The cuisine of Veracruz: a tasty blend of cultures
Exotic-looking even on a map, the Mexican state of Veracruz stretches along the Gulf Coast like the graceful tentacle of a sea creature. Within the boundaries formed by the warm coastal waters to the east and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the west is an enticing pot-pourri of cultures. The indigenous, the Afro-Cuban and the Spanish have all contributed to the vibrant good looks, enchanting music and rich culinary traditions of the veracruzanos, or jarochos, as they often refer to themselves.
Long before Europeans arrived in Mexico via what is now the port city of Veracruz, the area occupied by the modern-day state of Veracruz was populated by the Olmecs, common cultural forebears of many Mesoamerican ethnic groups, as well as Huastecs and Totonacs. The latter were famous for their cultivation of vanilla and curing the pods for culinary use, adding a unique flavor to many of their dishes. The use of acuyo, a herb also known as hoja santa, also characterized the indigenous cooking of the area.
The pre-Columbian staple food triumvirate of corn, beans and squash was further supplemented by a variety of tropical fruits, thanks to the area's temperate-to-tropical climate. In addition to the chiles, tomatoes and avocadoes so important in Mesoamerican cooking, papaya, mamey and zapote were cultivated. These are very popular today in the licuados and helados - milk shakes and ice cream - so dear to the hearts of jarochos.
This variety and abundance was given a further culinary boost with the arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel and cilantro, as well as many of the spices that would later characterize Veracruz cooking. Anthropologist Sophie Coe tells us that a combination of saffron, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper was pre-mixed and sold to flavor fish empanadas. The Spaniards also brought wheat, rice, almonds, olives and olive oil, garlic and capers. The latter three are essential ingredients in what is perhaps the most famous specialty of the region, huachinango a la veracruzana, red snapper in a spicy tomato sauce.
From the Carribbean islands, the Spaniards brought pineapples and sugar cane, as well as the indelible imprint of Afro-Cuban culture and cuisine. The Cuban-bought African slave who accompanied Hernan Cortes when he landed in Mexico was the first of many thousands who would bring new dishes and ingredients with them. The peanut, brought by the Portuguese from Brazil to West Africa, became an ingredient in Veracruz specialties derived from West African cooking, where it was added to meat, fish and vegetable dishes as well as being ground with spices as part of a paste-like condiment. The pollo encacahuatado - chicken in peanut sauce - served in Veracruz today is a direct descendant of the African peanut sauces. Plantains, yucca and sweet potatoes, all important elements of West African cooking, also became firmly ensconsed in the jarocho cuisine that was comprised of the diverse flavors of three continents.
The city of Veracruz is still an international crossroads, with cargo ships, sailors, merchant seamen and tourists from all over the world enjoying its music, ambiance and signature seafood dishes. Along with the red snapper, two outstanding local favorites are arroz a la tumbada, a succulent rice dish baked with a variety of mariscos, or seafood, and caldo de mariscos, a seafood soup purported to cure a hangover.
Fascinating as the port city is, engaging destinations also lie outside the city. Just twenty minutes out of town is Boca del Rio, once a sleepy village on the Jamapa river, now a gastronomic center famous for culinary events and fairs. Further south is the tropical region known as Las Tuxtlas, with such attractions as giant Olmec heads, Cuban-style cigar factories, and Catemaco, known for its sorcerers, its lake island of baboons, and the fresh seafood sold in the lakefront restaurants.
Going in the opposite direction, one can head north toward the state capital, Jalapa, home of one of the most important anthropoligical museums in Mexico, as well as art galleries, cafes, and a symphony orchestra. The tasty snacks called picaditas and their cousins, garnachas, are both thick, bean-stuffed tortilla-like corn cakes sold at street stands throughout the city.
Continuing further north, one enters the sierra region of the state, the beginning of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains bordering on northern Puebla. Here the Totonac people continue to carry out their culinary and cultural traditions, including the dance of the voladores, or flyers, in which the dancers spin from eighty-foot high poles. This can be seen at local fiestas, as well as at the important pre-Hispanic ruin site El Tajin, a short distance from the town of Papantla. Long known as the vanilla-producing center of Mexico, Papantla has an attractive, and very active, zocalo - central plaza - where fragrant figures woven of vanilla pods are sold.
Whether the visitor to the state concentrates on the city of Veracruz itself, or ventures further afield to the northern sierra or southern tropics, the cuisine of the region is bound to make a lasting impression. Even armchair travelers can enjoy the following specialties of the cuisine of Veracruz.