I believe there are foods that come embedded in our DNA because our ancestors have consumed them for thousands of years. You would recognize those foods even if you had never tried them before. Does it sound crazy? Maybe. But when I eat certain Mexican dishes it feels like I’m not only satisfying a physiological need, but that I’m being part of something bigger. That I’m part of a culinary ritual that started many generations ago and was carefully handed down to the cocineras (cooks) of today.
One of the dishes that makes me feel this way is pozole. For the past weeks I’ve been writing about Mexico’s most important crop, maize, and pozole is just the perfect dish to wrap up this journey. Pozole, from the Nahuatl potzolli which means foamy, is a soup or stew that was a ceremonial dish in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Pozole is made with nixtamalized cacahuazintle corn, a variety of corn with large, tough kernels.
Picture by sarihuella
The kernels are pre-cooked in an alkiline solution (visit this post to learn more about the nixtamalization process) that makes them lose their outer layer and softens them. This process makes the solution foamy, hence its Nahuatl name, and when boiled, the kernels open like flowers. Pozole has been adopted by many regions in Mexico. In the state of Guerrero they make the broth green by adding tomatillos.Queso fresco is added in Colima and chicharron (pork grinds) in Michoacan. It’s common to add seafood and shrimp in coastal regions. In Mexico City, people enjoy white and red pozoles served with oregano, radish, onion, lettuce and tostadas.
Pozole is a celebration dish that is served at Christmas, birthdays, weddings, Independence Day and other fiestas de pueblo, town celebrations. This tradition dates back to pre-Columbian times when pozole was served at special occasions and rituals. Researchers from UNAM (Mexico Autonomous National University) and INAH (Anthropology and History National Institute) have discovered that, in the Aztec empire, the cacahuazintle corn kernels were boiled with parts of sacrificed human prisoners and the dish was served in communal ceremonies among the ruling class, priests and sometimes the rest of the population in a religious communion.
Spanish priests collected some pozole recipes made with human meat and wrote that human flesh was similar in taste to pork. After the cannibalism practices were banned by the Catholic church, pozole was made with the newly introduced pork and chicken meats brought to America by the Spanish. Today, the best pozole, in my most honest opinion, is made boiling whole pork heads with the corn kernels, just like they did it at my parents’ restaurant.
I have personally never made pozole. At my parents’ restaurant it was prepared once or twice a month and for some holidays so people who didn’t cook could buy it for their families. For the last year and a half I’ve been eating a lot of pozole in Mexico City, trying to find the best. In Septemer 2010 for Independence Day I went to a pozoleria with my family close to their house. It was good, but I wasn’t impressed. I’ve also been eating pozole at La Casa de Tono, a restaurant that opened in the 80s and has become very popular having now several branches in the city. I like their pozole, in my opinion one of the best commercial pozoles in the city.
However, I just found a new favorite pozole place in Mexico City, El Pozole de Moctezuma, a restaurant that serves Guerrero style pozole. My friend Marco had been talking about this restaurant for a long time. Last week, after several months, a long walk and a short but crowded subway ride, we made it to Garibaldi, an area famous for its mariachi bands in downtown Mexico City.
We walked about one block and Marco told me to keep my eyes open for the restaurant signs. I thought I was going blind because I did not see any. Finally we came up to a building entrance and there it was:
The only indication that the restaurant was there was the word POZOLE next to the buzzer. After ringing the bell we were buzzed in. For a short moment I felt uneasy. Walking into a dark building to a place that I had heard of for so long but never actually been to made me feel like I was getting involved in something illicit. Was going to a bar during the prohibition like this? I was the Mexican version of Al Capone!
But once we entered the restaurant, a large and well illuminated space on the ground floor of the building, my worries disappeared. Our waiter, Alma Rosa, was a very sweet, attentive and efficient lady who quickly took our order and not long after was back with our drinks and food. Jon and Marco ordered green pozole and I ordered the traditional white pozole. Alma Rosa explained that to improve the flavor of the pozole all the add-ons had to be put in order: first the onions, then the chile, oregano, lime, avocado and chicharron at the very end.
We were instructed to try the pozole before one last ingredient was added. It was very good already, but after she added the secret ingredient I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Can you guess what that it is?
If you thought tequila, you were close. The last ingredient is two teaspoons of mezcal. Just enough to give the pozole an amazing flavor without overpowering with alcohol. This dining experience has been one of the best I’ve had during my stay in Mexico City. Marco says that the place gets very busy during the week. Sometimes you have to wait up to an hour and a half for a table if you don’t have a reservation. We were there at around 2 pm on a Saturday, just right after they opened and right before lunch (in Mexico people eat lunch late, especially on the weekends), that’s why the restaurant wasn’t as busy. But by the time we left a lot of the tables were already occupied.
The restaurant has been in the same location since 1947, and evidently their food is as good now as it was back then. However, you won’t find a lot of information about this place on the Web. I didn’t hear about this place from my foodie friends, real experts on dining in Mexico City, or my dad, an expert pozole eater. But that’s OK with me. I’m glad I can still be surprised and find new places (for me) like this one that are a feast for the senses.
I can imagine people enjoying pozole a thousand or five hundred or one hundred or fifty years ago and thinking exactly what I was thinking after every sip of the steamy goodness: it’s good to be alive, it’s great to live in this country with such great cocineras, and I want more of this stuff! Oh Mexico City, you’ve done it again and that’s why I love living here!
El Pozole de Moctezuma
Colonia Guerrero, 06300
Tel. 5526-7448 5526-6918
Ambiance: Very casual and family oriented
Service: Efficient, friendly and helpful
Price: Very reasonable. $350 pesos for three people with complementary anise liquor digestif.