Cooking on the Sea of Cortez: Culinary adventures in Baja California

articles Food & Cuisine Regional Cuisines

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen

Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, also known by the less lyrical name Gulf of California, supports more marine life than any other body of water on earth. It is no surprise, therefore, that divers, fishermen, and seafood lovers from all over the world find the Mar de Cortez an alluring and gracious host.

Like an enormous net, it has gathered marine species (over 3,000!) from the Pacific coasts of Mexico and South America, including nine hundred species of fish. With its bounty of inshore varieties, including several kinds of bass, corbina, snapper and tuna, the Sea of Cortez has nourished men from the pre-Hispanic indigenous tribes to today’s seafood gourmets. In addition to the fish, it provides a wide range of mariscos, the shellfish so dear to the hearts of Mexicans: shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, mussels and spiny lobster.

The first Europeans to enjoy these delicias were the Spaniards, who first began exploring the Sea of Cortez in 1532. After having conquered their way across Mexico, they looked to the west, across the sea to the land mass they they thought to be an island. The “island” turned out to be the peninsula now known as Baja California, which is divided into the two westernmost states in the Mexican republic, Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur.

Although “the Baja”, as it is affectionately known, has coasts on both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez, it is the latter which contains more inshore fish and shellfish. On a recent trip along its coast, I had the pleasure of learning about their preparation first-hand from several bajacalifornianos, as natives of this region are known. In settings ranging from palapas ( palm-thatched huts) on the beach to fine restaurants, I was given recipes and demonstrations.

Virtually ignored in discussions of regional Mexican cooking, Baja nonetheless continues to produce some of the finest and freshest seafood dishes found anywhere, and the creativity which has blossomed in recent years is reflected in its restaurant menus. The traditional familiarity with the best ways of preparing pescados y mariscos have combined with the need to satisfy increasingly discerning tourist palates. There is an ability to season the food without masking the pure, natural flavor. Types of fish and shellfish which have, for generations, been cooked over fires in fishermen’s camps on the beach have taken well to the refinements of la nueva cocina.

In a palapa on the beautiful bay called Bahía de Concepción, the son of one of the ejido (communally-owned land) families on whose beach we were camped, showed me how to make his aunt’s stuffed clam recipe, starting with going out into the bay to gather the clams and ending with a clambake for twenty, prepared by the light of our small propane lantern and then grilled over hot coals on the beach.

When the need for hot showers and other amenities drew us into towns along our route for a few days of restaurant meals, the chefs, cooks, and even waiters were happy to discuss the ingredients, recipes, and even the names of different fish, which, in Mexico, can vary wildly from region to region. Technique and seasoning may have been different in each place, but never once were we served anything overcooked.

The most important rule of thumb when preparing fresh pescados y mariscos is to cook them just until they are done. The cardinal sin of overcooking results in tasteless fish and rubbery shellfish. If you favor the idea of not cooking them at all, as in ceviche, in which the seafood is “cooked” by marinating in lime, be sure that the fish is the freshest possible.

Although there are few things more satisfying than catching and cooking your own fish dinner on the beach, it is important to remember that only citizens and legal residents of Mexico may fish without a license and that everyone, even locals, are expected to observe the daily bag limit. Some species of fish in the Sea of Cortez have already become extinct due to greedy commercial fishermen and anglers who bring in more than they can eat.

Whether you snag your fish with rod and reel or with a supermarket cart, the following recipes may bring back fond memories for those who have been to the Baja, or whet the appetites of those yet to experience its beauty.

Published or Updated on: March 1, 2000 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2000
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