Cooking Like a Mexican

Torta ahogada
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Readers, I am going to be honest with you: I am not picky at all with ingredients and flavors, but when it comes to textures, I lose my cool. One of the textures I have not been very fond of since I was a kid is mushy, although I am now slowly learning to like it.

The fact that some dishes change their consistency from the kitchen to the table used to be dreadful to me until in a recent trip to Guadalajara (the birthplace of tequila) where I was proven wrong. There’s a type of torta, what you Gringos call a sandwich, that is called a “drowned” torta, the torta ahogada. This, my friends, is said to be the most iconic dish in the state of Jalisco, one that goes perfectly with a cold Mexican beer. This is often eaten as a hangover dish, but it was originally created to satisfy a hungry stomach.

tortaah.JPGThis story of how the torta ahogada came to be starts at the beginning of the last century, when a hungry laborer came home to find only a stale piece of bread, some refried beans, pork leftovers and runny tomato sauce that was probably meant for a salsa. The starving fellow put the ingredients together, satisfied his hunger and was so pleased with the result that he begged his wife to give him the recipe for her salsa, which is the star of this dish.

One thing that must be noted for this recipe is that the bread traditionally used is a special kind of bread called birote, only made in Jalisco. The climate and altitude there give the bread a unique taste and texture that can’t be replicated elsewhere. This bread was made to last a long time, but it would become stale pretty fast so the torta ahogada was the perfect solution; soak the stale bread in sauce and it becomes more edible before it turns mushy.

As for the torta’s salsa, well, there are about as many different recipes for salsas as there are stars in the sky. The recipe I give you in this column is one of the most common. The main ingredient here is the tomato. This fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) originated in Mexico. The Spanish got so used to its flavor that they took the tomato back to Europe when they left Mexico. Tomatoes got to Europe in the sixteenth century, and they were not very welcomed at first. Europeans were quite skeptical because of its sour taste and yellowish red color. It was considered either poisonous or an aphrodisiac, so women were banned from cooking or eating it.

However, from the seventeenth century on, Spanish monks started introducing it in their recipes since it was cheap and could help stretch the dish. And during the nineteenth century, a brilliant Italian man made a little something now known as tomato sauce and cooking was never the same. Tomatoes were then incorporated in Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Lebanese and Arab cuisines. Therefore, tomatoes were Mexico’s gift to the world. You’re welcome.

The Mexican-Spanish word jitomate is only applied to tomatoes in the country’s central area; it is known as tomate in the rest of Mexico, as well as in other Spanish-speaking nations. Sinaloa is Mexico’s largest tomato producer in the North Pacific Region; tomatoes are produced to a lesser extent in the Central Pacific (Jalisco and Nayarit) and in the Central Highlands (Morelos, Tlaxcala and Mexico City).

But back to the torta ahogada. My first tip is to eat it as soon as it’s served, so you don’t end up with a plate of mush. And have a spoon handy because things will get quite messy. Warning: If you go to a place where tortas ahogadas are served, take into consideration that “ahogada” means the whole piece of bread will be soaked in spicy hot salsa, while half “ahogada” means only half of the bread will be soaked in the spicy salsa. But either way, the whole thing is also covered with non-spicy tomato sauce (we still call it salsa, but I don’t want you Gringos getting confused). If you have a weak stomach, remember this unless you want a fiery trip to the toilet later.

One other note: Since you won’t be able to find birote bread, look for loaves of bolillo bread instead. They are short, crusty loaves of bread. 

Ingredients:

8 pieces day-old bolillo bread

1 pound of braised pork

1 cup refried beans (these can come straight from the can, as you only need little to smear on the bread)

7 tomatoes

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

1 spoonful of oregano

1 or 2 dried chilis de arbol (these come in a bag, and are usually found in the same aisle as salad dressing)

1 cup of water

½ cup white vinegar

Preparation:

1.      Boil the tomatoes, onion and garlic together. Once that's cooked, add the oregano and strain. Keep warm. This is your non-spicy tomato sauce.

2.      Roast the chilies in a dry skillet, then blend with the vinegar, water and salt. Set aside. This is your spicy salsa.

3.      Warm up the braised pork and the beans separately.

4.      Cut the bread loaves in half, smear them with beans and stuff them with pork.

5.      Place the torta is a deep-ish dish (so all the sauce makes a little pool around it) and "drown" it in the tomato sauce.

6.      Thinly slice some onions, and add some lime and a little oregano for topping.

7.      Put the spicy sauce on the table for any brave folks out there.

Pretty simple, huh? I told you I would give you the basic recipe. Some people will see this and say that it’s nothing like what their abuelitas make, but that’s because there are so many variations to the recipe. Remember everyone has their own take on things, and especially when it comes to Mexican food.

Until next time, readers. If there’s anything you’d like me to know, or any questions or suggestions you have, email me at ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com.