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The Problem of Translation

I try to remember everything I can about the smokiness of the pepper in the salsa. I hunt out videos in which somebody’s great-aunt explains turning the dough with the flat of your hand just so. I ask my friends who should know how exactly to get that plump texture into the recipe. Disappointingly, they tell me, “oh but that’s a hangover dish…you just grab anything you like from the fridge and shove it in.”

That’s not the memory I have of my first chilaquiles. It was morning, I was hungry, and the world was lightly spinning. Somewhere in the distance children screamed from a pool. The blazing sun glinted off the ocean to blind me. And when the waiter asked, “¿Qué le gustaría?” I pointed to the menu item which listed salsa roja, cotija, and pollo as its main ingredients.

When the meal arrived, I stared into its gold-crimson heart for a few minutes. I took a tentative bite and fell in love. I’d never had a paradise of shredded meat, herby cheese, spicy sauce, and crunchy tortilla chips. I welcomed its enthusiastic embrace. “You’re all right,” the chilaquiles said to me, “I’m here.”

When I told my friends they chuckled slyly. “Yeah,” they muttered, “it does feel like that every time.” But, I wasn’t falling for their indifference. “No,” I insisted, “you have to believe me…this particular chilaquiles was unique…amazing…you’ve never tasted anything like it before.” They looked at me with pity. “Wait til you’ve had more,” they advised.

I’ve now had chilaquiles of all varieties: with salsa verde, with fried eggs on top, with refried beans, raw onions, avocados, and even shrimp. They’ve never matched the ferocity, the loving support, the command of that first one. So I’ve tried in my reproductions to be faithful to that initial, ‘perfect’ chilaquiles. I’ve handmade the corn tortilla. I’ve marinated the chicken for hours in stewed tomatoes, guajillo chilis, and garlic. I’ve experimented with onions, and shallots, and clotted cream. None of it has netted that singular medley of flavors I’m chasing.

My circumstantial ineptitude is one of the many problems inherent in translation. I’m pursuing a myth conceived in my mind. Interpretation destines shade and variation to vanish in the process. For the work to make sense to a new audience, unaccustomed or unaware of the incongruous nuances of a certain custom, the translator must descend into generalities, must leave the idiosyncratic nature of the original to enter into the peculiarities of the audience’s culture. Individual and regional subtleties are lost to those consuming the converted text.

Attempts at authenticity must also be given up. The vague idea of authenticity is itself troublesome. Genuineness can only be in the specificity of the making. Ideas do not germinate from nothing — their threads are always woven from a multiplicity of aesthetics. Without the tomato of indigenous America there is no archetypical Italian marinara. Without the color palette of Japanese wood block prints there is no quintessential impressionist Monet.

So I give up my pipe dream. My recreation of chilaquiles will contain only a ghost of the one I had that first time in Mexico. All I can do when preparing my version is labor in humility, respecting the dish and mourning all that will vanish in my rendering. But perhaps when I serve it to family or friends who’ve never experienced chilaquiles before, they too will have that sensation of discovering unknown territory. And they’ll journey towards learning to speak the language of chilaquiles for themselves.


Serves  4 persons  Total Time: 40 minutes [Prep Time = 15 min. Cook Time = 25 minutes]


For chips:

59 mL vegetable oil (for frying)  

12 whole corn tortillas, cut into quarters

For salsa rojo*:

680 grams large red tomatoes, chopped

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic

1 medium poblano pepper, sliced

250 mL vegetable broth

10 mL vegetable oil

salt (to taste)

For chilaquiles:

15 mL crema fresca

14 grams cotija cheese

4 eggs (optional)


  1. Cut your corn tortillas into quarters. In a large skillet over medium high heat, pour ¼ cup (59 mL) of vegetable oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add a handful of the cut tortillas to the pan. Allow room for the quartered sections to cook. Flip them once they are golden brown and crisp.
  2. Fry the other side of the tortilla triangles until they are also golden brown and crisp. Take them out of the pan and set them on a rack or towel-lined platter to drain. Repeat this process for all tortilla pieces.
  3. In a blender process the chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, garlic cloves, sliced poblano pepper, and 1 cup (250 mL) of broth until a smooth sauce is created.
  4. In a large skillet heat 2 teaspoons (10 mL) of oil over medium high. Add the salsa. Stir for 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Season with salt to taste.
  5. Break the fried tortilla quarters into smaller pieces. Add the chips to the sauce and continue to cook for an additional 3 minutes.
  6. If desired fry four eggs, over easy, in a separate pan.
  7. Garnish chilaquiles with crema fresca and sprinkle with cotija cheese.
  8. Serve a portion of the chilaquiles with an optional fried egg on top. Share and enjoy!

* BT Tip: Chilaquiles derives from the Nahuatl word chīlāquilitl. It can be made with either salsa rojo or salsa verde. The version here uses salsa rojo. For added flavor, grill your whole tomatoes, onion, garlic, and poblano pepper before chopping them.


101 replies »

  1. That first time was obviously a perfect arrangement of time, place, feeling and food that made it so memorable; sorry to say that your search for another so good was always going to be doomed! But I’m sure you’ll enjoy many others in the process 🙂

  2. You just made my mouth water! Did you have the dish first in Mexico City? I will soon return to Mexico (Baja California) and I will look for chilaquiles. I don’t think I ever had them, but they sound delicious. I can’t believe you made corn tortillas by hand. Such a chore. We have made corn chips plenty of times and only once made flour tortillas, but never corn ones. And, of course, I have been preparing plenty of pico de Gallo lately, as we are on a Mexican food kick. 🙂

    • Ooh…I hope you are enjoying your Mexican food kick! Actually the first time I had chilaquiles was in the Yucatan region of Mexico. I’m excited for you to experience the dish in Baja as well! It’s such a beautiful part of Mexico and I loved the seafood there. Wishing you safe travels.

  3. Chilaquiles are quite unique. And the ones you had probably even more so. I think you can’t do it if you don’t have the corn tortillas.
    (To me they evoke chapattee) 😉

  4. I’ve tried to re-create the rich, creamy vegetable soup I ate in Paris many years ago. No luck. It was an exceptional dish, but I think now that its flavor was the product not just of a tried-and-true recipe, the lowly root vegetables, unique to their terroir, no doubt, and the skillful preparation, but also the classic bistro setting, my hunger as a young woman who had gone nonstop all day seeking out and absorbing the city’s culture; my appetite for new tastes and experiences; the particular seep-into-your-bones cold of Paris in December; my being in Europe for the first time, and there with a dear friend (who still makes me laugh like no one else)–even the soup’s presentation in a big china tureen made it unforgettable. The experience, in other words, was translated into memory with a slew of additional ingredients, and nothing in my spice cabinet can provide the seasoning to reproduce that soup.
    But there’s no harm in trying, either.

    • I so agree…it’s fascinating how the mind combines all of the senses and so much more into creating a memory of a particular time. In reality, my dish may not even have been all that great…but it is set in the archives as such due to all the things you so beautifully express in your own experience of having vegetable soup in Paris. Thank you.

  5. Oh I have similar memories – chilaquiles for breakfast in the lovely garden of a restaurant in Vallodolid. I can’t imagine trying to make them, let alone from scratch. But I was smitten by ramen and soba in Japan and couldn’t find a decent version in Vancouver restaurants so had to learn how to make my own. Like your chilaquiles it doesn’t quite match those bowls of steaming deliciousness I had in Japan, but they’re plenty good enough to fulfill the craving.

      • Oh I didn’t make the soba! There’s a store here selling Japanese products so I buy fresh made (frozen) ramen noodles from them – really good. I make the broth and add vegetables and marinated chicken.

  6. Maybe the magical ingredient is place. The sights and sounds that surround you as you taste and smell. But I’m sure the ones you make at home are pretty damn delicious. 🙂

    • It so is the magical ingredient and definitely one I can’t replicate, even I think if I returned to the same place. How intriguing personal experience is…but, I admit that I quite enjoy my version too. 😬

  7. Bonsoir Bespoke Traveler,

    Merci pour ce magnifique billet et la superbe recette. Tout cela me semble très bon
    Je vous souhaite une toute belle nouvelle année 2021 et tous mes voeux de bonheur.
    Mes amitiés 🙂

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