Friday, March 21, 2008

Eating in Mexico: Part 2

One of the things visitors to Mexico notice, almost immediately, is the reasonable cost of eating out. Of course, "eating out" could take a number of forms.

Ajijic is full of restaurants, many of them good. Because of the large gringo population here, retired people who have the time to eat out frequently, there is fierce competition here for diners among restaurants. It is fairly easy to get an excellent dinner for between 60 and 90 pesos, which means that, even with drinks and a tip, you can pay $25-30 for such a meal. Of course, for those on a tighter budget, you can easily eat for significantly less, especially if you like quesadillas, burritos, or tacos. At lakeside, the variety of types of restaurants is like that in a large city like Guadalajara: Argentine, Mexican, Italian, Thai/Japanese, Vegetarian, Eastern European, Greek, Chinese, American BBQ, etc. The PROBLEM with all this reasonably-priced good food is that it's difficult to eat healthy. In restaurants, most dishes are meat or fish-based, with small servings of vegetables, high calorie, for sure. Maybe this is why I gained eleven pounds during the first eight months I was here. Now, we are much more careful what we eat, and we take advantage of the markets to get more fruits and veggies, eating in more, and I've begun to shed the extra weight.

Another option for eating out is small Mexican "loncherias" which are usually family-run small restaurants with a few white plastic "Corona" tables set up on the street, under a tarp, or in the front room of their home. The service is slow, no one speaks English, and you never know entirely what you're getting ( I saw "cabeza tacos" the other day...use your imagination!), but the food is delicious, usually with hot tortillas made right there and the salsa fresh out of the pot. At least around here, they warn gringos if something is "picante," or spicy hot. Mexicans love these little restaurants; and I seem to like them more than Pixie does. You can easily eat for $3 apiece, or less, including a cerveza. That helps stretch our monthly pension check! But again, these tend to be starchy and fatty meals. Just don't overdo it!

Then, there's take out. We have found a number of places which sell tamales, meat, or sweet corn wrapped in tortilla dough and then wrapped in corn husks and steamed for many hours. These are highly prized and delicious, cheap and not so fatty. There is also Chinese take-out and pizza available. Roasted chickens are available everywhere, as I mentioned earlier, with roasted papas (potatoes), for a reasonable price. Mexican like their pizza a different way. They like to take a perfectly good piece of pizza, with sausage or pepperoni, and smother it with catsup and mayonnaise. Go figure. Different cultures; different tastes.

There is also street food, which we are supposed to avoid because there seems to be little sanitary facilities for washing, etc. People sell roasted corn on the BBQ, and other Mexican traditional foods. People sell cut up fruit and in plastic cups.

I'm off to the writers' group this morning. Here's a new poem I'm reading:

What Makes Them Sing?

What makes them sing?

I walk by the short, dark men

I see them screening sand

Laughing and singing quietly

As they carry heavy white buckets of cement

Up old and splattered ladders

Again and again in heat.

What makes them sing?

Sitting on a stoop on a warm night

To escape the heat and cramped

Communal home they share,

Eating roasted corn

As children with filthy feet

Laugh with their somber eyes.

What makes them sing?

And love loud mariachi music

And fireworks and jokes

And fiestas that last all night

And driving too fast

And risking fate.

What makes them sing?

As we take over their space

And clog their streets

And expect, arrogantly

That they will accommodate our needs

And meet our unfamiliar standards,

While we not bothering to learn

To speak their lyrical language.

What makes them sing?

What makes them smile easily?

What do they know

That helps them live in

Their mean moments

With such grace that it draws

Me to live

Among their songs?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Photos of New House

We have finally moved into the new house, and I am including a number of photos here. Like many Mexican homes, our home is enclosed by walls, with a front gate.

One unique feature of the house is old-fashioned street light in the back yard. It provides illumination at night and is a conversation piece by day!

The previous owners left many pre-Columbian statues and plants. Here's an example from the back garden.
They also left this hand-painted, very Mexican headboard for our new bed. Mexican beds don't use box springs, just wooden platforms, so we bought a comfortable mattress.
This is the front garden included in the covered garage area by the entryway to the house.
Passageways around both sides of the house allow access to the back garden by the gardener without going through the house. We can close these gates to let Maggie into the back yard without worrying about her escaping into the street.
Our big purchase for the house so far has been this beautiful equipale table and chair set which we hope will allow us to enjoy after-dinner conversation with family and friends.
View of the living room from the dining area.
The back of the house with a view of the mountains. No view of the lake, unfortunately.
View of the back terrace, where we will put a grill soon.
Good kitchen, but ugly. We hope to redo the countertop with Mexican rustic tile, and paint the cabinets a color besides blinding white.
The stained glass panels on the sliders leading out to the terrace are one of our favorite features.

Just to get a sense of the area, this is the view from the front of our house. There is a very friendly burro across the street. And the mountains are, of course, prominent.

We are still busy cleaning up the old house and moving things here. We need to make a trip to Home Depot in Guadalajara tomorrow for a lawnmower, step ladder, and other essentials. Once we are finished with this craziness, I'll post the second part of "eating in Mexico."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Eating in Mexico: Part 1

Mexico is a land where people LOVE to eat. Everywhere you go, people are selling food: cut up fruit, barbecued chicken, fried potatoes, roasted corn on the cob, tacos, etc. There are lots of places to shop for food: supermarkets, roadside stands, outdoor markets, even directly from farmers. Finding food is not a problem, and usually at good prices. I'll discuss eating in this post and the next: eating in and eating out.

Perhaps one of the things I was most looking forward to in Mexico was the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. The picture above was taken at the weekly tianguis, or outdoor market, in Ajijic. Vendors sell all kinds of food at the market, and it is the best place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We have our favorite vendor, Aaron, who takes good care of us. The fruits that we most enjoy here are pineapples, mangoes, bananas and plantains, cantaloupe, watermelon, jicama, oranges, limes, grapefruit, strawberries, raspberries, papaya, and apples. In terms of vegetables, we like to buy tomatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, squash (summer and winter), and peas. I have not seen much asparagus here. Then there are some of the uniquely Mexican fruits and vegetables: the chaiote (a sort of pear-shaped greed squash), nopal (a cactus good cooked or raw, supposedly good for one's cholesterol, prickly pear (a sweet, white cactus fruit), guyavas (guava fruit), and many other strange, but often tasty fruits I don't know the names of. Some things here are disappointing here, like tomatoes. The juicy Maine tomatoes are nothing like the mostly plum tomatoes available here. Limes are wonderful, and Mexicans put them on everything. Lemons, however, are rarely, if ever, available. Limas, which look like limes, are neither sweet not sour; I don't know why they sell them. Here are some approximate prices at the market (in USD, kilo= 2.2 lbs):

tomatoes $1/ kilo
cucumbers $.50/ kilo
grapes $5.00 kilo (imported)
papaya $1.50/ kilo
limes $.80/ kilo
bananas $.80/ kilo
onions $.50/kilo
strawberries $1.00/kilo
raspberries (bought at the farm) $3.00/ gallon bucket

Mexicans are also very fond of their meat. Like the Native Americans, they believe in using all parts of the animal. When you walk down some back streets, you see large tubs of animal parts boiling in lard. The resulting "carnitas" smell delicious, but are difficult to identify. The Mexicans love them, but I don't partake. Meat is sold at carnicerias, or butcher shops. It's not unusual to see the butcher cutting up a carcass in the back of a pick-up truck before he brings it into the shop and displays the meat in refrigerated cases. The Mexicans are fond of roasting very thin strips of beef over a charcoal fire (carne asada). They eat lots of chicken (pollo) and it seems to be available everywhere, roasted and BBQed. Pork is very different here and really tasty. I was not a big pork fan in Maine, but here it's tender and very flavorful. They have many types of sausage, or chorizo, here, from bland to very spicy. Goat meat is popular, as is lamb. Meat is easily available and Pixie and I usually spend about $3.00 for enough for a meal.

Fish is also very popular here, and many Mexicans eat fish from Lake Chapala. The lake is cleaner than it was, but most gringos don't eat lake fish. But the fish shops (pescaderias) get fresh fish from the Pacific every day, and many types are available. Of course, I haven't seen cod, haddock, hake, or mackeral. The most popular fish here are red snapper, sea bass, and mahi-mahi. I am partial to snapper, which cost us about $4 for a meal. Shrimp are great here and huge. They cost about $8/ kilo, depending on the size. I have not seen mussels or clams.

One staple of the Mexican diet is corn tortillas. They are available everywhere, warm and fresh. I usually buy a 2" stack for about 5 pesos, or 50 cents. Mexicans eat them like bread. You can put anything in them, roll them up and eat. With beans they provide almost perfect protein. I like the beans, but I have discovered that it's easier to buy them in containers, already cooked, for 8 pesos, than to soak and cook them yourself. The also love bread, and it is readily available in bakeries for about 5 pesos for a small loaf.

They love to drink Coka Cola, Squirt, and many fruit-flavored sodas. Mexico is apparently the greatest per-capita consumer of soda in the world. They call it "refresco." For alcohol, they mostly consume beer (cerveza) and tequila. Mexicans don't drink margaritas as much. They just add tequila to their squirt or fresca, or sip it like whiskey. They do make a drink called a micholada, which consists of beer, clamato juice, lime, salsa and salt. It's really not bad.

Mexicans are great snackers. They love potato chips, which come in a cellophane bag, without salt. The bag comes with a packet of chili hot sauce which they pour over the chips. Most stores have huge racks of cheap snacks and cookies, like in the US. Yogurt is very popular here, and homemade yogurt can be found everywhere. My favorite is celery pineapple. Fresh honey and soft cheeses are also popular. Many foods, like raisins, granola, nuts and dried chiles can be bought in bulk.

We find that food shopping is cheap here as long as you buy Mexican products. They do have stores that import US products, but you pay dearly for them, so we only buy US food, rarely, usually when we need an item for a recipe. So far we have done a good job stretching our pension check, so we haven't had to resort to eating beans on tortillas for the last week of the month, but we could if we had to.

It is interesting to note that I have gained about ten pounds since arriving here in May. Many of the Mexican foods are fattening, so I am trying to concentrate on the abundance of fruits and vegetables.