Chiles en Nogada: Mexico’s national dish

By Claudia Prieto, London based anthropologist and Mexican food lover from Piastro Kitchen,

Mexican gastronomy is rich and diverse and varies greatly among the different regions of the country. It would be almost impossible to point to a unique dish that could encompass all our nationalist sentiments; tacos are well known everywhere, and corn tortillas are the base of our diet; but although they are popular everywhere, there are not our choice for celebrating the Independence of Mexico. But there is one dish that raises passions and is loved by millions of people in Mexico; particularly from the state of Puebla: Chiles en Nogada.

Chiles en Nogada are chiles poblanos that are carefully chard and filled with a sweet picadillo that is made from dried fruits and minced meat (similar to the original minced meat use in mince pies in the UK). Is then battered with egg whites and covered with a sauce made from walnuts and goats’ cheese. Finally, it is served with pomegranate seeds and parsley mimicking the colours of the Mexican flag.

There are hundreds of different recipes for cooking them; and debates about some aspects of the dish take place every September when the dish is traditionally eaten. One of the most controversial issues about this dish has to do with the batter: should we batter the chiles or not? Another one is about the ideal temperature to serve them: should they be eaten hot, warm or room temperature?

I have seen so many bitter discussions about these issues that I decided to research the origins of the recipe and let me tell you something; I found so many versions about their origins and ingredients that is impossible to stablish one original recipe.  It is said that Frida Kahlo did not batter her chiles or use cheese in her sauce, but most families in Puebla will claim that an un-battered chile is not an authentic one. So, you decide, in the meantime, let me tell you what I found out.

The legend says that the Augustine nuns from the convent of Santa Monica in the state of Puebla were the ones that cooked this dish for the first time.  The occasion was the consummation of the Mexican Independence, and they served the dish a few days after this memorable occasion; on the 28th of August of 1821 to be exact. The guest of honour was Agustin de Iturbide; one of the signatories of the treaty by which Spain recognised the Independence of Mexico.  The legend also says that nuns cooked this dish because it had the colours of the flag and required seasonal ingredients.

But let us look at this story closely. The 28th of August, is coincidently, the day of Saint Augustin a festivity that is commemorated both in Mexico and in Spain. That means that the Augustine nuns were probably used to celebrate their Patron Saint every year and had already traditions attached to it. So, Agustin de Iturbide visits the Augustin nuns on the day of Saint Augustin, and they invent a new dish for him? Probably not, and come on! Too many coincidences.

So, continuing with the research I found out there is a family in Mexico in the state of Puebla that claims they have the original recipe of Chiles en Nogada. According to the chefs and academics including Ricardo Munoz Zurita, the recipe for Chiles en Nogada can be found the private archives of the Traslohera family from Atlixco (Puebla); and it dates to mid-eighteen century. The recipe has gone through several modifications in the hands of many generations of cooks in the family; ingredients have been omitted and forgotten, quantities have changed; but the emphasize in using seasonal ingredients is always present. They also mention in their Facebook group and in several blogs, that they have eaten this dish on the day of Saint Agustin from well… always.  So while it seems clear that the nuns did not invented the dish; and that it has evident influences from Spanish and Middle Easter cuisines; we could say that Chiles en Nogada were first cooked and eaten in Puebla and had been around the tables of many families for a long time before the independence.

We will never know if this dish was served or not to Agustin the Iturbide, what we do know is that Chiles en Nogada are a source of gastronomic pride, a delicious concoction of seasonal ingredients that shows not only the love we have in Mexico for complicated, bold flavours that challenge the palates of anyone new to them; but also our romantic curiosity and passion for tradition, as well as a deep attachment for a good gastronomic discussions. Viva Mexico!

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