Cooking Like a Mexican
BY ALEJANDRA BORBOLLA
I believe stews are as old as time, and in Mexican cooking, we have quite a few that warm our hearts and bellies. Nothing is how it was and food has evolved. Before the Spanish came, cooking was quite different from what happens in a Mexican kitchen now. There were ceremonial stews like pozole, party stews like sopa de Piedra, funeral stews like (a type of) mole and so on. In most of the cultures I have had a chance of interacting with, there is a common dish – some type of stew or soup that is beautifully traditional and emblematic.
In Mexico, since there are more than 6 culinary regions, we can’t say there’s an absolute winner when it comes to a staple dish. Many dishes have a variation from one state to another, and birria is one of those tricky ones.
Thanks to social media, a lot of Mexican dishes have become famous. Birria is one of them. Full disclosure: I did not like birria up until a year ago and refused to eat it anywhere. There was just something about the smell that did not appeal to me, and there are very few things I will not eat.
Birria originates right at the center of the state of Jalisco, in the town of Cocula, located northwest of Lake Chapala, and southwest of Guadalajara. After the Spanish came, some newly introduced animals were well accepted by those who lived in Mexico at the time. Favorite among them were pigs, which soon became a staple, and were raised by many. But not all new farm animals had the same acceptance as pigs, chickens, and cattle. This was the case for goats, or as we call them here in Mexico, “chivos”. Goats became a real nuisance to the inhabitants of this land. They bred quickly and caused devastation to crops and land. Herds ate everything in their path, including the field crops and seedbeds of the indigenous peoples. Remember, back then, paddocks and fencing didn’t exist. Before the conquest, no large farm animal roamed these parts, and to a large extent, the increased goat population was an indirect cause of the famine suffered by so many native Mexicans.
During this time of famine, the locals began using goats for meat. And just like that, the first “birriero” (birria maker) was born.
Goat meat is very tough and has a strong “animal” taste, especially the meat of older goats. To counteract the strong taste and smell of the meat, they began adding different kinds of herbs and fragrant spices that contributed to the flavoring. In addition, by cooking it in the earth or in kilns, they helped soften the meat, making it so much tastier.
From the beginning, Cocula, Jalisco is considered the birthplace of the dish we now call “birria.” The tradition of the “birriero” families continues to this day, all with their unique recipe and style, which gives birria its distinct and delicious flavor.
The magic in this dish lies in its spices, and all of them are equally important for the perfect balance but I find chiles very fascinating. Chiles (Capsicum spp.) have been cultivated in Mexico for centuries and are a vital ingredient in Mexico’s traditional cuisine, recently recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Spicy chiles also have numerous medicinal uses. Graphical representations of chiles have even been used as a national symbol. Evidence for chiles in the diet of indigenous groups in Puebla’s Tehuacán Valley dates back at least as far as 6500BC; by 4100BC, the plant was already domesticated.
There are more than 100 varieties of chiles, grouped into 22 groups of green chiles and 12 dried chiles. Green chiles are by far the most important in volume and value of production and trade. Mexico remains the world’s leading exporter of green chiles and is the sixth-largest exporter of dried chiles.
One thing that blows my mind is how the same chile can be named differently if it’s fresh or dry. For example, jalapeños when dried become chipotles. I bet your mind is blown. And it happens with pretty much every single chile we have.
Birria has 4 different types of chiles and cannot be made with fresh chiles, but all chiles in birria can be tamed down by removing the veins and seeds for a milder kick. Birria is a spicy dish, but not picante. It’s not the same. Spicy as in spices and flavor, not picante as in sticking-your-tongue-out-sweating while eating. The dried chiles give it that special smokey taste.
Before we start, I’d like to give some tips.
— Birria can be made with beef, pork, goat, lamb or even chicken. The one I’ve had is beef or goat, but it can be made with any combination of the above-mentioned.
— Birria is often eaten in tacos, not as a stew. If you want “caldo” (liquid) add an extra 6 cups of water to the sauce, starting with four and tasting how thick and rich you’d like it.
— Birria tatemada is when the shredded meat is “toasted” on a skillet with some lard or charred on a Comal.
Let’s get it started!
- 2 lb. of meat (beef, goat or lamb) It can be beef tail or rump roast, beef cheek, round or whatever the equivalent is in lamb or goat. Ribs are also recommended.
- 3 ancho chiles
- 6 guajillo chiles
- 5 morita chiles
- 4 cascabel chiles
- 2 large tomatoes, roasted
- 4 garlic cloves
- ½ teaspoon of cumin
- ½ teaspoon of whole black pepper
- ½ teaspoon of marjoram
- ½ teaspoon of oregano
- ½ teaspoon of thyme
- 4 cloves
- ½ onion, sliced
- 1 inch of a cinnamon stick
- 1 cup of pulque (can be substituted with ½ cup of white vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup of finely chopped cilantro
- 1 cup of finely chopped onions
- Lime wedges
- Season protein with salt and pepper and place in a large bake-safe container.
- Clean the chiles (open and remove veins and seeds) and lightly toast them over mild heat, making sure you don’t burn them. Burnt chiles will result in a bitter taste.
- Soak the toasted chiles in a cup of hot water for twenty minutes.
- Roast the garlic and onion on a Comal or a skillet with no oil until lightly charred.
- Toast the rest of the spices.
- In a blender, add the chiles, spices, tomatoes, herbs, cinnamon and vinegar or pulque.
- Blend until smooth adding a spoonful of water at a time, only enough to let the blender do its job. Season with salt.
- Pour the sauce on the meat, making sure it is completely covered, cover with aluminum foil and let it rest overnight.
- Preheat your oven to 350ºF and bake for four hours until tender.
- Serve in bowls and distribute broth accordingly. Remember to add more water before the last hour if you want this to have more liquid to sip on.
- This can also be made in a rice cooker or an express pot. Modify the cooking times to your preference.
- When serving, you can dip your tortillas in the broth and cook them in the comal for extra taste or make some quesadillas! Some people like to dip their tacos or quesadillas in more broth and then take a bite.
That’s it! Enjoy! Crack open a Corona. Let me know what you think. email@example.com