La Navidad Poblana: A Taste of Christmas in Mexico
Want to celebrate the season deliciously? Puebla, Mexico, has turned Christmas into a culinary art form.
It’s no secret: the holidays revolve around food. And nowhere does that culinary focus taste better than in Puebla, Mexico, birthplace of dozens of the country’s iconic dishes. “The food in Puebla, as it is in the whole country, is our identity, and a symbol of family unity, from the start of the cooking to the food itself to after after the meal” says chef Liz Galicia, from restaurant El Mural de los Poblanos, a local favorite that serves classic Puebla cuisine in an elegant, mural-lined courtyard. It’s located just off the main square, or Zócalo, which comes alive this time of year with festive lights and candlelight processions leading up to Christmas.
In Puebla, Christmas dinner consists of several key traditional dishes, and occurs on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve—sometimes even after Misa de Gallo midnight mass. “The recipes are passed from generation to generation, and every family has their own seasoning and secrets,” says Galicia.
The signature dish is the Christmas turkey, often stuffed with ground meat, olives, and dried fruits, though an array of other seasonal dishes often joins it, such as tamales or chipotles navideños, deep-fried peppers stuffed with cheese.
Galicia says that her family makes traditional plates like ayocotes refritos (refried butter beans), but what she likes best is the bacalao a la vizcaína, a Basque-style cod recipe that is served throughout Mexico during Noche Buena.
“I remember my great-grandmother making it,” she says. “It was dry, and we ate it with a torta de agua [roll]. I always add a Christmas chipotle in my recipe.”
Another holiday mainstay is romeritos en mole con camarón, which features quelites (wild seepweed greens), shrimp patties, potatoes and mole—the famous chocolate-chili sauce that originated in Puebla in the 17th century. (Legend has it that, after learning the Archbishop would be visiting, the nuns of a local convent prayed for inspiration, and an angel brought them a recipe with some twenty different ingredients, including mulato, pasilla, and ancho chilies; nuts; bread crumbs; and chocolate.) Chef Daniel Nates, whose contemporary Puebla restaurant Maizal experiments with ingredients native to the region, calls romeritos his “favorite dish during the holiday season… We think of it as a dish of both the land and the sea that’s very representative of our culinary culture.”
Come December, Puebla’s street vendors change their wares, too, offering three seasonal, hot beverages. Stalls around the city sell atole, a creamy corn and masa drink infused with cinnamon and vanilla, that dates to pre-Columbian times.
In addition, says Galicia, “once the sugarcane and the tejocotes [a native crabapple look-alike, but sweeter] appear in the market, they begin to make ponche.” The punch combines New World fruits—including the tejocote and guyaba—with apples and oranges brought from the Old World. Poblanos brew them with unrefined cane sugar, hibiscus flowers, cinnamon and other spices before serving the hot blend out of clay jars with chunks of fruit and, sometimes, rum. “It is the drink we use to keep us warm during this time of year,” she says. “It can even supplant coffee during celebrations and December gatherings.”
The final hot drink is rompope, a Poblano version of eggnog that originated in colonial Puebla’s Convent of Santa Clara and can now be found across Mexico. The sweet, usually homemade egg-based liqueur gets a local spin with the addition of crushed almonds, chocolate, or pine nuts along with the typical vanilla and cinnamon. It also shows up in winter desserts, like syrupy peaches or corn bread. “It’s a drink that transcends our culture that we’ve adapted to our palate,” says Nates.
Every season, the Maizal chef also makes a dessert called the Bosque Poblano. It contains wild mushroom mousse, wild blackberries, apple granita and a cake made with an infusion of pine needles from trees on Popocatepetl volcano, which hovers over the city. In typical Poblano fashion, it combines sweet and savory. Why does Nates make it year after year? “You can smell the flavors of Christmas in this dish.”
El Mural de los Poblanos: Calle 16 de Septiembre 506, Centro; +52 222-225-0650
Maizal: Molino de Monserrat 9, Fraccionamiento Fuentes del Molino; +52 222-239-4134