Chile en Nogada: Mexico’s Pride

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Each September Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain and its national pride during Fiestas Patrias, with lots of fireworks, mariachis, tequila, and, of course, chiles en nogada, Mexico’s most ‘patriotic’ dish. The season for this elaborate plate starts as soon as pomegranates and walnuts are in the markets, that is, mid-August.

A true mestizo food, the origins of this rich concoction are enshrouded in legend. The story goes that Agustín de Iturbide, ’emperor’ of Mexico, arrived in Puebla on August 28th, 1821, having signed the Treaty of Córdoba affirming Mexico’s independence from Spain.  He was offered an elaborate meal in honor of his saint’s day, prepared by the nuns of the Convent of Santa Mónica. Don Agustín refused all the tempting platters offered him, fearful of being poisoned. either by the Spanish, who considered him a traitor, or the insurgents who suspected him of planning yet another monarchy – turns out they were right. He feigned stomach trouble, but when the exquisite chile en nogada was served, he couldn’t resist. Records show that versions of this dish existed long before these events, but it’s a good story, and it has been associated with Mexico’s independence ever since.

Chile en nogada is a green poblano chile, filled with picadillo – ground (or, better, hand-pulled) seasoned pork and/or beef with olives, almonds and dried fruit. It is ‘capeado’ i.e. fried in a light batter, bathed in cream and walnut sauce – called ‘nogada’, then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. The red, white, and green of the dish are the colors of the Mexican flag, symbolizing Las Tres Garantías (the three guarantees) of the Constitution: union, religion, and independence.

There are as many recipes for chile en nogada as there are cooks, and most Mexican families have a jealously guarded one. But all agree that fresh seasonal ingredients are essential.

Chef, culinary historian and restaurateur Ricardo Muñoz Zurita admonishes that nogada made with dried, packaged nuts, is “vastly inferior” and “should not be taken seriously”. Restaurants offering the dish year-round are therefore automatically suspect.

The controversy of whether to fry in batter or leave it natural is a perennial dilemma. For me, that extra turn in oil is gilding an already fattening lily. But chef Gerardo Lugo Vazquez, of Nicos, arguably the author of the best chiles en nogada in Mexico City, disagrees – he insists that the key is a VERY light batter, similar to that used for tempura. I’ve sampled many over the years – at the tables of Mexican friends, in humble market fondas,

and at high end gastronomic temples, both here and abroad, and I’ve come to a conclusion: this classic dish should not be tampered with. A “deconstructed” version I once had at a trendy New York eatery, posed a naked chili atop its sauce instead of underneath, deeply offending my visiting Mexican friends. That said, as the season approaches, there are a few postmodern versions that work. See below:

Where to sample chiles en nogada this year:

 And the winners are:
Restaurante Nicos
Av. Cuitlauac No. 3102, Azcapotzalco, Claveria
Tel. 55 5396 7090
Open Monday – Saturday 8 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Chef Gerardo Lugo Vazquez’ vision is classic – he insists that to capear is the way the original recipe of the 19th century is written and he doesn’t stray. Every aspect of this chile is perfect: the chile itself, not too big, is charred to melting perfection, dipped in a very light batter and fried like a good tempura. The filling is aromatic with spice, the nogada pleasingly sweet but not too, complex – the woodsy nuts shine through. The winner.

Fonda Fina
Medellín 79, Roma Norte
Tel. 5208-3925
Open Monday – Wednesday 1-11 p.m., Thursday- Saturday until midnight, Sunday 1 – 7 p.m.

The year-old Fonda Fina is, like its name a fine but relaxed place to eat. The menu, in the capable hands of chef Juan Cabrera, formerly of Quintonil, is deceptive – that is, dishes are more complex and sophisticated than they appear.
His chile en nogada is a great example. Every element is refined  – the best qualities are coaxed out of the slightly pungent, cardamom perfumed cream, the fragrant, carefully textured picadillo and the al dente chile which has been marinated for 3 days. A loving but creative salute to the original.

El Tajin
Miguel Angel de Quevedo 687, (inside the Centro Cultural Veracruzano), Coyoacán.
Tel: 5659-4447 or 5659-5759
Open daily 1 p.m. – 6 p.m.

El Tajin has been an institution in Coyoacán for 40 years; the reigns were recently handed over from venerable founder Alicia Gironella to chef Ana Arroyo. The younger master is offering a classic chile whose nogada is tweaked by a dash of sherry which adds a lovely Iberian touch to the proceedings. She will soon be hosting a “Festival de chiles en nogada” offering several variations created by chefs Margarita Carrillo and Elsa Kahlo.

El Balcón del Zócalo
6th floor of the Zócalo Central Hotel
5 de Mayo 61, Centro Histórico
Tel. 51 30 51 30 Ext. 6775 y 6776
Open daily, 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.

El Balcón del Zócalo is THE place to celebrate Mexico as it offers a spectacular view of Americas largest plaza. The menu, which ranges from the tried and true to the experimental, is now featuring fine, classic chiles en nogada.  Here, an extra large poblano (big enough for sharing) is stuffed with a picadillo perfumed with smoky chorizo – an variation of the usual beef/pork filling. The nogada is lightly sweet and velvety. The perennial dialectic of “to capear or not to capear” is left up to the individual.

Bonito Pop Food
Av. Nuevo Leon 103, Condesa
Tel. 5286 6165
Av. La Paz 39, San Ángel
Tel. 5550 7922

These good-time houses harbor a celebratory ambience yet the food is surprisingly subtle. Chiles here are classic. A variation is filled with confit of duck. The nogada is as velvety as Mel Tormé’s voice.

Allende 3, Centro
Open Monday 1:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday
1:30 – 11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Tel. 5521-5576

For those less married to tradition, Limosneros, the beautiful colonial center of experimental Mexican cooking, is offering a nogada housed in a little Cornish hen.

Ummo Pizza
Located in Mercado Roma, Queretaro 225, Colonia Roma
Open Sunday – Wednesday 12:30 – 8:30 p.m., Saturday until 10:30. And yes, they deliver!

For the non-traditionalists, Hilel Bistre of Ummo, whose smoke infused pizzas happen to be amongst the best in the city, has created a vegetarian chile en nogada pizza. A thin, lightly crispy mozzarella covered crust is scattered with caramelized grilled strips of poblano, dabs of a nogada spiked with American-style sour cream and mezcal then scattered with the pomegranate seeds and parsley. It is as pretty as a Tiffany’s brooch and tastes good too.

Also good:

El Bajio
Paris 16
El Cardenal
Azul Condesa or Histórico

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About The Author

Nicholas Gilman is a food writer based in Mexico City; he's author of Good Food in Mexico CIty: Food Stalls, Fondas, Fine Dining.