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.
BT’s CHILAQUILES RECIPE
Serves 4 persons Total Time: 40 minutes [Prep Time = 15 min. Cook Time = 25 minutes]
WHAT YOU NEED
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)
15 mL crema fresca
14 grams cotija cheese
4 eggs (optional)
WHAT TO DO
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Break the fried tortilla quarters into smaller pieces. Add the chips to the sauce and continue to cook for an additional 3 minutes.
- If desired fry four eggs, over easy, in a separate pan.
- Garnish chilaquiles with crema fresca and sprinkle with cotija cheese.
- 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.