In 1980, near the end of my first Summer season with the Sinfonica de Minería, I visited my friends from music school, Tom and Mary. They had also recently moved to Mexico with positions in a small orchestra in Guadalajara (the country’s second largest city) and had landed there pretty much the same time I’d arrived in Mexico City.
The three of us were walking down the street when we passed by a restaurant which featured a large picture in the window of one of the most beautiful – and certainly unusual – plates of food I had ever seen. Tom and Mary kept on walking but this photo stopped me dead in my tracks. I yelled out to them, “Hey guys, ‘mawm back. Do y’all know WHAT THIS is?!?” The three of us stared at it in silence for several seconds before one of them uttered, “…I THINK it’s a Guadalajara style enchilada, or something.”
It wasn’t, of course, but hey: at the time México was still equally new to them, too. No matter, as that answer worked FOR ME just fine, and for well over a dozen years. It wasn’t until the mid ‘90s, when Shirley ordered Chiles en Nogada for the first time at a Salt Lake Mexican restaurant, that I recognized it once the waiter put the plate down in front of her. “Hey, I didn’t recall you ordering an enchilada,” I blurted out. “It’s not, the menu said it’s called Chiles en Nogada – here, have a taste,” she said.
It didn’t taste anything like an enchilada, either. And though the flavor was complex, it wasn’t at all picante (spicy hot). I was stunned, but decided to say nothing of just how stupid I felt at that moment.
Chiles en Nogada is served largely in central Mexico in August and September when all the ingredients are in season, and indeed I had first seen that sign touting it in late August. It’s also considered a very patriotic dish, not only because Independence Day (Sept 16) falls within its seasonal parameters, but because the ingredients give the dish the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green, making it VERY popular around the National Holiday.
Its name comes from the Spanish word for the walnut tree: Nogal. Traditionally served at room temperature, it consists of poblano chiles filled with ‘picadillo’ (a mixture of ground meat, fruits, aromatics and spices) and topped both with a smooth walnut based cream sauce and red pomegranate seeds. The flavor is complex without being spicy, and neither does the poblano impart that funky flavor associated with a green bell pepper (which Shirley detests, by the way).
Originating in Puebla, the dish is also prominent in Mexico food history. It was prepared the first time for General Agustín de Iturbide when he visited the city after quashing the Spanish in their final battle for independence and signing the Treaty of Independence in Veracruz.
Shirley and I had our subsequent rendezvous with Chiles en Nogada two weeks ago at an iconic downtown restaurant, El Cardenal, which is also known citywide for this specialty.
A couple of testaments to its popularity: While waiting outside for a table, I said to Shirley, “I wonder if El Cardenal ever runs short of pomegranate seeds in the middle of the day, this time of year.” Three minutes later we spotted a gal hauling them in through the front door, gingerly balancing a tower of four or five enormous plastic bags.
Then, as we were led to our table, we passed by a large birthday party of thirty or so and everyone in the group (plus most of the rest of the diners) were digging into their colorful chiles with gusto. After we were seated Shirley happily ordered her beautiful Chiles en Nogada; and as for me, I ordered the Chamorro (pork shank).