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gastronomic convergence
April 9, 2008 11:18 PM   Subscribe

The Mexican kitchen's Islamic connection :"When Mexico’s leading writer, Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz, arrived in New Delhi in 1962 to take up his post as ambassador to India, he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole (pronounced MO-lay). Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce ?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained ?"
posted by dhruva (53 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I dunno, dhruva, any ideas?
posted by Wolof at 11:31 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ojala que entendamos este misterio! (Y como usar mi iPhone para escribir en espanol...)
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:36 PM on April 9, 2008


He explains that he found the article while searching for answers to his question.
posted by Shakeer at 11:40 PM on April 9, 2008


Thanks a lot, dhruva. Now I'm hungry. And I want to travel again.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:47 PM on April 9, 2008


dhruva knows when I am pulling his leg. This is not a Mefi cop raid.
posted by Wolof at 11:50 PM on April 9, 2008


I have to say that his theory chimes exactly with what I expected. The phrase "The legend of its origin in the convents of 18th-century Puebla" only reinforced that expectation. There's nothing really suprising in this.
posted by seanyboy at 12:16 AM on April 10, 2008


Personally, I've always wondered how it is that traditional Mexican music sounds exactly like polka.
posted by Jess the Mess at 12:35 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jess the Mess,like everything, it always comes back around to the Nazis.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:47 AM on April 10, 2008


Jess: German immigrants.
posted by sklero at 12:48 AM on April 10, 2008


Fascinating article. Thanks dhruva.
posted by caddis at 1:19 AM on April 10, 2008


mmmmmm, currrrry!
posted by hadjiboy at 2:14 AM on April 10, 2008


How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained ?"

Seeming coincidence? Spain was conquered and ocupied for a few centuries by the Moors before the Spanish conquered and occupied Mexico. What's surprising is that they all aren't speaking Arabic....
posted by three blind mice at 2:28 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mexican music sounds exactly like polka.

Texas-Mexican working-class musicians... adopted the accordion-the main instrument in conjunto music-and the polka from nineteenth-century German settlers in northern Mexico. The conjunto grew out of the cultural links between Texas and northern Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, when inexpensive one-row accordions became readily available.

Which also helps explain why Dos Equis is one of the best German Style beers in the western Hemisphere. Also, the French Emperor Maximillian tried to take Mexico in the 19th century, bringing a strong Franco-Alsatian elemnet tot he country which remained.

As for food? I think looking for Maoorish or east indian elements for things as basic as mole sauces is amaturish and diminished the obviously major role of native american civilization in the developement of modern Mexican culture and cuisine.
posted by zaelic at 3:20 AM on April 10, 2008


I've occasionally wondered about this - even a well made chilli has an ingredient list that resembles a simple curry. That said, although there are a few similarities, Indian cuisine is much more complex than its Mexican counterpart. They use some of the same ingredients, and they're both spicy, but that's about it.
posted by rhymer at 4:39 AM on April 10, 2008


That said, although there are a few similarities, Indian cuisine is much more complex than its Mexican counterpart.

Expand please. Also, we're talking about Moles not "chilli", which is a Tex-Mex thing.
posted by vacapinta at 5:11 AM on April 10, 2008


Thanks for posting this fascinating article, dhruva. If I might nitpick the framing, though, it may not have been a good idea to make it all about the Octavio Paz reference, which is just a cute journalistic lead and is a distraction from the main point of the article, which is the amazing reach of Persian culture—one of the things that's most impressed me as I've immersed myself in history. (Note that the third commenter was fooled into thinking that Paz discovered the history involved, when in fact he merely made an off-the-cuff observation in 1962.)

I think looking for Maoorish or east indian elements for things as basic as mole sauces is amaturish

If you have evidence that the Aztecs were using mole sauces (as we know them, and not some simple sauce they called molli), then yeah, you've blown a hole in the side of this particular ship. But if you don't and are just shooting from the hip in defense of the great and noble cuisine of Mexico, I don't think its being influenced by Moorish imports is any kind of slur. We're all mongrels, and all our cultures are hopeless mixes.

Indian cuisine is much more complex than its Mexican counterpart.

How well do you know Mexican cuisine? Because it's pretty damn varied and complex. Read some Diana Kennedy.
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on April 10, 2008


zaelic, the germans are responsible for the beer and the french are responsible for some unnamed cultural contribution but the spanish (islamish) culture that conquered is being over emphasized? Did you read the article? I ask not be rude but because it makes a lot of sense, spain communicates with the americas and the middle east communicates with india. So it's a moorish influence in both indian and american cuisine.
posted by MNDZ at 6:22 AM on April 10, 2008


In a related matter, did Tokyo steal the pork tenderloin from Des Moines, or did Des Moines steal the tonkatsu from Tokyo?
posted by rlk at 6:27 AM on April 10, 2008


Very interesting. Outside the scope of that article, but related, is the "Americanization" of world cuisine through the addition of ingredients that are only indigenous to the Americas: chili pepper, potatoes, chocolate. Maize would count too, but doesn't seem to be an established part of other nations' cuisines. So while the Spanish were transforming the food of Mexico into something vaguely Persian, Mexico was also transforming the vaguely Persian food of India.

It's hard to imagine Indian food without chili peppers, and indeed I've read that many Indians refuse to accept that chili peppers are not indigenous to their part of the world.
posted by adamrice at 7:02 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


rlk, I don't know, but central Iowa certainly has a lot of varieties.
posted by mikeh at 7:02 AM on April 10, 2008


Personally, I've always wondered how it is that traditional Mexican music sounds exactly like polka.

I was just coming in here to mention that. I grew up 1/2 hour from Mexico and the first time I was in a Munich Bierhall the similarities to a night at Hussongs in Ensenada hit me like a brick in the head. So I did a bunch of research and found out out it wasn't coincidence. I mean, even Frida Kahlo's father was German... there were a lot of Germans in Mexico. And Hitler humor upthread aside, in 1941 Time Magazine actually did go there.

Apparently the Germans are leaving Mexico in droves now and heading to Kansas though. .. dios mio.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:07 AM on April 10, 2008


Ahem.
A well-known historical fact that the pork tenderloin sammitch was originated, in all its breaded-to-perfection-and-bun-overlapping-massiveness, at Millie's Drive-In on 2nd and University in Des Moines, Ioway in the nineteen-ought-fifties.
Ain't never been no equal.
posted by drhydro at 7:12 AM on April 10, 2008


Actually, the spices probably came to Mexico the other way around. Moorish, and Moorish-influenced Spanish cuisine do not make such a significant use of "Eastern" spices such as cinnamon and clove. However, during the Spanish Empire, Mexico was the hub of its trade with the Far East. The Manila galleon brought spices and china from the Philippines to Acapulco and Mexican silver on its way back.
posted by Skeptic at 7:18 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting article.

I grew up eating Mexican food (of various levels of authenticity) in Arizona and when I finally got around to discovering Middle Eastern and Indian food, I was really struck by the similarities. In my own amateurish and spontaneous food preparations, I tend to mix elements from each. Even Chipotle serves basmati rice with their burritos.

Another intersection is the use of vertical rotisseries for both shawarma and tacos al pastor. Is this a matter of culinary lineage, or just a natural adaptation to street vending?
posted by mullacc at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2008


Heh, my tacos al pastor link answers my question right off the bat. I was just looking for the picture at first. :)
posted by mullacc at 7:57 AM on April 10, 2008


I had a couple Indian roommates in college, and one time their parents visited and brought a whole bunch of Indian food with them. Laid out on our table was a bunch of nan (or some other kind of flatbread), beans, and basmati, amongst other things; and they invited me to dig in. Now, good Southern Californian that I am, I see flatbread, beans, and rice and immediately think "burrito". I started loading up beans and rice on a piece of flatbread, and my roommate's mom got pissed, insisting that they were all different tastes and needed to be eaten separately.

I feel vindicated by this article.
posted by LionIndex at 8:08 AM on April 10, 2008


Well, the tortilla is one feature of Mexican cooking that's almost certainly local. Corn, and the trick of cooking it with alkali to make it more nutritious, that's New World technology. Hominy, tamales and corn tortillas were here when the Spanish arrived.

But don't let that stop you from enjoying your naan burritos, which sound fucking delicious, "authentic" or no.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:18 AM on April 10, 2008


I wasn't entirely serious there. And they wouldn't let me eat the burrito.
posted by LionIndex at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2008


Expand please. Also, we're talking about Moles not "chilli", which is a Tex-Mex thing.

Actually, "chili" is a Tex-Mex thing. Chilli is the generic term used in India (and a few other places) for hot peppers and the products made from them.
posted by xhepera at 8:42 AM on April 10, 2008


Indian cuisine is much more complex than its Mexican counterpart.

I'd beg to differ here. I'm not sure where you live, but Mexican food is much more varied than is typically found in the States anyway. The neigborhood "Los Primos" or "La Tolteca" are merely a whisper of what is possible with Mexican cuisine. Check out the writings of Rick Bayless or Diana Kennedy.
posted by xhepera at 8:51 AM on April 10, 2008


We're all mongrels, and all our cultures are hopeless mixes.

This. And don't forget, mongrels are healthier and more fun than pedigreed dogs! :-D

I'd love to see this acknowledged and celebrated rather than people insisting that their culture (food, music, entertainment) is pure and untainted by outside influences and that only people of a certain physical or geogrpahical aspect have the right to partake of it or enjoy it.

Thanks for this post, dhruva!
posted by lord_wolf at 9:03 AM on April 10, 2008


I've always thought the similarities in certain cuisines had as much to do with a common climate as with common ingredients and recipes spread by travelers; food and shelter being important to the regulation of body temperature. Intrigued by the above, I was surprised to learn that the chili has traveled the world over.
posted by noway at 9:05 AM on April 10, 2008


I made a red mole for duck enchiladas the other night and that was pretty complex. Only 15 or so ingredients, including 3 different chiles and 3 types of nuts, but nothing approaching a black mole (upwards of 30 ingredients). Mexican food can be deliciously simple or incredibly complex. I can't say much about Indian food since what we get in the states is mostly from northern India.

Wherever these complex, delicious sauces come from, I salute the chefs. They have made the world a better place. Now I need to go get some pork shoulder for a slow cooked roast in achiote, banana leaf and sour orange.
posted by ryoshu at 9:22 AM on April 10, 2008


So much of our European culture owes some debt to the Islamic world. They kept the light alive during our dark ages. Does anyone know a good scholarly-but-not-boring book that examines some of the cultural influences that we derive from Muslim cultures? I'd love to read something with a chapter on food, a chapter on navigation, a chapter on the preservation of ancient Greek scholarship, ...
posted by Nelson at 9:25 AM on April 10, 2008


There have also been more recent middle eastern influences on the Mexican diet. mullacc already hinted at the role of Lebanese immigrants in the introduction of tacos al pastor. While they probably represent the best example, being available throughout Mexico, they're not the only instance of the blending of Lebanese and Mexican cuisine.
posted by bunyip at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I owe a debt to Indian and Mexican food, among others. They've taught me that certain ingredients that we in the West have relegated to somewhat limited roles in our food are actually much more widely useful. Yogurt, for example, can be used in so many ways: as a counterbalance to something hot, as a thickening agent, or even as a sauce in its own right. Chocolate has a similar breadth of use.

Also, in the case of Indian food, it's amazing to me how well the tradition has adapted to new world crops. Chili peppers are one example, but tomatoes are great in Indian food (I'm thinking of palak paneer when I say this), and there's no other way I'd rather have potatoes prepared, too.
posted by invitapriore at 10:16 AM on April 10, 2008


What's surprising is that they all aren't speaking Arabic....

Well they all are using Arabic words.
posted by cell divide at 11:01 AM on April 10, 2008


bunyip: Great link. That definitely confirms my assumptions about tacos al pastor.
posted by mullacc at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2008


Meh ... the article talks about the Aztec/Nahuatl-speakers as if they were the pinnacle of pre-Conquest culture ... these guys were the Johnny-come-lately to the cuisine party ... the Aztecs were a band of nomads, wandering around in the scrublands of Northern Mexico while the Mayans were having fun further south ... and even the Mayans came after the Olmecs ...

I'll buy the idea that Spaniards "Islamisized" the cuisine later with the wonderful ingredients that they found, but I would submit that the underpinnings of that cuisine came much earlier than the Court of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin ... the Aztecs just got all the good press (not least in part thanks to the way that the Mayans were treated by Cortes & Crew).
posted by aldus_manutius at 12:05 PM on April 10, 2008


Interesting - no mention of Ethiopian food yet?

I couldn't tell you which cuisine is older, but when I ate some of the home-made variety, it struck me as very Indian/Middle Eastern/Mexican-Mole.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:46 PM on April 10, 2008


When I was younger I loved to cook. I made all kinds of different things. Eventually this lead, by rather convoluted means, to a summertime job as a cook in a youth culture center in Reykjvík (only in the morning, in the afternoon I was a translator). I loved that, especially the first summer when there were three of us cooking and we could do whatever we pleased, though we would synchronize, e.g. one handling the main course, another the salad, the third the dessert. I returned to the same job the next summer, but then things were slightly different. Because the program had been so successful the summer before the kitchen was enlarged and more staff hired, including a real chef. With it came more specialization. Because I'm a vegetarian (at the time strict, now, due to health reasons, I eat fish) I took care of the salad bar and when I had set that up whatever strange extra task was required, barbecuing for instance. The summer after that I got hired to be a cook at a hospital. There were some downsides to it, I had to work Saturdays, get up at five thirty in the morning, an hour and a half before I was accustomed too, and it would be more of an industrial kitchen. But this particular hospital had a reputation for serving good food and the increase in salary was considerable.

Before continuing I feel like I should mention that up until this point I still loved to cook. I made all kinds of strange and wonderful things in my own time, not just at work. But that would change after working as a hostpital cook. At first week was fine. The head chef was a nice guy who showed me the ropes and could solve any problems that came up quickly. I had been hired to take his place while he was on vacation, and since this is a European tale, a summer vacation means five weeks. The assistant chef was fun. Hot-tempered but fun to talk to and knew what he was doing. I was supposed to be his assistant during the five weeks the head chef was away.

Three days after the head chef had gone on vacation, the assistant chef quit. I never knew exactly why, but he'd had a blow-up with management and resigned. No one was hired to replace him. Suddenly I found myself running a hospital kitchen, having to supervise two dozen people. Luckily about half the crew was very knowledgable and could help me out when I was at a loss. Unfortunately the other half was nothing but teenagers working over the summer, replacing other staff, much like I was doing, and they needed to be watched rather intently because some of them messed up sometimes. I was 22 at the time and had never supervised anyone or anything in my life. On top of this there were racial tensions as many of the long-time staff were Thais and Poles, and a couple of the teenagers would make racist remarks from time to time. I dressed them down a couple of times, but because management didn't care there was very little I could do.

To make things even less happy, there had been a salmonella outbreak at another branch of the same hospital a couple of months before I started working. It was in food from an outside vendor but people were still on edge and there was an air of paranoia, which is admittedly perfectly understandable. Because of this the recipes we were given to make each day had to be followed to the letter. The problem with those recipes, however, was that they were made by nutritionists, in very small batches, and would scale horribly. I'm sure they tasted just fine when originally conceived, but scaling up they tasted awful. Sometimes I wouldn't eat my own food. I was miserable at my job. Much to my horror I found that I didn't enjoy cooking at home either. My love for it had vanished. They wanted me to stay on or return next summer, but I didn't want to. I wanted nothing to do with cooking.

And so it remained for four and half years since I stopped working there. Lately I've been feeling the stirrings of liking to cook. When making dinner I've tried out some different things, just to see what would happen. Nothing quite like the joy I used to know, but pleasing all the same. But I hadn't regained my interest in it. I didn't stare at produce aisles, pondering what I could make. I didn't think about the night's meal during the day. I didn't feel the urge to try to make something I'd never made before. Until now. The linked to article has fired my imagination. I want to make mole from scratch. I want to try to combine Mexican and Indian recipes and see what happens. I want to learn about Persian cooking.

If I hadn't been drawn into the article by the Octavio Paz reference who knows... maybe something else would've seized hold of my gastronomic brain centers or maybe the moment would have passed and my love of cooking receded again.Thanks, dhruva, you've reawakened a part of me that had lain dormant for so long I wondered if it was dead.
posted by Kattullus at 1:45 PM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Next meetup at Kattullus's house!
posted by languagehat at 1:48 PM on April 10, 2008


I don't know if that's such a good idea, my house has a tendency of getting molotov cocktails thrown through the window.
posted by Kattullus at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2008


What's surprising is that they all aren't speaking Arabic....

One of the more successful instances of ethnic cleansing.

Interesting post, by the way, and Skeptic, many thanks about the Manila Galleons. I'm astonished I had never heard of them.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:04 PM on April 10, 2008


They have made the world a better place. Now I need to go get some pork shoulder for a slow cooked roast in achiote, banana leaf and sour orange.

mmm...Cochinita Pibil

When this dish is done right, it's probably one of the best dishes I've ever had.
posted by mrducts at 3:25 PM on April 10, 2008


Interesting - no mention of Ethiopian food yet?

I couldn't tell you which cuisine is older, but when I ate some of the home-made variety, it struck me as very Indian/Middle Eastern/Mexican-Mole.


Well, Ethiopia is a stone's throw from the Arabian Peninsula, so that makes a lot of sense.

Their 'wat' (meat stews) reminded me very much of vindaloos, courtesy of the ubiquitous berbere spice mix.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:21 PM on April 10, 2008


> If I hadn't been drawn into the article by the Octavio Paz reference who knows...

Wow. I think that comment is the high point of my whole MeFi posting life.
LH, I think you can safely take back your nitpick:)
posted by dhruva at 5:12 PM on April 10, 2008


Consider it withdrawn!

Also, cochinita pibil is indeed one of the glories of human existence.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 PM on April 10, 2008


Apparently.

In the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, puerco [cochinita] pibil is a favorite dish of the main character, Agent Sands, and the character's obsession with the dish is the feature of several scenes. He feels so strongly about the food that he murders any cook who makes it too well (in order to "maintain balance" in the country).
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:23 PM on April 10, 2008


The Mexicans have equally dubious stories for Mole's origin, the most common version involving a frenzied nun in a convent kitchen, decidedly non-Islamic. This reminds me of the similar last-minute mish-mash origin myth for the South Indian dish, Aviyal, which also has hella ingredients.

The question of the origin of chilli on the other hand was settled by 1879. There's a linguistic oddity that alone might convince some: Indian, and European, languages use words for chilli derived from their words for black pepper (e.g. mirch, paprika, poivre), which is considered native to India ('pepper' <>pippali). That they lacked an original word for it is evidence against the Indian origin theory.

Anyways, I'm off to eat some Fesenjan in the sun.
posted by harhailla.harhaluuossa at 7:12 PM on April 10, 2008


Their 'wat' (meat stews) reminded me very much of vindaloos, courtesy of the ubiquitous berbere spice mix.

Actually, wat can be any stew. Mesir wat, for example, is lentil-based, and also wonderful.
posted by invitapriore at 7:30 PM on April 10, 2008


rik wrote: In a related matter, did Tokyo steal the pork tenderloin from Des Moines, or did Des Moines steal the tonkatsu from Tokyo?

The word tonkatsu is a word that combines "ton"=pork and "katsu"=cut(-let). Apparently the style of cooking was imported into Japan in the late 1800s. Wikipedia uses the word "invented" but I imagine this really means "mimicked at first and gradually changed to meet Japanese tastes" as is so often the case with our food here (e.g. curry, ramen, etc.). Mmm tonkatsu.
posted by misozaki at 1:16 AM on April 11, 2008


Haha... I remember this article when I read the original article in Saudi Aramco World, which is a pretty cool magazine. It has some really interesting articles about the Middle East and associated areas, as you can see here. My grandfather passes his along to me, although I don't often have time to read em.
posted by MadamM at 7:27 PM on April 20, 2008


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