal Cocada? We all know there’s always room for dessert!
Soft coconut cocadas are made with shredded coconut and piloncillo cane sugar. Their origin can’t be traced back easily, but Mexican coastal cities with a tropical climate have been selling them since the 19th century. And they continue to be a popular snack for hungry eaters of all ages.
Cocadas are traditionally a toasted, golden brown color, though food coloring is sometimes used for extra flair. Around Mexican Independence Day on September 15th you can see patriotic Cocadas using the red-white-green colors of the Mexican flag.
The process to make Cocadas starts with the dry coconuts that come from the plantations on Stone Island. The pulp is extracted, making sure to remove the brownish peel, and grated. The next step is to cook the grated coconut with sugar and water, stirring continuously until the sugar caramelizes. To make the fudge-style Cocadas you mix the coconut with sugar, milk and egg yolks. Using an ice scooper the Cocadas are placed on a tray to cool down. To create oven-baked Cocadas, the coconut domes are left to grill in a hot oven for 10 minutes.
The Cocada artisans are usually small family-run businesses. So the next time you’re craving something sweet, keep these delicacies in mind!
If you’re ready to learn more about Mazatlan’s culinary scene, make sure to contact me at email@example.com and save your seats for one of the Flavor Teller food tours.
Maaike Hoekstra has lived in Mexico for over 15 years. She is passionate about Mexican culture and food. Here are the stories and recipes she finds along the way.