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The cuisine of Tlaxcala: food and tradition in central Mexico

Karen Hursh Graber

Tiny Tlaxcala may be Mexico's smallest state but it is one of the most quintessentially Mexican in its traditions, especially in the realm of cuisine. The same artistic flair with which the people of this area painted their ancient temple murals was applied to the creation of their regional dishes. Since pre-Colombian times, Tlaxcaltecos have used a sophisticated blending of flavors to produce the savory dishes for which the area has long been famous. Even its name is synonymous with food: Tlaxcala means "place of bread made with corn." (In a word, tortillas.)

It was with the idea of preserving and popularizing the cooking traditions of Tlaxcala that Guillermina Avila de Reyes began collecting and refining recipes in the late eighties. She talked to home cooks, tracked down authentic ingredients, and found suppliers of the freshest local produce. Ten years later, she is the recipient of the International Gold Trophy for Gastronomy and co-owner, with her husband Everardo Reyes, of Las Cazuelas, a world-class restaurant with uniquely Tlaxcalan food . She is a fountain of information on the uses of Mexican herbs, spices and greens, as well as a gracious hostess. Political dignitaries and family groups, locals and foreigners, receive the same attentive service at surprisingly modest prices in a comfortable, casual setting.

I visited Tlaxcala recently to speak with Señora Reyes, sample her food, and ask her to share a few recipes with Mexico Connect's readers. Her ideas on Mexican cooking, and regional cooking in particular, made for an interesting conversation, full of information on techniques, ingredients and seasonings.

Creativity in the Kitchen

According to this award winning chef, Mexican cooking is both artesanal- having the creative qualities of a skilled craft- and táctil, requiring attention to texture as well as taste. In preparing a masa (corn dough) for instance, it is necessary to feel the corn kernels at each step- cooking, soaking, grinding- in order to achieve the proper texture. This is because corn varies not only from season to season but from field to field.

The most important factor in good cooking, Señora Reyes told me, is the quality of the ingredients. The basis of any cuisine termed "regional" are, of course, the ingredients characteristc of the area. Tlaxcala is famous for its fields of maguey, nopales, corn and amaranth, as well as the cultivation of Mexico's highly-prized setas, the gourmet mushrooms formerly found only in the wild. The region abounds with a variety of greens, collectively known as quelites, which add flavor and nutrition to local stews and are a particularly good compliment to pork. Squash is grown as much for its blossoms as for use as a vegetable, and flor de calabaza is found everywhere on a Tlaxcalan menu, from soups to stews to quesadillas. Fresh, high quality meat is provided by the area's ranches which, in addition to animals raised for food, breed some of the most highly-prized fighting bulls in Mexico.

After tasting an assortment of exquisite Tlaxcalan specialties, I was given a tour of Las Cazuelas' kitchen. Clean and spacious, it has sections devoted to each type of food preparation employed in traditional Mexican cuisine: areas for steaming mixiotes de carnero, rendering pork for carnitas, preparing dough for tortillas and a variety of antojitos mexicanos. Next to the cazuelas - the large clay soup and stew pots for which the restaurant is named- is the parilla (grill) on which steak, specially-made lean chorizo, rounds of queso ranchero, green onions and nopales- all the ingredients of a Mexican parillada (mixed grill) - were sizzling. In another area, fresh fruit for juices and aguas frescas were being squeezed. The frenzied mood of many restaurant kitchens was missing, replaced by a calm competence, as cooks went about their work with a view of the plant-filled patio on to which the kitchen opens.

A Colonial Jewel

Set amid lawns and gardens in the lovely Tlaxcala countryside, the restaurant is only a few minutes from the center of the small colonial city of Tlaxcala, the state capital, a half hour from Puebla and an hour and a half from Mexico City (Km.20, Carr. San Martin-Tlaxcala, Tel 246- 2-5002) The city's zocalo (central square) and the buildings surrounding it have received a face-lift in recent years, with the old colonial buildings glistening like little jewels in the sun. The huge 16th century Franciscan convent contains a museum of Tlxcalteca culture, with rooms full of both pre-Colombian and colonial treasures surrounding sunny patios. Cobblestone walkways connect it with the other convent structures: the free-standing bell tower, the still-active church and the processional patio.

My husband and I went to Tlaxcala one Sunday and enjoyed the bountiful brunch buffet at Las Cazuelas, after which we strolled around the centro, visiting the museum (which, like nearly all museums in Mexico, charges no admission on Sundays) and listening to the church bells ringing from the old stone tower. The convent church was aglow with hundreds of candles lit for Sunday mass. In the plaza, locals and visitors looked over the handicrafts for sale and children rode a small, antique carousel.

An August Tradition

If you visit Tlaxcala in August, you can see one of the oldest artistic traditions in Central Mexico: the alfombras. These are carpets of detailed and colorful design, made of sand, flowers, dried beans and greenery, constructed once a year in honor of the feast day of the Virgen de La Ascunción, August 15. On the eve of the fiesta, people walk from church to church, admiring the handiwork of the skilled artesans who construct the carpets on the floor of the wide main isles. They chat quietly with neighbors and say a prayer to the Virgin who, dressed in delicate laces and embroidered satins, lays on a bed of green apples. Throughout the night, the statue of the Virgin is elevated a bit every hour until, at midnight, she is standing upright, symbolizing her ascent to heaven. The green apples represent the fruit harvest which begins in the orchards of Central Mexico in mid- to- late August. Not surprisingly, this particular fiesta coincides with the ancient festival of the harvest goddess. It is a perfect example of the living traditions that form the framework of culture, art and cuisine in Tlaxcala.

Additional Articles on Tlaxcala Cuisine

Stalking the Wild Mushroom: - An Ancient Mexican Culinary Tradition

Recipes from Tlaxcala

Even if you don't go to Tlaxcala, you can still prepare a few of its delicious regional specialties. Out of a sampling of several tasty dishes, we selected our favorites and asked Señora Reyes for the recipes. Pollo Tizatlan and Codillo Aquiahuac are both named for pueblitos in Tlaxcala where their characteristic ingredients are produced. Both are ideal fare for guests, since they can be made ahead. They are flavorful without being overwhelming. Señora Reyes believes that food should not be "agressive."

Recipes from this article:

  • Pollo Tizatlan
  • Codillo Aquiahuac

    In addition to the exquisite recipes given to me for September '98 by Señora Reyes, proprietress of Tlaxcala's award-winning restaurant Las Cazuelas, for October, here are two more Tlaxcaltecan specialties popular at this time of year, after a few months of rain have produced carefully cultivated crops in the fields and a variety of wild mushrooms and herbs in the woods.

  • Setas con Epazote
  • Sopa de Milpa


 

Published or Updated on: August 1, 1998 by Karen Hursh Graber © 1998
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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