The Gringo’s Guide to Traditional Holiday Food and Drink in México
The holiday season is a great time to visit Los Cabos, not only because the temperatures are apt to be significantly warmer than they are in…mmm, pretty much anywhere in the United States or Canada…but also because this period, perhaps more than any other, offers a fascinating glimpse into the customs and practices that underpin México’s traditional, predominantly Catholic culture.
There are also, as one would expect, plenty of opportunities to indulge in delicious Holiday themed food and drink.
When I say plenty, understand that the Christmas season is much longer in México than it is in the U.S., and that its festive occurrences include many holidays not generally celebrated by its northern neighbor. In fact, the month-long period between December 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and January 6, which honors the Three Wise Men, is so filled with family occasions and voluminous food and drink that it is only half-jokingly referred to by Mexicans as the Maratón Guadalupe–Reyes. And that’s not even the end of the season. The festivities continue on into February.
The Posadas are one of the great December traditions, and for most are the true start to the season. This nine-day observance stretches from December 16 to Christmas Eve, and remembers the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In mainland México, las Posadas are often celebrated with candlelit processions and reenactments of the couple’s search for shelter each night (posada means inn in Spanish). In Los Cabos, the term mainly refer to the holiday parties thrown by local companies. Each business typically has its own “Posada,” a get-together either at a bar or restaurant, or aboard one of the local party boats.
This period is the perfect time to get acquainted with the country’s many seasonal beverages, which range from atole and rompope to Noche Buena and Ponche Navideño.
Each has its strong points.
Atole is a bit of an old-fashioned treat, not surprising when you consider it has been around since the days of the Aztecs. The name, in fact, comes from the Nahuatl word atolli. It’s a traditional (and excellent) pairing with tamales, and many area tamale vendors also serve atole when the weather gets a little chillier (relatively speaking). Atole‘s creamy consistency comes from one of its primary ingredients: masa, or corn dough. The taste, however, owes more to milk, vanilla, brown sugar, and cinnamon. It’s a holiday staple and may be found in a number of different versions, the most popular of which is champurrado. Champurrado is basically chocolate-flavored atole, and it is almost as fun to say as it is to drink, particularly if you are adept at rolling your r’s. Both champurrado and Mexican hot chocolate pair well with churros, delicious fried pastries with a name that also rolls trippingly off the tongue.
Rompope is a rum-based, eggnog-style drink that is widely available throughout the year, but reaches its zenith of popularity during the holiday season. Legend has it that rompope was first made in México by nuns at Puebla’s Convento de Santa Clara in the 17th century. Perhaps because of the legend, and perhaps because of its delightful qualities, Santa Clara remains one of the best-selling brands of rompope, with vanilla and walnut among the most common flavors. In 2011, my friend Perla and I co-invented a shot called the Monjita (or Little Nun), in which a teaspoon of Kahlua is floated on a chilled two ounce jigger of rompope. Consider that my Christmas gift to the world, since for the past five years the recipe and measurements have been a closely held secret. It’s delicious.
For the linguistically challenged, Ponche Navideño means Christmas punch. It seems like almost every culture has a fruit punch for the holiday season. In Europe, mulled wines and ciders, and brandy laced punches are popular. In México, the alcohol is typically added later, ensuring a much more family-friendly concoction. In addition to the usual suspects—fruits and sugar—the Mexican version is also distinguished by the presence of tejocotes, an indigenous fruit that comes from the hawthorn tree. Ate de Tejocote, by the way, is an excellent seasonal fruit spread, a rectangular shaped gelée that pairs perfectly with cheese and crackers. If you invite me to a New Year’s Eve party, this is almost certainly what I will bring. Just saying…
Nochebuena has three meanings: it’s the Spanish word for Christmas Eve; it’s the official name of the poinsettia plant; and, split into two words, it’s the name of Mexico’s finest seasonal beer. The latter is available annually from October through December, and has been since 1924, when it was first offered by Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma in Monterrey. Nowadays, Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma is a subsidiary of Heineken, and it’s not uncommon to see the dark, bock-style beer on U.S. shelves. Despite the pull of international commerce, however, Noche Buena remains a traditional holiday treat in its homeland, where it is appreciated for its full body and spicy hops. Noche Buena is immediately identifiable in local groceries by the seasonal red and green colored poinsettia flowers on the label.
Nochebuena is the feast day to end all feast days. The birth of Jesus is celebrated at midnight–okay, technically it is Christmas at this point–and most families will then attend mass before having a large dinner and opening gifts. Two items traditionally served on this night are bacalao and romeritos. The former is salted cod, often prepared as a stew with chilies, tomatoes, onions, olives and other ingredients. Romeritos are a wild plant that grows in the Valley of México, one whose flavor is brought out by the addition of nopales, shrimp, peppers and mole sauce, among other things. Actually, everything is better with mole, a chocolate sweetened sauce that harks back at least to the early days of the Spanish colonial period. Romeritos should not be confused with rosemary. They are not the same thing.
Upon waking after this feast, Christmas Day is largely given over to leftovers, or recalentado.
For visitors, many area restaurants feature special dinner menus for Christmas, with U.S. style holiday favorites. I have to be honest, though: bacalao and romeritos beat ham and fixings any day. Ingratiate yourself with locals as necessary.
New Year’s Eve
Ringing in the New Year is just as festive an activity south of the border as it is in the U.S. Maybe more so, since in addition to Champagne (the Spanish version is effervescent Cava) and fireworks, there are also some fascinating cultural traditions. My favorite involves grapes (uvas). The idea is to eat twelve of them between midnight and the twelfth toll of the clock bells, thus ensuring good fortune for each of the twelve months of the New Year. This tradition is said to stretch all the way back to Spain, and in México certainly dates to the time of colonial rule. Other traditions seem to be of a more recent vintage. The one about the underwear, for instance.
It is claimed by some that people can achieve their dreams for the New Year by wearing the correct color of undergarment on New Year’s Eve: red for love, green for money, yellow for happiness, etc. There is yet another tradition that involves carrying a suitcase for good luck with travel, but by this point you’ll be busy with the fireworks show over Médano Beach in Cabo San Lucas. It’s spectacular, and many visitors will choose to have dinner and drinks at one of the beachfront restaurants, staying until the fireworks show is over. For locals, however, New Year’s Eve is typically a time of smaller get-togethers featuring a large dinner with family or friends. And one needn’t travel to see fireworks. Children will be setting them off all over the neighborhood.
New Year’s Day, like Christmas, is dedicated to recalentado.
El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos
Everyone knows the Three Wise Men–Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar–who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Did someone say gifts? Although January 6 is little celebrated in the U.S., in México it’s like a second Christmas Eve, with more eating, more drinking and more gifts for children. The signature food for this holiday is a special bread called Rosca de Reyes, which is available at any local panadería. At least one, and usually several small plastic figures of the baby Jesus are baked into the bread, and the first person to find one is then expected to make or buy the tamales for the party on Candlemas on February 2.
Enjoy the tamales. There is never a bad time to eat these corn husk or banana leaf wrapped treats, but it is particularly traditional on Candlemas, which commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and the 40th day since his birth on Christmas. A tip for my fellow gringos: tamal is singular, tamales is plural.
Afterwards, I recommend a long nap; and maybe a diet, too.