Chiles en nogada is a Mexican classic that celebrates the past and the present

Comment

For residents of the southern Mexican state of Puebla, chiles en nogada are more than the highest stuffed chili in the country and a symbol of Mexican independence. It is an integral part of the calendar.

For several weeks each year, in late summer and early fall, Puebla recognizes the season for chiles in nogada, coinciding with the availability of some of the definitive ingredients that have made this dish a classic. The history surrounding the dish is hazy, and the key elements of the basic preparation are still debated among foreign chefs and diners some two centuries after it was made. But all of this only served to build a legend that has seen chiles en nogada gain popularity beyond the borders of Puebla.

How to make chiles en nogada, Mexico’s national stuffed pepper dish

Chili en nogada is a poblano stuffed with a picadillo of ground pork, beef and seasonal fruits, fried in egg batter, then covered in a creamy white walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds and a sprig of parsley – symbolic of the colors of the Mexican Flag – and served at room temperature. Puebla Restaurant Association CANIRACwhich declared the start of the 2022 nogada chili season on July 21, estimates that customers will consume 3 million servings of the dish in Mexico and the United States before the season ends in September.

The sweet and savory dish, a classic of Mexican haute cuisine, is a rite of passage for top Mexican chefs – a test of their skills in balancing dissonant flavors, now frequently chronicled on social media. As with many classic dishes, there is considerable debate regarding its origin, and whether it is capeado or sin capear – beaten egg ⁠ (traditional) or not.

According to chef Liz Galicia of restaurant El Mural de los Poblanos, chiles en nogada gained popularity about 15 years ago when CANIRAC Puebla launched a campaign to promote the dish nationwide.

It must have been around this time, maybe 2008, while driving from Mexico City to Puebla, that I was amazed and thrilled by the sight of billboards advertising peppers in nogada. Having never experienced it in Puebla, I went to El Mural de los Poblanos, a restaurant famous for this legendary dish, hoping to try it.

A legend traces the dish to the Augustinian nuns of the Santa Mónica convent in Puebla, who created it on August 28, 1821 in honor of Mexico’s first emperor, General Agustín de Iturbide. According to the story, the dish was modeled after the colors of the Ejército Trigarante, a unified army of Spanish and Mexican troops under Iturbide.

Another tale, this one from a Mexican writer and diplomat Artemia of Valle-Arizpe, recalls a trio of women, inspired by their soldier boyfriends from the Ejército Trigarante, who created chiles en nogada to honor their flag. But these stories seem to be myths. According to CANIRAC Puebla, no official documentation on the origin of the recipe exists, and a reputable archaeologist Eduardo Merlo Juarez also defied folklore, finding the dish was created decades before the general was even born – as a dessert.

Aside from the origin story debate, a larger debate surrounding chiles in nogada – capeado or sin capear – pits Mexican palates against each other.

“I did some research, and the original recipe is definitely egg-beaten,” says chef Edgar Nuñez of Mexico City’s Comedor Jacinta, who serves the dish without the coating because he finds the sauce “too dense. for the dough”. Chef Gabriela Ruíz, a native of Tabascan, from Carmela y Sal in Mexico City, also prefers the lighter version, but cooks the dish with the egg batter for around 10% of her customers who request it.

“Egg dough is like a sponge that absorbs too much fat. Even with the best technique, it masks some of the flavors,” says Ruíz.

For Pueblan-born chef Galicia, the original recipe, egg batter and all, is all about history and her passion for her home country. “I love making the dish and I’m proud of what it means to our city, so my guests anxiously arrive every year with very high expectations,” says Galicia. “People know this dish so well, we have to be consistent and get it right every time.”

Once a specialty of Pueblan home cooks, chiles en nogada have a limited season due to the availability of signature ingredients. But now, thanks to its ubiquity on social media and the efforts of those who carefully prepare the dish, you can find chiles en nogada on the menu of Mexico’s top restaurants. If there’s one thing all veteran chefs of chile season in nogada agree on, it’s that the recipe takes perseverance and requires attention to the delicate balance of flavors. Many honor the seasonality and history of the dish, while others are more pragmatic.

“I and my head chef, Juan Carlos ‘Flaco’ Santana, patiently cook the ground meat and fruit mixture until it’s a stew, not a picadillo; [a picadillo] is a big mistake, in my opinion,” says chef Guillermo Gonzalez of La Embajada de Monterrey, who also prefers it without egg batter. Picadillo-stuffed chili relleno are traditionally served with tomato soup, which soaks the ground meat, moistening the dish. But with the chiles in nogada, the sauce sits on top without soaking up the picadillo like the soup otherwise would, resulting in a drier bite. Gonzalez’s technique answers that. Ruíz said his picadillo also had a stew-like consistency.

Even further removed from the scrutiny of patriotic Pueblans, chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martín del Campo of La Casita Mexicana in Bell, Calif., serve chiles en nogada year-round, having found a way to satisfy the demand of post-season consumers.

“You can now buy frozen white walnuts [nuez de castilla]and many other ingredients, out of season,” says Arvizu.

Developing the restaurant’s collaborative recipe was a classic battle between beaten and not; The egg-breaded chili en nogada from Martín del Campo’s grandmother, Maria Guerrero Torres, and the unbreaded version from Arvizu’s grandmother, Maria de Jesus Cueva. Chefs initially agreed to serve it in its original egg batter form, but it was their customers who had the final say.

“Most of our guests wanted sin capear, so I guess I got it,” Arvizu says laughingly on his restaurant terrace.

La Casita Mexicana’s pastel orange dining room, adorned with terracotta fruit, Mexican crosses and folk art, etched into the fabric of this working-class Latino enclave in southeast Los Angeles, has been a temple to traditional antojitos inspired by grandmothers and Mexican haute cuisine since its opening in 1998. For Arvizu and Martín del Campo, chiles en nogada are part of their childhood and represent their profession as Mexican chefs, deeply proud of the regional traditions of their native country.

Comments are closed.