Cooking Like A Mexican

Tumbada, a dish that is now traditional but started 100 years ago as an accident of tossing available food together.
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

This typical dish from the coast of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico in the southeastern region, is kind of between a paella, a risotto and a rice stew. This hearty meal has seafood and fish, and the original recipe has an interesting story among “jarochos” (that’s what people from Veracruz are called).

At the beginning of the century, the fishermen would travel the Veracruz Riviera looking for fish, crab, and shellfish. The story says a crew found a sweet spot around the Blanco river, which is near the Alvarado settlement, and they would use a combination of nets and knives to get the products they needed. These further excursions were called “de Nevada” which roughly translates to “snowy”, because they could sometimes find ice while exploring the waters, which helped them preserve their catch for a longer time and therefore allowed them to go on longer fishing trips without the risk of the catch going bad.

The owner of the boat would include a basic food pack for the crew to survive on. This would include coffee, sugar, salt, rice, tobacco, crackers, and a jug of 96 proof alcohol. All I could find in English was ethanol, but please do not take my word and go drinking it. Remember, this is olden times. (Long time ago, Mexican pharmacies would sell alcohol with a red cap and with a blue cap. One of those two was safe to drink, and I can’t remember which one was which, but I’m still alive. Part of the reason for the owner to allow booze was that it kept the crew warm when they mixed it with whatever fruit they could find. We now know you should not drink when you are out in the cold elements.

The cook  had to find the timber to make a fire along the river. The cooking utensils were limited; the only pot they had was a four gallon can where pork lard had been stored.

Everything was well and fine while the first one to prepare this meal selected the seafood and started the preparation for the feast to be ready when his mates came from the early catch. The can was not completely empty, as it had lard remains which started sizzling. He threw in the rice and it started frying. Before stirring, he threw the seafood in with the rice. He knew the rice and seafood weren't going to be enough for the men to eat, so he poured in water without measuring, just as long as the food didn’t burn. He topped off the can with water and left it to cook over the fire, while he sat nearby.

This cook realized the contents of the can were starting to boil and was threatening to boil over. At this point, the star of our story quickly grabbed his stirring stick and tasted it. He realized he did not season his creation with salt, and he threw in a handful. He went back to his seat by the side of the can. After it boiled again, he tasted it and realized it now tasted too salty. He then tossed in some more water in hopes to un-salt the meal before his mates came around. Right after he did this, he heard the crew coming and realized he hadn’t made the alcoholic beverage for them. He decided to leave the rice and started mixing the drink.

Moments later, his mates, cold, wet and hungry, complained to him because he had no food ready. The cook cleverly replied right there! The crew saw a stewy mushy whatever in the can and got angry and turned up their noses at it. He explained it was “arroz a la tumbada” pulling the name from a slang word for “carelessly tossing.” They were expecting regular dry rice, but their hunger made them settle for what appeared to them to be a  strange meal. The cook was expecting a bunch of angry reactions to what he had so carelessly made, but the fishermen were quite pleased. Much like many other Mexican recipes, this was an accident. An accident of tumbada, tossing ingredients in a pot helter-skelter.

Ingredients

2 cups of long grain rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

10 cups of hot fish broth or water

½ cup white onion chopped

3 garlic cloves minced

2 cups tomatoes chopped

16 u/8 shrimp peeled and de-veined with tail on

½ cup cooked octopus or squid rings

4 blue crab cleaned and cut in half

1 cup mussels or small clams (whatever you like best or can find freshest)

½ cup peas

½ cup carrot, peeled and cut pea-size

¼ cup chopped cilantro

3 or 4 Serrano Chiles chopped

4 limes cut in wedges

Sea salt to taste (about 2 tablespoons)

Instructions

We will need a large sauté or paella pan about 25 inches in diameter and 4 – 5 inches deep.  You will need a lid to cover the pan.

Place the pan on medium heat and add the olive oil.  Place the rice and fry for 2 to 3 minutes until the grains are translucid on the outside and white on the inside.  Don’t mix the rice.  Gently fold the rice so it won’t break and turn mushy after cooking.

Add chopped onion and cook for another minute, then add minced garlic cook for another 30 seconds.  Add chopped tomatoes and cook for another minute.  Salt freely.

Add 4 cups of the hot fish broth or water.  Allow to come to a boil.  Taste the broth and see if it needs more salt.  It should taste a little salty since you will be adding seafood and vegetables, put on low heat and cover for 10 minutes.

Add another 2 cups of hot fish broth.  Carefully place the blue crab into the rice and cover for 5 minutes.   The broth should always be ¼ inch above the level of the rice.  Add up to two cups of broth to do so.  It is not necessary for the broth to cover the sea food.  Taste the broth.  It should be a little salty.  Also taste the rice as it should be almost cooked.

Add the rest of the seafood, carrots, and peas.  Cover the pan for 5 minutes after the broth comes to a boil again.  You may need to add more broth do so.  Again, making sure the broth is ¼ inch above the rice.  

Important: This is a soupy style of dish.  It should have liquid as you serve the dish in a bowl.  This is not like paella (only in presentation) which is much drier.

When the rice is cooked but still al dente, serve in a bowl and sprinkle with cilantro and Serrano chile. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze over the dish.