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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. Your photos alone make me want to try your version of chilaquiles. Since I’ve never had them before, maybe I will think of them just like your first experience.

  2. Although I admit I am neither a meat eater (once was) nor a big fan of hot peppers, I must say, that looks absolutely delicious! And very tempting. Nice job! The photographs are lovely, too.

  3. I love all these “clear out the fridge” recipes! and everything is a little bit of this, a little bit of that! It’s different every time one makes it!

    • Yes, I so agree! It’s rather exciting to look at what’s inside the fridge and figure out how to combine them into deliciousness. Thanks so much for stopping by to read my post and chat! Hoping this finds you safe and healthy.

      • Cooking out of the fridge was how I started cooking. When I moved away to go to college was the first time I actually had to do grocery shopping and learn to plan & cook from recipes!

        • It must have been quite the education in more ways than one! I have slowly been overcoming my anxiety over cooking and planning meals as I stretch my skills. Thanks so much for sharing your journey on this topic.

          • This past year and a half of lots of home-time has given me a lot of space & energy to try out new things – I’ve really enjoyed baking and cooking recipes I’ve stockpiled through the years!

  4. Those special first experiences with particular foods are so impossible to duplicate but so powerful in our memories. I appreciate this meditation on what is lost in translation – it’s something to regret but not something that should stop you from trying, as you have demonstrated. And the recipe, which is well-written, does sound good! Here’s to enjoyment in the time of COVID, my friend! :-).

    • Thank you so much! Cheers to that sentiment. More than ever we need to find ways in which we bring each other joy and find it within ourselves as well. Hoping this finds you safe and healthy.

  5. My partner and I frequently have a Mexican night where we prepare an authentic dish, listen to bad Mexican music and share a few beers. This recipe will be perfect and I can’t wait to try it! Thanks so much.

    Wishing you and your family a safe and magical 2021!

  6. The recipe for Chilaquiles looks delicious! I saved it in my favorites. We love Mexican cuisine and there are lots of great Mexican restaurants in the Southwest. I recently cooked Chicken Enchilada soup with black beans, corn, tomatoes, enchilada sauce and poblano pepper. Thank you for sharing your recipe.

    • Thank you! The southwest US has some wonderful flavors it has integrated from Mexican cuisine and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of those dishes in New Mexico. Your chicken enchilada soup sounds delectable. Enjoy!

  7. I’ve never tried one of these, I’m not very adventurous with food but my brother is. I will pass on your recipe and get to try it 😄. Lovely how you’re styling your posts too.
    Best wishes always, Charlotte

  8. That looks scrumptious! As I type I have not yet had breakfast and find my mouth watering. One of the things I miss about travel is discovering delicious gems such as these.

  9. Remembrances of time past, come to my mind when Proust’s narrator, Marcel, eats the crumbs of a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea it triggers a process of remembering that brings his past to life. At first the narrator describes himself as being struck in a way that captures his attention.

    And produced his monumental work.

    Places, smells, and flavors in food, may trigger our memories in a special way, like recognizing the unique smell of my birth town, after more than twenty years of absence, my memory recognized its unique smell, somehow forgotten.

    As an adult first, and today as an old man, I have brought meals to life, dishes I ate as a child, at home, both my Grandmothers, and Aunts.
    I am pretty satisfied with it, however the missing ingredient is time itself, we live in another time, and we can only visit our memories to bring back, those long gone nostalgic days…

    • How true…I think memory also plays tricks with us about how things originally were…it can be dangerous to live too much in the memory of how we remember the past. While I know I can never recreate that particular moment, I’m happy to continue making future memories as I practice my recipe. Wishing you well.

  10. Hi Atreyee, Love your post and your images are tantalizing. So well shot. Interesting ideas about culture and food and recreating memories through cooking. Wishing you good health, safe days and happiness in the year ahead. 🙂

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