From New Spain to nouvelle cuisine: Pasta mexicana

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen

As anyone who has ever eaten a comida corrida – the “daily special” at restaurants in Mexico – knows, the course called sopa seca will either be a plate of rice or some shape of pasta with the ubiquitous tomato sauce. Up until recent years, this sauce hadn’t varied much since the colonial era, but the influence of Mexican chefs like Alicia Gironella and Monica Patiño, among others, is changing that. They are combining the lightness and stylish presentation of nouvelle cuisine with the pre-Colombian ingredients prized by the Aztecs, Mayan and other cultural groups.

Fresh and dried chiles, along with indigenous herbs like epazote and hoja santa, are being used in creative new ways, and nothing seems as easily adaptable to these inventive combinations as pasta. Because it is so simple in iteslf, pasta takes on the character of its companions which, as Mexican chefs began discovering in the mid-eighties, do not necessarily have to be Italian.

True, pasta was first brought to Mexico by the Italians. Historian Jeffrey Pilcher, in Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, tells us that “Italians had a much greater influence than the French on Hispanic cuisine…Italian dishes appeared prominently in the cuisine of New Spain.” The cultural imperialism that drove the Spaniards to try to replace corn with wheat, and European ingredients with native ones, only succeeded in generating a wonderful combination of flavors from two continents. Wheat tortillas did not replace corn tortillas except in the northern part of the country, but beginning in the 1850’s wheat pasta gradually became a widespread alternative to the rice course. Tomato sauce, however, remained nearly the only sauce served on pasta for the next hundred years or so.

Although Italian restaurants were well-received in Mexico City much earlier (in the 1940’s, the Italian restaurant run by Alfredo Bellinghieri was so popular that it merited articles in the newspaper Excelsior) pasta as a dish on it’s own, rather than one element of the comida, has only become more frequently encountered outside of the capitol within the past ten years. During this time, I’ve increasingly noticed a separate menu section for pastas in many restaurants throughout the country, even here in Cholula, a small town and bastion of regional Poblano cooking. The best of these use innovative combinations of Mexican ingredients to create new pasta sauces.

Many people are beginning to go beyond the standard tomato sauce for pasta in home cooking as well. A few weeks ago, I went into a local artesania shop to buy a gift and the owner, an acquaintance of many years, asked me to please give him a recipe for pesto. Health food stores here cannot stock enough whole-grain pasta, and some places have begun to sell dried pasta flavored with typically Mexican ingredients ( ancho and poblano chile flavored pastas are among the best I’ve tasted.)

You can flavor plain dried pasta just by adding a few dried chiles to the cooking water – it will have a subtle taste and an appealing color – or, if you make homemade pasta dough, you can add some finely chopped Mexican herbs such as cilantro and epazote to the dough as it is being mixed. The following sauces can be served over any kind of pasta; the shapes given in each recipe are only suggestions. All of them can be made ahead with only the pasta being cooked fresh at the last minute, which makes them good choices for warm-weather entertaining, informal backyard and patio meals, and the many large gatherings that June’s festivities bring.

Pasta Mexicana: Recipes!

Published or Updated on: May 1, 1999 by Karen Hursh Graber © 1999
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