Mexico’s Fascination With Spicy Candy
(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1162.)
The whole world knows Mexico has an obsession with these small, hot-tasting pods we call chiles and that many of our traditional dishes contain them. And you know what? They are right! We use chiles even in our candy!
Wander into a traditional candy store in town, or the candy aisle at any of the local supermarkets, and you will find a surprising variety of sweets with all kinds of textures and exquisite flavors. Upon close inspection, however, interspersed with all those wonderful milk-based sweets you know and probably enjoy, you will find other “sweets” that aren’t sweet at all. In fact, their flavor can be better described as sweet, sour and spicy all at once, something that Mexican nationals adore, but for many foreigners is usually either love at first sight or utter rejection. Putting nutritional value, caloric intake and other nutritional considerations aside, let’s dive into the spicy world of Mexican candy.
Mexico’s love affair with all things spicy predates the Spanish Conquest—we touched base on this notion in last week’s article about chocolate. In fact, chiles are one of the oldest cultivated crops in the Americas. Having originated in Mexico, chiles were frequently added to sauces and the hot, cocoa-based beverage we now know as hot chocolate. While sugar was not used prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors—they introduced sugar from the Caribbean—it is well documented that Mexican natives kept bees and used their honey to sweeten their food. Have you noticed those sweet amaranth seed candy squares neatly wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket? They are alegrías, a treat of amaranth seed and honey that has remained unchanged since Pre-Columbian times, and have been known as such since the 16th Century.
To complete this picture, we are missing an essential ingredient, one for which we also owe Spanish conquistadors bucketloads of gratitude: tamarind. Tamarindus indica, or tamarind, is an odd bird. African in origin, tamarind is a type of tree that produces pod-like fruit that is also a legume. Its pulp has a very potent flavor, sweet but tart, and sometimes very sour. It takes decades to grow and often requires as much as 100 years to cultivate. If you have walked the Rio Cuale bridge along Ignacio Vallarta St., you have walked past several tamarind trees and may not even be aware of it.
To understand how tamarind made it to Mexico, let alone Puerto Vallarta, we must turn back to to the Spanish Conquest. Just as Christopher Columbus was keeping busy claiming Mexico (New Spain, actually) as a Spanish colony, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille, were engaged in the Reconquista, a 1492 quest to expand their Christian kingdom. At the time, there was a rather large Moorish and Jewish population living in Southern Spain that included some of the best doctors, scientists, architects and mathematicians. Given the choice of fleeing to Africa or coming to New Spain, many—including an agronomist or two in tow—chose the new world. They brought tamarind seeds along with them, and the trees thrived in Mexico’s tropical weather. By the end of the 16th Century, tamarind was a staple in Mexico’s diet.
At this point, we could dive into the wonderful enhancement tamarind has become to a huge variety of sauces for chicken, pork and fish; savory recipes, or even as a meat tenderizer, but we will continue along the candy aisle.
Dive In! The Chili is Fine!
Are you are ready to dive into the unique world of Mexico’s world of sweet and spicy flavors? Here are a few suggestions:
If you haven’t done so, begin by acquainting yourself with the flavor of sweetened tamarind by purchasing a tamarind paleta, or ice pop. To know where to find one, please turn to our article on La Michoacana on the following page. Alternatively, go for an agua de tamarindo at your favorite taco stand. Aguas frescas, (literally “fresh waters”) are non-alcoholic beverages prepared by mixing blended fruits with sugar-sweetened water. They are deliciously refreshing, particularly this time of year!
To begin your adventure into the land of algo picante, or “something spicy,” and if you are feeling particularly festive, order a tamarind margarita at your favorite local bar or restaurant. They are usually served with a combination of powdered chili, salt and sugar on the glass rim instead of plain salt. Again, you will either love or hate the combination, but I can assure you that by the second cocktail, you may not even feel that concerned after all.
The powder sometimes used by bartenders in margarita cocktails is Tajin, a chile-lime salt that makes everything taste better, especially ripe fruit. A bit of Tajin sprinkled over sliced watermelon goes a long way in enhancing the fruit’s sweet flavor. It is very inexpensive and can be found at local supermarkets and convenience stores. For more on Tajin, google “Tajin is a Lifestyle,” an excellent article written by Daniela Galarza for The New York Times, published June 10, 2019.
If you have so far enjoyed your chili trials, it’s time to dive deeper into the pool and try some candy. They are inexpensive enough that you can purchase a small package and simply try its flavor. Some of my favorites include Pelon Pelo Rico, a tamarind paste that you squeeze out of a small container. Another one is Pulparindo. The description on the packaging (hot and salted tamarind pulp candy) may seem like a misnomer, but that’s exactly what it is! You may find many other options on the candy aisles at local supermarkets. And if decide to shop at a traditional Mexican candy store (there are several near the Rio Cuale in the El Centro side) shopkeepers will most likely help you pick something not too spicy for you to try at first.
Finally, A Dare!
You won’t believe your own facial expressions as you try spicy Mexican candies for the first time unless a kind friend takes a photo of you as your taste buds begin taking in the sweet and spicy flavors! Have fun with it!
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