By Julie R Butler
There’s plenty to get excited about with Mexico’s fiestas patrias coming up; but one of the best things about late summer for Mexicans is that it’s time to bust out the chiles en nogada.
If not the “national dish” of Mexico (there’s strong competition with mole for that title), chiles en nogada is certainly the most patriotic of Mexican dishes. This exquisite concoction that hails from the city of Puebla has a strong connection with Mexico's independence, and it is served throughout the country during the months of August and September, when the signature ingredients are in season. So let’s take a look at the tri-colored dish that serves as a delicious example of how Mexican cuisine is deeply intertwined with the history, culture, and identity of the Mexican people.
Photo by Flickr user Arturo Sánchez, CC BY 2.0
Chiles en Nogada: The Dish
Chiles en nogada consists of roasted poblano chiles that are stuffed with a stew of picadillo, fruit, and nuts, then bathed in a silky white walnut creme sauce and garnished with bright red pomegranate seeds and fresh green parsley.
Preparing Chiles en Nogada
Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia, CC BY-SA 3.0
There are many variations on the stuffing, but it’s generally made with ground or chopped meat stewed with seasonal fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches, along with nuts, raisins, candied fruits, and spices, among other ingredients. Originally, acitrón, or crystalized cactus pulp, was used; but since the barrel cactus that this candy is made from is so slow growing that its use has caused it to become endangered, other crystalized fruits such as ate are substituted. The stuffed peppers may or may not be battered and fried.
Barrel cactus with acitrón
Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, CC BY-SA 3.0
Traditionally, the walnuts for the nogada were peeled laboriously by hand and ground to a smooth paste with a metate, a mortar and pestle made of volcanic stone. Today, there are shortcuts you can take preparing the sauce, but it’s considered essential that the walnuts be freshly harvested, as older walnuts will ruin the rich flavor of this creamy sauce.
The pomegranate seeds will, of course, be fresh and in season at this time of year, and they add bright pops of flavor. More importantly, though, they provide their red color, which goes with the white sauce and the green parsley to create a remarkable culinary tribute to la bandera nacional de Mexico.
Image by Prathyush Thomas, GFDL 1.2
Chiles en Nogada: The Legend
While there are several different stories about its invention, but the most prevalent chiles en nogada creation story says that it was invented by the Augustinian nuns of the Santa Monica convent in Puebla. According to this legend, after signing the Treaty of Córdoba, which established Mexican independence from Spain, Agustín de Iturbide was traveling to Mexico City; and as he passed through the city of Puebla, the Augustinian nuns honored the war hero) with this special dish.
One version of this story also has it that the nuns were further motivated to create something extra special because the event occurred on the 28th of August – which is Saint Augustine Day, making it the general’s saint day.
Entrance of the Trigarante Army to Mexico City in 1821
Chiles en Nogada: The Traditions
While enjoyed throughout Mexico in the late summer, when stone fruits, pomegranates, and walnuts are in season, chiles en nodada are the pride of Puebla, and the dish is celebrated at the Feria de Chile en Nogada in San Andrés Calpan, Puebla during the first weeks of August.
This special dish is also eaten by many Mexicans on 28 August, Saint Augustine Day. However, the celebrations of the nation’s independence during the month of September bring out the love of patria; and for Mexicans, you can’t get more patriotic than eating amazing food that’s as rich in historical and cultural significance as it is in flavor and flair!