Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pomegranates - The Ruby Jewels From The Ancient East

A Pomegranate split open showing its juicy red seeds
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2005  All Rights Reserved
One of the most ancient fruits known to man has long been associated in religion and mythology as a symbol so powerful that it has long endured thousands of years.  Considered to be the fruit of love and passion, it is no wonder it is associated with desire, fertility and marriage, abundance and prosperity, life and death, rebirth and eternal life.  The ruby red interior fruits of the pomegranate have been appreciated and valued as the fruit of perfection, the product of a woman's womb and the red of her lips.  

Pomegranates are a fruit known by their scientific name as Punica granatum.  They are native to the land known in ancient times as Persia, now modern Iran.  The name "pomegranate" derives from Latin pōmum apple and grānātus  "seeded" or grain.  By the spanish it is called granada, by the French, grenade.  The ancient Persians called it dulim or dulima.   In classic Sanskrit the word was taken from the Persians dadima or dalim.  They grow from a deciduous shrub or small tree that reaches a height between five to eight meters.  The shrub is much-branched, more or less spiny, and extremely long lived, some specimens have been known to have survived two centuries.  
A Pomegranate Bloom
Nearly round but crowned at the base by the prominent calyx, the fruit which can measure anywhere between 2 1/2 to 5 inches (6.25-12.5cm) wide, has a tough, leathery skin or rind, yellow more or less overlaid with light or deep pink or rich red.  The interior is separated by membranous walls and white spongy tissue into compartments packed tight with transparent sacs filled with tart, flavorful, fleshy, juicy, red, pink or whitish pulp.  

Pomegranates are a fruit long steeped in history and romance.  For centuries it has been admired as a fruit of passion for its luscious bright red color.  It has been featured in Egyptian mythology and art, praised in the Old Testament of the Bible, written and described poetically in the Quran and in the Babylonian Talmud, and it was carried by desert caravans for the sake of its thirst-quenching juice.  During the Moorish conquest of 711, the ancient Andalusan city of Granada, Spain was renamed after the fruit.   Spanish colonists later introduced the fruit to the Caribbean and Latin America.  It traveled to central and southern India from Iran about the first century A.D. and was reported growing in Indonesia in 1416.  It has been cultivated throughout India and the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and Tropical Africa.  

It is rather commonly planted and has become naturalized in Bermuda, West Indies and warm areas of South and Central America.  In Mexico it is a cherished and much admired plant and has become a much celebrated fruit associated with harvests and religious festivals.  During pomegranate season, the markets are filled with mountains of these fruits beautifully displayed half open with the jewels sparkling and enticing the eyes of passersby.  

Pomegranate juice is rich in vitamin C and is a good source of potassium, polyphenols such as tannins and flavonoids and is an excellent source of vitamin B5.  

Believed to be rich in fiber and antioxidants, for thousands of years it has been used medicinally in the reduction of heart disease and in eradicating free radicals which cause cancer.  It is known to reduce high blood pressure, inhibit viral infections, and its extracts have antibacterial effects against dental plaque.  

Since medieval times, pomegranates were used to cure blood diseases, following the principle of similarity that was identified because of its juice being a blood red color.  It has long been valued because of its magnificent astringent properties.  In Ayurvedic medicine every part of the plant (root, bark, flowers, fruit, leaves) is used for medicinal purposes.   

Due to its form and structure, the most important meaning of the pomegranate fruit, is the adjustment of the diverse and multiple all in one unit.  In many cultures it symbolizes the unity of the universe and fertility.  

Jews celebrate the beginning of a new year in September and pomegranates are eaten in many houses; because of their abundant little juice filled sacs, they also represent the number of good deeds that a person must try to accomplish reflecting equally the number of wishes that may be granted. 
A favorite dish from Mexico: Chile en Nogada traditionally
embellished with pomegranate seeds most popularly served during the month of September.
In the month of September, pomegranates appear in one of the most impressive manifestations of the mexican culinary arts: the Chiles en Nogada.  The famous dish that consists of a stuffed grilled poblano chile, covered in a walnut sauce and adorned with pomegranate jewels that glisten like rubies.  The blanket of creamy and fragrant walnut sauce over the green chile with the little jewels, apart from being a delight to admire visually, announces the most patriotic month of the year in Mexico. 

In the Middle East, pomegranate juice is very popular sold streetside in thousands of stalls when in season.  In India, fresh seeds are used in preparation of a curd rice.  Prior to the arrival of the tomato in the Middle East, granadine, which is a thick red syrup made from the fruit is commonly used in a variety of persian foods.

Anardana, a spice which is made from drying the pomegranate seeds for 10 to 15 days is used in India and Pakistani cuisines.  Literally the word comes from (anar) seeds and (dana) in Persian.  The seeds are used as an acidic agent for a variety of chutneys and curries.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chile Peppers - Its Journey From Mexico to Europe and Asia

Since the dawn of cooking, people around the world have added spices to their foods to make them taste better.  But no other ingredient is more popular and widely consumed than the chile pepper.  There is evidence that supports the notion that "countries with hotter climates use spices more frequently than countries with cooler climates". 


Plenty has been written about the etymology of the various words used to describe the capsicums: pepper, chile, chili, chilli, and chile pepper, chili pepperPepper,  of course, is derived from the early confusion with the black pepper genus, Piper, while chilli, chile, and chili are, the Nahuatl (Aztec) and Spanish spellings.  

The Plant and Its Power

Chile peppers are perennial subshrubs, native to the Americas.  They are a part of the large nightshade family, or Solanaceae, and are closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and eggplants.  They are not related to black pepper, Piper nigrum.  The chile pepper genus is Capsicum, from the Greek kapto, appropriately enough, meaning "to bite."

The active principle that causes heat in chile peppers is a crystalline alkaloid generically called capsaicin, produced by glands at the junction of the placenta and the pod wall.  The capsaicin spreads unevenly throughout the inside of the pod and is concentrated mostly in the placental tissue that holds the seeds.  The capsaicin in chiles is an incredibly powerful and stable alkaloid, seemingly unaffected by cold or heat, thus retaining its original potency despite time, cooking, or freezing. 

Capsaicin is one of the most pungent compounds known, detectable to the palate in dilutions of one to several million.  It is slightly soluble in water, but very soluble in alcohols, fats, and oils.  Capsaicin has no flavor, color, or odor.  Therefore the precise amount in chiles can only be measured by specialized laboratory procedures.    

There are some people more sensitive to the burn of the chiles more than others.  Our human taste buds can detect sour, sweet, bitter and salty.  Scientists have identified a lipid molecule called PIP2 that plays a crucial role in controlling the strength of the burning sensation caused by capsaicin.  A lipid molecule is a fatty molecule, insoluble in water but soluble in fat solvents and alcohol -- just like capsaicin.  In the mouth there is a capsaicin receptor called TRPV1, and the lipid molecule PIP2 is bound to it.  In the presence of capsaicin, the PIP2 molecule separates from the receptor, causing a painful sensation. 

In plain language, sensitivity to capsaicin is determined by genetics -- some people's lipid molecules have a stronger bond with capsaicin receptors than others.  But the fact that biochemical and pharmacological mechanisms can also play a role could explain why some people become desensitized to capsaicin and can take more and more heat. 

Origins of the Chile

Chiles originated in the remote geologic past in an area bordered by the mountains of southern Brazil to the east, by Bolivia to the west, and by Paraguay and northern Argentina to the south and as far north as central America and the jungles of Mexico.  Not only does this location have the greatest concentration of wild species of chiles in the world, but here and only here, representatives of all the major domesticated species within the genus do grow.  Scientists are not certain about the exact time frame or method for the spread of both wild and domesticated species, but suspect the birds were primarily responsible.  The wild chiles (like their undomesticated cousin of today, the chiltepin) had erect, red fruits that were quite pungent, which discouraged mammals from eating them.  But they were very attractive to various species of birds, which unaffected by the pungency, ate the whole pods.  The seeds of those pods passed thru their digestive tracts intact and were deposited on the ground, encased in a perfect fertilizer.  In this manner, chiles spread all over South and Central America long before the first Asian tribes crossed the Bering land bridge and settled the Western Hemisphere.  

The earliest evidence of chile peppers in the human diet is from Mexico, where archaelogists discovered chile seeds dating from about 7500 B.C. during excavation at Tamaulipas and Teotihuacan.  These pods and Peru's Guitarreo Cave (dated 6500 B.C) seem to indicate that chiles were under cultivation approximately 10,000 years ago.   However, the date is extremely early for crop domestication, and some experts suggest that these specimens were harvested in the wild rather than cultivated by man.  

It was in Mexico that the annuum species reached its greatest diversification of pod shapes.  By the time the Spanish conquerers arrived in what is now Mexico, chile peppers of all sizes and shapes were available in the marketplaces, as recorded by historians such as Bernandino de Sahagún, who described "hot green chiles, smoked chiles, water chiles, tree chiles, beetle chiles, and sharp-pointed red chiles."  Chiles were combined with virtually every meat and vegetable available, they were made into sauces and were even used in hot chocolate drinks also native to Mexico.  

Dispersion Around the World 

Credit goes to the most famous explorer Christopher Columbus for the dispersion of the chiles.  While trying to find a short cut to the East Indies, he landed first in Mexico thinking he had made it to the sought after land of the "black pepper".  He sampled a plant, thought it was a relative of the black pepper and dubbed it a "pepper".  So began several hundred years of misinformation about chile peppers.  Unlike what Christopher Columbus thought, they aren't related to black pepper and they didn't originate in India.  

Shortly after Christopher Colombus brought back the first chile pods with seeds from Mexico, the word was out about the pungent pods.  Pedro Martir, a cleric in the service of the Spanish court in Barcelona, wrote in 1493 that the new hot pepper was called "caribe, meaning sharp and strong," and that "when it is used, there is no need of black pepper."    
From 1493 on, chile seeds from the Americas, were available to the Spanish and Portuguese for transmittal throughout Europe and to ports anywhere along their trade routes.  Spanish and Portuguese ships returning home were loaded not only with gold and silver but with packets of the seeds of the New World plants, destined for monastery gardens.  Monks and amateur botanists carefully cultivated the capsicums and provided seed to other collectors in Europe.  

In 1494, papal bulls of demarcation divided the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence; Portugal controlled Africa and Brazil, while Spain effectively ruled the remainder of the colonies of the New World.  Thus Spanish and Portuguese traders spread chiles from both the Iberian Peninsula and other major colonies throughout the Eastern Hemisphere by way of their extensive trade routes.  

Traders carried seeds to Africa and India, and from there they were dispersed to Southeast Asia, the islands of Indonesia, and then to China, Japan, and the Philippines.  Eventually, chiles were transported to the islands of the Pacific.

From that point on chiles became a food craze around the world as the Spanish traded them with other countries.  They spread like wild fire throughout Europe to Asia and the rest of the world in a short period of approximately 50 years.  Its spread happened in a time when horse-drawn and wind-driven vehicles were the primary means of transport.

Today, chile peppers around the world are used lavishly on many dishes no matter what language you speak or what continent you live in.  As the previous is a known fact, everyone knows that Columbus carried chile peppers to Spain, but why didn't the cuisine of Spain become fired up like that of India, China, or even Hungary?  No one knows for certain.  Chiles do not dominate the cuisine -- except in one part of Extremadura in the far west, the same region where they were introduced.  

Chiles were welcomed in many cuisines around the world.  An Indian curry and most of its cuisine would never be the same without the chiles, or the Szechuan cuisine from China wouldn't even exist.  Imagine Thai dishes without chiles or the famous Baharat, very popular in Turkey, Berbere, from Ethiopia, and Charmoula from Morocco.  The list could go on and on.  One thing is for certain, chiles are very addictive and the more we eat of them the  more we crave them.  Chiles make everything taste better.

Chiles are not physically addicting -- you don't have withdrawal symptoms when you stop eating them, but they are psychologically addicting; spicy-food lovers miss the burn if they are deprived of spicy food for a while.  When chiles are ingested, our bodies produce endorphins, which is a chemical produced by our pituitary gland that gives us the feeling of exhilaration similar to that of excitement, pain, love, and orgasm, and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a feeling of well being.  Once someone starts enjoying fiery foods, they are likely to continue enjoying them for life. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lotus Temple of New Delhi, India

The Lotus Temple located in New Delhi, India
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz ©2008
All Rights Reserved
Among the world's most ancient surviving civilizations is India. And as such contains some of the worlds most amazing structures devoted to worship. It is a land defined by both tremendous spirituality and an extraordinarily rich intellectual tradition. In the capitol city of New Delhi, as the sun rises, an amazing structure glistening white of marble can be seen from many directions. It was constructed in the shape of the most venerated and appreciated flower of India. It is the glorious Lotus Temple of the Bahá'í Faith. As dawn approaches it opens its doors allowing visitors to enter into a space of tranquility and peacefulness, much appreciated in the bustling city.  It is quiet, calm, and serene and its visitors indulge in its beauty and spiritual atmosphere.

The Lotus Flower
To appreciate the architectural grandness of the building, one must understand the importance and significance of the lotus flower. It is considered as one of the most ancient and deepest symbols of great beauty and purity. The flower grows in soft soil water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty. Once it has glistened in the rays of the sun for the entire day, at night it closes its delicate petals and sinks underwater as if blanketing itself for the night's slumber. At dawn it rises from its water garden bed and opens again. Untouched by impurity, the lotus flower symbolizes the purity of heart, mind, and soul. It has long been regarded as the representative of long life, good health, honor and good fortune.

In many cultures, the lotus flower is considered a symbol of spiritual unfoldment. The Egyptians called it Sesen, and in their mythology it is the symbol of the sun, of creation and rebirth.

In the East, to the Tibetans it is considered sacred and represents their holy mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum, meaning, "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus".

The Indian lotus flower symbolizes divinity, fertility, wealth, knowledge and enlightenment. In Hinduism, it is associated with the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi whom brings prosperity. She sits on a fully blossomed lotus flower. It is also revered and represented with Vishnu. Used as an example of divine beauty, Vishnu is described as the Lotus-Eyed One. It's unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. Most deities of Asian religions are depicted as seated on a lotus flower. The white and pink lotuses are national flowers of India.

The Lotus Temple
Taking into consideration the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the lotus flower, the international Bahá'í Faith adopted this symbolism in the architectural design of The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. The magnificent structure is considered internationally as the Mother Temple of the Indian subcontinent.

It is located in the Kalkaji sector of the capital city, and its monumental structure can be appreciated from afar, given its large size and easily recognizable shape. The temple was carefully planned and designed to have the appearance of the revered lotus flower.

Since its completion in 1986, the temple has received recognition from all over the world. It is listed among the most visited monuments of India. The mastermind for building the beautiful and impressive temple of peace was the Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba from Canada.

The purpose and intention of the building of the temple was to provide a sacred place for people from all religions and faith, a space for meditation, worship, wisdom, peace and love.

The design is in the shape of a half open lotus flower with 27 freestanding petals constructed out of marble. The architect took into account the importance both culturally and spiritually of the flower and labored diligently with a team of 800 engineers, technicians, workers and artisans. It took ten years for completion of the temple. It is considered to be one of the most complex edifices of the world, integrating awe inspiring aesthetic and technological values.

Surrounding the beautiful structure are nine reflecting pools, representative of the flower growing from the water garden. Converting the geometry of the design that did not have any straight line to the actual structure needed a lot of effort and precise engineering.

There are nine doors all the way around that open to a central hall accommodating nearly 2500 people. It is about 40 meters high and it appears to be floating in water. Since its inception, it has been continually visited by people from many countries.

The Bahá'í Faith
Recognized as an independent world religion, the Bahá'í Faith, its leaders and followers are to be credited with ordering the glorious temple to be built. The religion has existed over 150 years and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook, it is the second most widely spread religion in the world, with five million members residing in 232 countries and dependent territories.

The Bahá'í Faith began in ancient Persia, now known as Iran. Its history is intimately connected with the lives of it's leading figures:

'Alí-Muhammad, Titled the Báb.
Born in southern Iran in 1819, in 1844 he announced that he was the promised one or Mahdi expected by Muslims. He wrote scriptures in which he promulgated a new calendar, new religious laws, and new social norms. Opposed by Iran's Muslim clergy and ultimately by its government, thousands of the Báb's followers were killed; in 1850 the Báb himself was put to death.

Mirzá Husayn 'Alí, Titled Bahá'u'lláh.
Born in northern Iran in 1817, Bahá'u'lláh became a follower of the Báb in 1844 and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In 1853 he had a vision that he was the divine teacher the Báb had promised; he publicly declared himself a messenger of God in 1863. He spent the rest of his life in exile and prison, where he wrote over 100 volumes of scripture.

'Abbas Effendi, Titled 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
Son of Bahá'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was born in 1844 and accompanied his father on his exile to Palestine. Bahá'u'llah appointed 'Abdu'l-Bahá his successor, the exemplar of his teachings, and the interpreter of his revelation. Under 'Abdu'l-Bahá the Bahá'í Faith spread beyond the Middle East, India, Burma to Europe, the Americas, southern Africa, and Australia. He died in 1921.
Portrait of Abdu'l- Bahá
Central Baháí teachings are the "oneness of God," that there is only one God and that God is actively concerned about the development of humanity; the "oneness of religion," that God sends messengers such as Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh to humanity to educate it in morals and in social values; and the "oneness of humanity," that all humans come from the same stock and deserve equal opportunities and treatment.

The Bahá'í Temple in New Delhi, occupies a unique position. Not only does it embody the spiritual aspirations and basic beliefs of the world-wide Bahá'í community, but significantly in a land of myriad religions, it has begun to be seen as providing a unifying link, bringing divergent thoughts into harmony by virtue of its principle of oneness. This, perhaps, is the reason for its unabated popularity among its visitors.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tortas - The Mexican Quintessential Sandwich

Torta al Pastor
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011 All Rights Reserved
In Mexican gastronomy, a torta is a kind of grilled sandwich.  It is usually prepared with a telera roll, although depending on the region of the country, it is also prepared with other types of bread such as a bolillo, birote, micha, pambazo, etc.  The bread is split in half and filled with a kaleidescope of fillings that are limitless, then further grilled to a crunchy perfectness.  

It is a culinary "antojito", prepared street side on gourmet food carts or in establishments called "torterias".  Although for a Mexican, the torta is considered a street snack, don't confuse this with fast food.  It is far from that.  Epicureans consider it a gourmet feast as the ingredients are all fresh, grilled, and include all the exotic ingredients you can imagine. 

Like all mexican food, the torta has a unique history well described by "Tortologo" Roberto Ayala in his book: "El Gran Libro de las Tortas".   According to his findings, there is an account that dates back to the sixteenth century:

Leonardo Da Vinci
It happened one day that Leonardo Da Vinci wanted to surprise his guest and protector Ludovico Sforza with something to eat, but he did not have much to offer.  He improvised a quick delightful snack that consisted of placing a piece of bread between two hard pieces of meat as hard as cobblestones and covering the entire dish between two larger pieces of bread.   This could be considered the initial stages  of the torta, placing Leonardo Da Vinci in the culinary history books as its inventor. 

From then on people began placing ingredients between two pieces of bread to conceal what was inside, especially if the ingredients were not very impressive.  Eventually, the torta or sandwich has been prepared in some variation in many parts of the world.

Leonardo Da Vinci may have had the ingenious idea of putting a piece of meat between two buns, but who reinvented the torta and turned it into a popular and exotic dish were the Mexicans.  The torta is so important for Mexicans that an annual festival is organized in the esplanade of the delegation of Venustiano Carranza in Mexico City.  

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in search of riches, they brought with them wheat, a Spanish staple and religious necessity, the only grain recognized by the Catholic church as being suitable for the Euacharist wafer.  One important way of colonizing and christianizing the natives, was to replace the native grains such as amaranth with wheat.  

Bread production began in Mexico with the new grain, but it wasn't until the arrival of the french colonizers in Puebla in the 1800's, that Mexican bakers soon developed a baking tradition unique in its own way, making it one of the most inventive in the world.  

From the Mexican and French marriage in Puebla, the telera was born.  It is highly prized for its flavor and crusty golden outer shell with which the tortas are made.  Even though Puebla may take the credit for introducing the torta,  it is Mexico City whom is the superstar for being the most inventive in making the most impressive tortas.  

Not only are the ingredients with which the tortas are filled raised to a higher level of cuisine, but their names are also the most ingenious reflecting the culture of Mexico and their love of humor.  

There are an endless array of tortas, but some are more famous than others.  The creativity of the Mexican does not have borders but it does contain a lot of humor:

"La Chancla" (flip flop), consists of shredded chicken cooked in "guajillo"  chiles and spices.  The telera roll is stuffed with the chicken filling and avocado slices.  Then it is topped with guajillo salsa.

"La Ahogada" which translates to the "drowned one", was invented in Guadalajara, Jalisco.  The torta is called that because it is submerged in a "chile de arbol" salsa.  A hard and crunchy birote roll, characteristic of the region, is filled with fried pork, then submerged in the spicy red liquid.  The consistency of the bread permits the torta to be submerged without crumbling or dissolving. 

"La Guajolota" the name given to a torta that consists of a telera roll stuffed with a tamal. (literally it translates to a large turkey hen).

"El Chavo" (the kid), a torta that is a favorite among children, but also made famous by the Mexican television farcical sitcom.  It consists of a telera or bolillo roll, ham, and avocado slices.   

"La Hawaiiana",  called that because it is filled with grilled pineapple and ham, then topped with asadero cheese.

"Lambada", aptly named after the famous brazilian dance craze.  It consists of grilled meat, chorizo, and asadero cheese.

"La Cubana", no translation needed, just about every ingredient you can name stuffed into the bread.  

Then there are the tortas named after certain places even though, they are all Mexican: "Michoacana, Española, Rusa, Alemana, Suiza, La China, etc"

But it does not stop there, in the "torterias", you will find yourself amused at all the humorous names: "La Gringa (the name given to a foreigner of English descent), Mariachi, La Tejana, La Negra, La Mora, La India, La Tortuga, Francis, La Torta Loca, La Macha, la Pobre, Cantinflas, Pachuqueña, La Arabe, La Milanesa, Al Pastor, La Capulina, La Barbi, etc..."

All tortas are usually served with lettuce and tomato, queso fresco, avocados, onions, fiery hot salsas, pickled jalapeños, and even crema.  But when you visit a torteria, no dictionary is needed, just bring a huge appetite. 

Para Español

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Potosí Bolivia - Cerro Rico, The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosi, Cerro Rico, Bolivia

Considered one of the highest cities in the world at an elevation of 4,090 meters (13,500 ft), Potosí is the capital of the department of Potosí in Bolivia, a South American country located in the lanlocked area between Brazil to the north east, Paraguay and Argentina to the south, Chile by the south west, and Peru by the west.  

It lies on the Andean mountanous region, and prior to Spanish colonization,  Bolivia was part of the majestic Incan Empire.  The Spanish Empire conquered the region in the 16th century.  The mountain was known in Quechua as "Sumac Urku", which translates as beautiful mountain.  

The city has thrived for hundreds of years beaneath the Cerro de Potosi, often reffered to as Cerro Rico (rich mountain), as it is rich in silver ore, which is the reason for Potosí's historical importance.  The mountain has been exploited for almost 500 years, and it was the major supply of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire.  

Potosí was a mithical land of riches having supplied according to official records over 45,000 short tons (41,000 metric tons) of pure silver from 1556 to 1783.  Indian Incan laborers, forced by Francisco de Toledo were enslaved and made to mine deep in the mountain for the precious commodity that was to make Spain wealthy.  

In addition to the indegenous labor force called the mitayos, that had to transport the ore up the shafts to the mouth of the mine, the Spanish imported 1,500 to 2,000 African slaves per year.  An estimated 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí during the colonial era.  The African slaves were forced to work as acémulas humanas (human mules).  Since mules would die after a couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves.  

It is estimated that over eight million people have died in the mines, not simply from brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning and the inhalation of silicosis which damages the lungs.  

Today over 9000 Indios work in miner owned cooperatives, in search of any remaining minerals within Cerro Rico.  Sadly, among the workers are many child laborers often as young as ten years old.  They work in a maze of over 20,000 tunnels.  Fatal accidents are often and most miners fall victim to the black lung disease and die by age 40.  It is known as "The Mountain That Eats Men".  

To gain strength enough to go deep into the mines, the miners chew on coca leaves, which will give them the energy to stay down often for up to eighteen hours at a time.  The coca leaves help with controlling fatigue and hunger.  

Due to exhaustive mining, the mountain has shrunk from it's original glory by a few meters and there is very little mineral left.  The miners meticulously search and pick for the last few remaining "veins" of silver and as a result, the mountain is in danger of collapsing making the ardous work extremely dangerous and life threatening.

Imposed by the Spanish rule, the governors of the mine struck fear into the workers if they refused to work.  And according to their Incan beliefs, God does not exist deep below.  So the Spaniards played on that idea, and made them to believe that if they did not work in the mines "El Dios" the God of the underworld would punish them.  
"El Tío", the lord of the underworld venerated and respected
deep in Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia.

In Quechua the Incan locals did not have the "d" sound, so they pronounced  "El Dios" with a "El Tio".  To enter the mine, they enter into the realms of the malevolent being or el diablo (the devil) where El Tío, or uncle presides.  If an accident or collapse occurs, they say it has happened only because the Tío has been angered.  But if a miner is lucky to find a "plentiful vein", then it is due to El Tío's blessings.  He is the lord of the underworld.  "What happens inside depends on Mother Earth and El Tío".  

Everyday, before beginning their work, the miners make offerings to a statue in the form of a goat with horns representative of El Tîo.  They offer coca leaves, water, fruits, cigarretes, colored paper, bottles of grain alchohol, incense, and prayers in hopes that he will spare their lives.  

El Tío rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction.  At the openeings of the shafts, at regular intervals the villagers of Potosí offer a sacrifice to the devil in the mines, ritually slaughtering a llama and smearing the animal's blood at the entrance to the mine in hopes of calming El Tío and diverting him from claiming more lives.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hyderabadi Biryani

Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011 All Rights Reserved

When most people whom love South Indian cuisine  think of one dish that by heart and sentiment stands out, without exaggeration, it is Biryani.  Hyderabadi Biryani,  to be more exact.  It is a dish most popular in the great state of Andhra Pradesh.

Rice, the staple of indian cuisine has been dressed in gala.  Nothing was overlooked in the creation of one of the most fragrant and elegant rice dishes in the world.  

The dish consists of the most prized rice of them all: basmati, and it includes a meat such as mutton, lamb, or chicken, and even fish or prawns, onions, eggs, chiles, and an exotic array of spices that perfume the dish to a level of intoxicating fragrance, that will make any person that comes in contact with the dish,  come back for more.  

The spices may include of the highest quality nutmeg, mace, cumin, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, and garlic.  And to cook it all and to add more to its richness, a drizzle of ghee (clarified butter), that makes all of the ingredients come together in heavenly perfection.  

Its history is impressive and rich as it comes from a long line of royalty.  Its origins can be traced back to the great kings of Andhra: the Nizams (meaning Administrator of the Realm), the title of the native sovereigns of Hyderabad State.    The style of cooking is believed to have arrived to India from Persia, during the Mogul empire.  The word biryani is derived from Farsi "birian" which means fried before cooking.  The cooking method itself is called "dum".  

In the 1700's, during the Mogul empire, Lucknow was known as Awadh, and from there people cooked biryani and called it Awadh biryani.  In 1856, during the British rule,  Asafa Jahi was crowned as the Nizam-ul-mulk and only ruler of Hyderabad.  

Seven Nizams ruled Hyderabad for two centuries.  And the Nizams (Azaf Jahi) rulers were great patrons of literature, art, architecture, culture, jewelry and Rich Food.  Since then biryani spread all over Andhra and the rest of the subcontinent, with each region making its own variation. 

For the most exotic and rich biryani experience, a leg of telangana goat is cut into pieces and marinated in a paste that consists of papaya, yoghurt and spices.  Afterwards, the meat is cooked in ghee.  The rice is also fried in ghee which brings out the addictive nutty flavor and also roasts the outside starch layer gelatinizing it.  The rice is then boiled until half done in spices.  In the next step, the meat and the rice are layered first with rice then meat and so forth in an earthen pot called a handi.  An interlayer of onions, condiments, spices, and rose water are added which give it a flowery and herbal aroma.   The handi is then sealed with a cover made of dough and then cooked slowly over coals.  The seal is broken only when ready to enjoy.

For practicality, there are two types of cooking methods: Kutchi (raw) biryani, and Pukki (cooked) biryani.  For kutchi biryani, raw marinated meat is layered with raw rice.  For pukki biryani, cooked meat and cooked rice are layered and then finished cooking for a short while in the handi pot.  Hyderabadi biryani is meticulously prepared in the kutchi style which takes a lot longer but is well worth the long wait  in gold.  

Lucknow and Hyderabad compete for the biryani crown.  But only the Hyderabadi biryani, can walk away with the gold as it is now without dispute known all over the world.  Food critics in many countries vow their testimonies and defend the Hyderabadi biryani without rest.  

Due to its proximity to India, Hyderabadi biryani is exported by flight to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates  among other countries.  The biryani is cooked in Hyderabad and shipped overnight so that the people in those countries can satisfy their cravings of biryani.  

If you are traveling to Hyderabad, there are many restaurants that specialize in  biryani, but as in every city there are a few that stand out as the best.  Make sure you visit the all famous Paradise in Secunderabad, Hyderabad House in Hyderabad or Sri Kanya in the Panjagutta neighborhood. 

To sample dishes of a country is to appreciate and know the splendor and history of its culture.  And Hyderabad has many gems of cuisine that stand out.  Biryani is only one among hundreds.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peyote - Call Of The Shaman

For over three thousand years, hikuri has been consumed by Mexico's native tribes.  Most notably the Huichol and the Tarahumara or Rarámuri.  Hikuri is the name of a cacti that is known more by its Nahuatl name peyotl or peyote.  Its scientific name is Lophophora williamsii, and the use of the plant is a pillar in the Tarahumara and Huichol tradition.  

Deep along the Sierra Madre mountains in the Chihuahuan desert, in the sacred land of Copper Canyon or La Barranca del Cobre, the peyote cati grow wild among the scrub, especially where there is limestone.  It flowers pink blossoms from March through May, and sometimes as late as September.  The cati take up to four years before a small "button" can be seen just below the dirt's surface.

Most societies today prohibit the use of this cacti that when ingested, produces a hallucinogenic effect, and the plant contains psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline.  But the native indians of Mexico have been drinking the very potent wine made from the plant.  As per their belief,  it is the way to enter the spirit world and summon the gods.

The Tarahumara believe in everlasting life after death and in the existence of benevolent and malevolent beings.  Among the benevolent are the sun, the moon, the shaman, the serpents and the rocks that provoke rain and control the animals which they hunt.  Included in the malevolent are the beings which they consider from the underworld that cause all death and natural disasters.  Their communal rituals are an essential part of their culture.  They celebrate victories, animal hunting, and their harvesting and they praise the sun and the moon.  

In the Huichol tradition the peyote is identified as the spirit of the blue deer and they make an annual  pilgrimage on a long and difficult trek in search for the venerated plant.  To return to Wirikuta is to return to paradise.  To obtain the Peyote is to obtain Hikuri, which if translated to Spanish or English it would be "heart of the Deer God".  The Deer God is known as Tatewari and it represents the God of fire, the Grandfather God.  

One such ritual is the ingestion of the peyote.  For the Tarahumara the peyote was the Hikuri, the spiritual being seated to the right of Father Sun.  It was a plant so potent that it had four faces, and it percieved life in seven dimensions, and the plant could never be allowed to rest inside the houses of the living.

According to legend, the elders, met in the Sierra Mountains to discuss the situation in which they were.  Their people were sick, there was no food, no water, no rains came and the land was dry.  They decided to send four of their strongest men in the hunting community into the desert, with a mission to find food.  Each one represented a life element: earth, wind, fire, and water.  
The next morning they began their mission into the desert, each carrying his bow and arrow.  They walked for days until one afternoon a big and fat blue deer jumped from the shrub.  The young men were tired and hungry, but when they saw the deer, they started running behind him without loosing sight.  The deer saw the young men and felt pity for them.  He let them rest for the night and the next day he woke them early to continue with the chase.  

Weeks passed, and the young men were still chasing the young deer, until they reached Wirikuta (desert of San Luis Potosi and the sacred road of the Huichol).  They were right outside on the hillside of the region of Las Narices, where  a spirit of the land dwells.  They followed the deer and noticed the deer run in that direction.  They swore that he had gone there, but when they looked for him he was nowhere to be found.  

Suddenly one shot an arrow that landed in a large deer figure formed in the dirt where peyote plants grew.  The plants glistened in the sun like emeralds all facing the same direction.  The young men were confused by what they had seen and proceeded to cut the plants that formed the figure of the deer (marratutuyari) so that they could take them back to their village.  

After days of walking, they reached the Huichol Sierra where the people were waiting.  They presented the plants to the elders and told them of their experience.  They shared the peyote (hikuri) among the people, especially among the sick.  The villagers noticed that the rains came and calmed their thirst, their hunger was satisfied and they were cured from their ills.  

Since then on, the Huicholes and Tarahumara people venerate the peyote that at the same time is considered deer and corn, their guiding spirit.  Every year the people of these desert mountains make their pilgrimage into the high altitudes following the same route in search of the peyote cacti, maintaining this tradition from the Huichola Sierra all the way to Wirikuta.  Their mission is spiritual in commune with the gods. 

Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnologist studied the Indian tribes of Chihuahua and discovered that a symbol employed in the Tarahumara Indian peyote ceremony appeared in ancient ritualistic carvings preserved in Mesoamerican lava rocks dated over 3,000 years ago.   

In his writings Unknown México: Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions, 1890-1898 he recorded one account:  

"According to legend, they could find the plant as they heard its song thru the desert.  The hikuri never stops singing, even after being collected.  A native of the region told a story, as it happened one day, while returning to the desert he tried to use the sack of the hikuri he had collected, as a pillow to rest on for the night, but the singing of the hikuri was so loud that he could not sleep."

"Once the hikuri was collected, they were dried on jute, and then ground on a metate (a flat stone used for grinding corn and seeds) into a thick liquid the color of ochre.  A large fire was lit, with the firewood pointing to the east and the west.  Seated to the west of the fire, a shaman would trace a circle on the dirt and inside the circle he would draw the symbol of the world.  He would place on the cross a peyote button  and then it would be covered with an inverted squash which would amplify the song of the peyote that pleased the spirit of the plant.  The shaman would wear an adornment on his head made of plumes, which would reveal the wisdom of the birds to him and prevent the malevolent winds to enter into the circle of fire."

"Afterwards, the peyote was shared from hand to hand between men and women that were dressed in white cloths and bare footed.  After ingesting the peyote a ritualistic dance was performed that lasted until morning.  At the first sign of sunlight, the shaman and his people would stand up facing east and they bid farewell to the spirit with the arms of the hikuri, the spirit that had descended carried on wings of a green dove."

Para Español

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nothing In The Dark - The Twilight Zone

A still photograph from the episode of The Twilight Zone
Nothing In The Dark 1962

There was an old woman who lived in a room, and like all of us, was frightened of the dark, but who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn't there when the lights were on.  Object lesson for the more frightened amongst us, in or out of The Twilight Zone - Rod Serling

Wanda Dunn, the elderly woman (played by Gladys Cooper), lives in an old abandoned building that has been ordered to be demolished.  She has victimized herself by the fear of "Mr. Death" and has not left the room in many years.  She is tormented by the fear of dying and daily lives a vivid nightmare, that "Mr. Death" is waiting for her outside.

One day, she hears loud gunshot sounds right outside of her door. She is frightened by the sound and opens the door just a crack and peeks out fearfully. There is a young man (played by Robert Redford), laying wounded on the ground, and claims that he is a police officer by the name of Harold Beldon.  He begs her to help him as he is bleeding, and is in need of a doctor.

She explains to him that she cannot open the door as she has a firm belief that "death" is out there and ready to take her if she leaves the comfort of her room and steps outside. The door is what separates her to her doom. She somehow knows the officer is there to claim her as everyone outside is suspect.

After much convincing by the wounded officer, she opens the door and brings him inside. She spends several days nursing him to better health while she expresses to him her fears of "Mr. Death".

She believes "Mr. Death" is out there and everywhere and he shows up knocking at her door. One week he knocked and claimed he was from the gas company, after that he knocked on her door again, claiming he was a contractor hired by the city.  But she knows it's "him", so she refuses to open the door.

Her fear began many years ago, while she was riding on a bus. Sitting in front of her was an old woman knitting. Then a young man got on, and even though there were empty seats, he sat down beside her. The man did not speak at all, but his presence upset the old woman. She noticed that the young man touched the old woman's hand after picking up the yarn that had fallen on the floor. The young man got off, but when the bus reached the end of the line she was dead.

Now she believes to see the young man everywhere. Every time someone she knows dies, he seems to always be there. He shows up disguised like an ordinary person.  A person you would not notice unless you were "watching".

The old woman tells the officer, "I would rather live in the dark, than to not live at all".

One last time there is a knock on the door. She refuses to open, but the wounded officer convinces her that there is nothing to fear. When she finally goes to the door, a contractor, with an evicting order, forces himself inside, knocking her down.

She begs Harold for help, but the contractor does not see Harold at all. Wanda looks in the mirror, but sees the bed empty where Harold is lying, but not Harold himself.  She realizes that Harold, is in fact "Death", and has come to take her with him.

After the contractor leaves, Death explains to her that he set her up that way so that she would stop fearing and go with him peacefully.  She thinks he has tricked and betrayed her trust.  He convinces her that he is gentle and that her life will end, but at the same time begin.

He says, "Mother, give me your hand." She is finally convinced to touch him.  "You see. No shock.  No engulfment.  No tearing asunder.  What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper.  What you thought was the end is the beginning."

She is standing beside her body laying on the bed and the old woman and Death walk together through the doorway, out of the darkness and into the sunlight.

Stunningly filmed to express the light and the dark, interpreting life and death, this is one of my favorite episodes of the collection of The Twilight Zone, by the mastermind Rod Serling. Directed by Lamont Johnson, it is a testament and a reminder of death and a world beyond our control.

The episode also reminds us that death is not worth being preoccupied with as it only results in a life not worth living.  

Rod Serling - Creator of The Twilight Zone

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapulines - An ancestral tradition in Oaxaca

Chapulines at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca, Mexico
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved

There is a local myth that says:  If you eat chapulines from Oaxaca, then you never leave.   It translates to:  If you eat Oaxaca's extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again. 

Situated in Southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca is bordered by the states of Guerrero to the west, Puebla to the northwest, Veracruz to the north,  and Chiapas to the east and as a bonus:  the Pacific Ocean as its backyard,  drawing tourists from all over the world.  It is indeed a paradise that meets all the senses.

The state is best known for its indigenous peoples and cultures, and for its exotic indigenous cuisine.  In 2010, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage".  

Oaxaca's regional cuisine is considered exceptional, and a trip to the markets uncovers just how unique and exotic the gastronomical experience is.  To foreigners, there is a peculiar snack that causes second thoughts.  But to the people of Mexico, this snack or "botanita", is a delicious protein packed delicacy: Chapulines.

The word chapulin is specific to Mexico and derives from the native Nahuatl language.  They have been collected and eaten as a food source for thousands of years and are known as comida prehispanica, or prehispanic food.

Chapulines are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium. Indeginous to the region, they are collected only at certain times of the year, (from their hatching in early May through the late summer/early autumn). After being thoroughly cleaned and washed, they are roasted on a comal (clay cooking surface) with garlic, chile, lime juice and sal de gusano (salt made from the roasted maguey worm), making them crunchy, sour-spicy-salty, and may I add adictively delicious. 

The chapulin is an important and indispensable food source for the locals.  During the harvest season, it is very common to see large groups of people collecting them in the milpas, or maize fields.  They provide nutrition as well as income for the locals during the traditional Lent season.  

There are two kinds of chapulines that are harvested.  The one that can be collected from within the maize fields, and the one that can be collected from the banks of the fields.  The first is considered best in size and flavor, as they feed on the corn fields.  The second are smaller in size and they feed mostly on grasses and brush, making them a little bitter in taste.  

Many cultures eat insects.  It is termed as entomophagy (from Greek éntomos, "insect(ed)", and phăgein, "to eat") it is the consumption of insects as food.  However, in some societies it is uncommon, even considered taboo.  It is very rare in modern countries, but in Mexico, there is little to no concern over modern taboos.  Chapulines are eaten to the hearts content.  They are an excellent source of protein, calcium, zinc, vitamins and minerals, and they contain no fat.   
A tlayuda with chapulines
They are served alone as a street snack, or in the cantinas with an ice cold beer, or in tacos with guacomole and salsa.   For a more complete and healthy snack,  they are served on tlayudas.  The tlayuda is a large handmade tortilla that is toasted over coals, then covered with a thin layer of refried beans, shredded lettuce or cabbage, guacamole, and topped with roasted chapulines, smoky salsa, and for coolness, a little drizzle of mexican crema.  It is heaven to the adventurous foodies, and for those whom care to venture out into the extraordinary.

Para Español