Chiles en nogada: a national dish with a history
Over the Independence of Mexico weekend, we were invited to a celebration. Chef Vanessa Dominguez was in charge of the meal, and she prepared the iconic September dish—Chiles en Nogada.
She also gave a lecture, explaining the origins of the dish, as well as Mexican cuisine in general. The food of Mexico is a mingling of many cultures, a fusion of ingredients the indigenous people used for their meals, and the food that the European conquerors brought to this land. It is an amazing combination of ancient, native ingredients with the spices and techniques of Spaniards—whose cuisine was already a mix of Arabic dishes, as well as those of other European and Asian foods. The result is a rich, and unique blend of ingredients unlike anything, anywhere else.
When the Spaniards came to Mexico—which they named New Spain, they found a wide range of edible plants that they had never seen before. The tomato, potatoes, and corn, are the ones we are most familiar with. But there were so many other natural products. Camote, mesquite, xoconostle, achiote, quelites, huazontle, coyametl, and huitlacoche, are just some of these. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Salvador Novo, and Hernan Cortez himself, wrote about the new discoveries in their chronicles. Over time, as the Spaniards populated these lands, they began using many of these newfound foodstuffs, integrating them into new variations of Spanish dishes, or changing the native dishes with the addition of European spices and techniques. The resulting cuisine has become a meld of all these, just as the people of Mexico themselves, are a mix of European and Indigenous.
A prime example of such a mingling is the Chiles en Nogada, and it was this we had the pleasure to have as a main course for our meal. A combination of tart, sweet, savory, and spicy all in one.
The dish is considered part of Mexico’s celebration of Independence during the month of September. Oral history claims that it was invented as part of the festivities in 1821, to honor the nation’s freedom; incorporating the three colors of the Mexican flag—red, green, and white. There is some truth to this, but it’s not quite as simple as that. First of all, chiles en nogada existed as a dish since 1714. However, it was a dessert, filled with fruit, and eaten after dinner or supper. Originally, there was no meat filling, something that has become traditional now.
When Agustin Iturbide rode triumphantly into Puebla, following defeat of the Royal forces of Spain, the nuns at the Santa Monica convent offered him a banquet. It was a fourteen course dinner, with the star dessert being Chiles en Nogada. The nuns however, decided to incorporate the three colors of the newly independent nation. The green, in the chile poblano; the white, in the nogada (walnut sauce); and the red, in the pomegranate seeds that embellish the top of the dish. Over the centuries, the dish became more complex, incorporating meat filling, and it turned into a main dish rather than dessert.
Chiles en nogada is a complex dish, with a variety of ingredients, many steps, and complicated assembly. It is not something for which one can simply follow a recipe. It takes an experienced cook, who would guide you step by step. And you would have to dedicate a good part of a day to complete it. Just a list of ingredients tells you how complex it is. The base is the poblano chile, stuffed with different meats—it could be a mix of pork, beef, or chicken—the preparation of which is time consuming. Then there are apples, pears, walnuts, and parsley that are incorporated into the stuffing, in addition to seasoning. The sauce is prepared separately, and ladled over the stuffed poblanos, with finally a sprinkling of the red pomegranate seeds.
The dish is very attractive, and a meal in itself. At the dinner we attended, we had appetizers, as Vanessa charmed us with a brief culinary history of Mexico. Then, she dished out the chiles en nogada, and we all sat down to enjoy them. When the meal was complete, it was followed by many shots of tequila. Viva Mexico!
If you are interested in learning how to cook Chiles en Nogada, or any other traditional dishes, I recommend you reach out to Vanessa Dominguez. She is an accomplished chef, a traditional Mexican food historian, and a charming and warm individual.
You may contact her at 553-228-8951 for additional information.