Flavor Teller Food Notes

How the Flavor Teller experiences the spirit of the Pino Suarez market.

By Maaike Hoekstra, April 16 2020. [Maaike is the owner and founder of Mazatlan’s original street food tour, Flavor Teller.]

The calendar marks one month since my last Flavor Teller group, cutting short the traveler high season by about six weeks. It has been a roller coaster of emotions and a continuous adjusting to the ever-changing new-normal. Several times I’ve felt like the Google maps voice: …recalculating route….

The first cases of Coronavirus in Mexico were diagnosed the first week of March. Schools nation-wide were closed by the second week of March, as well as bars, movie theaters and clubs. The last Flavor fans that I welcomed enjoyed the peace and quiet on the streets instead of lockdown at home. The majority of my vendors weren’t fazed by the Coronavirus threat. “This virus will never get to Mazatlan, our weather is too hot for it to survive.”

My teenage kids continued their school activities at home, which meant less rushing out the door at 6.30 a.m. and more “mom, I don’t understand this topic, can you help me?” An adjustment for all, but largely compensated with more sleep and more home-cooked food.

Towards the end of March, Mazatlan was gearing up for Semana Santa or Holy Week – which traditionally is the busiest holiday week of the year. This anticipation was cut short by a drastic decision of the state governor on April 1st to close all hotels and motels in Mazatlan. This meant that all of a sudden most people working in the tourism sector lost their jobs. Many applied for the municipal unemployment benefit: a $400 pesos cash payment and a food package to all those who lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus crisis.

Early April days went by with blissful morning walks on the beach, making sure my kids were doing their school chores (and not getting lost on YouTube or Instagram) and solving the daily pressing questions: “What are we having for breakfast/lunch/dinner?” Our family had a fun vacation planned for Holy Week and obviously that was postponed. But hey, being on lockdown on a sunny beach in Mazatlan isn’t so bad. And then…. the world became even smaller when the government declared that beaches in Mazatlan would be closed to all public. Some continued the party elsewhere; “It’s Semana Santa, that’s what we do!” But Coronavirus cases started getting out of hand, especially in Culiacan. So as a repercussion the state government has now closed all shopping malls and banned alcohol sales in Sinaloa.

My outings have been restricted to the bare minimum. Getting out of the house for the essential things, paying bills and buying food. The supermarkets and local markets are open as usual. I live in downtown Mazatlan, so the Pino Suarez market is right in my neighborhood. Walking through the historic district is eerily quiet, there are only few people on the street. Where usually you hear honking cars, now traffic is reduced to city busses. The souvenir stores are all closed, just as the department stores. I passed by the MazTamales kitchen on Benito Juarez street and the owner Lizette is busy wrapping tamales with two employees. “We’re open as usual, she says, but sales have gone down 60%.”

Arriving to the Pino Suarez market, only two of the ten doors are open: one entrance with mandatory anti-bacterial gel and one exit. There are some shoppers, but the buzz of regular weekdays is absent. The Pino Suarez market built in 1899, has seen crises before like the bubonic plague in 1903-1904 and hurricane Olivia in 1974. Many multi-generational businesses have a built-in resilience for rough times like these. Authorities require every vendor to wear a facemask and gloves and have anti-bacterial gel available for their customers, but otherwise it’s business as usual. The displays still have plenty of produce of fresh meat, fish, cheeses, veggies and fruits. That’s the upside of living in Sinaloa the breadbasket of Mexico: produce is abundant and affordable. The Tostada stand of Mrs. Yolanda isn’t bursting with hungry eaters as usual. She even has the time to pose with her daughter and employee Lupita. “I had to send the other two staff on forced holiday and they will be taking turns until all of this is over. Make sure to tell everybody that you can order and pick-up whatever you want.” This is the recurring story for most vendors, eager to serve their customers and finding a way to deal with the health restrictions.

What has amazed me most, is the spirit of these small business owners. They are aware that many families are struggling to make ends meet. As we say in Mexico, “hay que echarle agua a los frijoles” (add water to the beans), meaning that we have to stretch out limited resources. There will always be beans and tortillas on the table, but now instead of a rib-eye and or a chicken breast many will choose Cabeza (head cheese) or Dentros (chicken innards). One thing I’ve learned after living in Mazatlan for 16 years, people are resourceful and upbeat. There won’t be a hurricane so strong that it will knock down the Mazatleco spirit. As for the Coronavirus, the business owners are saying “this too shall pass.”

“Camaron Seco”, a Mazatlan kitchen must-have.

By Maaike Hoekstra, April 2020 [Maaike is the owner and founder of Mazatlan’s original street four tour, Flavor Teller.]

During this coronavirus we are all strongly encouraged to stay at home and self-isolate. For me, this means lots of staring in the cupboard and fridge, because I’m hungry…. again!!! To limit my visits to the market and supermarket there are a few things that I’ve stocked up on. Mazatlan is a city that’s used to prepping for natural disasters, especially during hurricane season. A local’s cupboard will always have canned goods, beans, rice, bottled water, candles, flashlights, batteries, and you will also find something else – a cardboard box with dried shrimp.

We can thank the Chinese immigrants for this local delicacy “Camaron Seco.” The Chinese arrived to the port of Mazatlan during the 19th century, amidst the gold rush and economic boom in the city. They used their ancestral preservation techniques to keep shrimp when refrigeration was still unavailable. Nowadays, the process continues to be artisanal: first the fresh shrimp is cooked in salt water, then it’s sun-dried on cardboard for a day and stored in a ventilated container much like a shoe-box – you can keep dried shrimp for up to a year.

Dried shrimp became a successful commercial product, which was consumed regionally and also exported all the way to the United States in special palm-leaf containers called “Barcinas”. The dried shrimp was placed in cotton bags, covered with palm leaves and knotted tightly with rope. The bright red-white-green rope pattern indicated it was a Mexican product. Today you can only find artisans in Escuinapa, Sinaloa who still use this technique.

Where can you get this delicacy? Surprisingly, Mazatlan and the south of Sinaloa are one of the few regions in Mexico where dried shrimp is being produced. You can find vendors dotted along the highway from Mazatlan to Tepic, especially around the town Escuinapa, waiving their bags with produce to cars driving by. Don’t fancy to drive that far? You can pick up a bag or two at Las Changueras shrimp market or at the Pino Suarez market in downtown Centro.

How should you eat dried shrimp? There are several ways that locals enjoy this savory snack. First of all it’s popular snack to dip in Valentina hot sauce, especially tasty with beer. The salty- jerky flavor is perfect to keep up your salt intake during the tropical summer months. Pick the pink-colored shrimp which are semi-cured and easier to eat. Another option is to use the dried shrimp as the base for a shrimp stock with plenty of veggies. Choose the yellow-colored shrimp that are aged and have more flavor. You can also find dried shrimp in ceviches, usually combined with raw and cooked shrimp. It’s known as the “shrimp trilogy”.

Wanting a fun food gift for your family? Look no further, because dried shrimp is used for that too. Most Mexican families will bring home an edible gift after the beach vacation in Mazatlan. Since it’s hard to find in other cities (or very expensive), it is much appreciated.

[ If you’re ready to learn more about Mazatlan’s culinary scene, make sure to contact me at flavorteller@gmail.com and save your seats for one of the Flavor Teller food tours.]

The Flavor Teller Shines a spotlight on tamales.

By Maaike Hoekstra, owner and founder of Mazatlan’s original street food tour, Flavor Teller.

“Para todo mal tamal, para todo bien… también! Translation: if things go wrong, have a tamale and if things go well… also have one!”

It’s the perfect ‘energy bar’ with its spongy corn dough, savory filling, wrapped in corn husk or banana leaves. Luckily, tamales are available all year round. But if you ask which celebration is connected to tamales, most people think it is Christmas or New Year’s Eve. True fact – most Mexican households will only make tamales during the holiday season when there is an army of family members (mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces) who can pitch in with the preparation. But there is a one day a year where tamales are the mandatory meal, which is Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd.

Dia de la Candelaria celebrates the presentation of baby Jesus in the temple, which is 40 days after Christmas. This day is linked to a previous celebration, which is Dia de Reyes (Three Kings Day) on January 6th. On Dia de Reyes Mexican children traditionally receive their gifts from the three kings, although nowadays many families give gifts on December 25th. Apart of the presents you share a ring-shaped bread called Rosca de Reyes. The person, who finds baby Jesus in their slice of bread, has to offer tamales on February 2nd. To keep up with this culinary tradition, here are some local favorite options.

sweet pineapple tamales

Tamal de Elote/Piña

These corn or pineapple tamales have a sweet flavor (yes sweet tamales are also a thing!) and they are typically served as a side dish with a Sinaloa-style breakfast. The other essentials are Machaca shredded beef and Rajas poblano peppers in sour cream sauce. Tamales de Elote are made with freshly ground corn kernels, contrary to savory tamales which are made with Masa corn dough.

The most traditional location to buy sweet corn tamales is Tamales La Cuchillita. It’s located on Av. Juan Carrasco 317, one block before the intersection with Aquiles Serdan street. The unmistakable green cabin has been the favorite tamale shop for generations of Mazatlecos. Opening hours: 12-3 p.m. arrive early because choices are limited: sweet corn, pineapple or poblano pepper. Don’t let its unassuming appearance fool you though: fantastic flavors hide inside!

Tamal de camaron

Shrimp capital of Latin America, it should come as no surprise that Mazatlan has great shrimp tamales. The original shrimp tamales come from Escuinapa, where unpeeled shrimp is added to the corn dough, hence its name tamales barbones or bearded tamales. However in Mazatlan, shrimp tamales are made with peeled shrimp.

The Masa corn dough used for savory tamales is the same as used for tortillas. Most tamales shops will specifically look for authentic corn dough, made from dry corn instead of instant corn flour.

typical pork tamales

What if you’re allergic to shrimp, or if you are not in the mood for sweet tamales? Don’t despair because you can also buy beef, chicken, pork and vegetable tamales or bright-red tamales colorados. And if you’re lucky, you might see street carts selling Oaxacan tamales steamed in banana leaves. Hungry already? Score your savory tamales at these spots:

  • MazTamales – Benito Juarez street 1308, Centro, or look for their booth at the Pino Suarez market. Phone number 985 3244. Opening hours: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • Tamales Doña Lety – Justo Sierra 17, diagonally across from the baseball stadium’s ticket booths. Phone number 6683695. Opening hours: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

P.S. It’s one tamale, two tamales.

The Flavor Teller Shines a spotlight on – Cornish pasties or pastes. A traditional Cornwall snack that was introduced to Mexico by the British miners  in the 1800s.

By Maaike Hoekstra [ Maaike is the founder and owner of Mazatlan’s street food tour, Flavor Teller.]

Migration has been part of the history of mankind going back until prehistoric times. And with migration each group, tribe or people brought with them their cultural heritage: language, music and culinary roots. Nowadays any country is a melting pot of different immigrant traditions. Sometimes you don’t even realize some traditions weren’t ‘local’ a few centuries or decades ago. How about traditional ‘Banda’ music in Mazatlan? The German immigrants brought their brass instruments to Mazatlan in the 19th century and it transformed into a mix of German Oompah music with drums. It makes you wonder: what does ‘local’ really mean?

Two years ago a regional specialty from Hidalgo state has migrated to Mazatlan (don’t you just love migration?). They’re called ‘Pastes’, similar to the famous pasties so popular in Cornwall, England. A paste is a savory pastry that can have different fillings. The most traditional flavor is potatoes and minced meat, but you can also find apples, pineapple, rice pudding or traditional Mexican ingredients like chicken Tingaor Oaxacan Mole.

The paste has its roots in the Cornish pastie introduced by the miners and builders from the British city Cornwall who were contracted to work in the mines of Pachuca and Real del Monte in Hidalgo state in the 1830s. These cities were also the gateway through which soccer and tennis entered Mexico.

The Cornish miners brought their pasties into the mines, because they would stay warm. The rim of the pasty, known as ‘la trencita’ or braid, was the grip to hold the pasty; because there wasn’t anywhere the men could wash their hands. Obviously, ‘la trencita’ was discarded.

Now what’s the difference between an empanada and a paste? The essential difference is that the ingredients for a paste should be uncooked before baking.

Where can you find these scrumptious snacks in Mazatlan? You can find them at Pastes El Pachukoon Teniente Azueta street downtown, in front of Dulceria Valdez. Or another option is Pastes Rinoon Aquiles Serdan street downtown, half a block from Pino Suarez market or at the food court of Plaza Ley del Mar. Make sure to try them all and discover your favorite flavor!

[If you’re ready to learn more about Mazatlan’s culinary scene, make sure to contact Maaike Hoekstra at flavorteller@gmail.com and save your seats for one of the Flavor Teller food tours.]