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What Do You Know About Mexico’s Most Patriotic Dish?

Time-consuming, sometimes made with 45 ingredients, this sweet-and-savory dish is an ornate delight.

If you’ve never eaten chiles en nogada, the first time is a revelation, enough to demolish all your preconceptions of Mexican food. A poblano chile pepper stuffed with meats, fruits, and spices, blanketed in a snowy-white nut sauce, studded with vivid red pomegranate seeds—it looks like art on a plate. It tastes like a dessert and an entrée rolled into one. It has the colors of the Mexican flag–green, red, and white–and that’s no accident.

Often called Mexico’s national dish and indisputably its most patriotic, it’s native to Puebla, a city a two-hour drive southeast of Mexico City. Puebla is famous for Baroque architecture, Talavera tile, food, and the birth of Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of Mexico’s victory over France on May 5, 1862, in the Battle of Puebla. The very word poblano means “from Puebla.”

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The story goes that chiles en nogada was prepared in a feast for General Agustin de Iturbide–who had just signed the treaty granting Mexico independence from Spain in 1821, the Treaty of Cordoba–by nuns at the Convent of Santa Monica to honor Mexico’s new flag. That’s according to The Cuisines of Mexico (a 1972 book that was later revised as The Essential Cuisines of Mexico) by Diana Kennedy, an authority on Mexico’s regional food. But, you’ll hear that origin story everywhere, not just from the British-born winner of Mexico’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of the Aztec Eagle. Despite the popular lore, it seems this dish was created before this since recipes for it appear in 18th-century Mexican cookbooks.

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Time-consuming, sometimes made with 45 ingredients, the sweet-and-savory delight is as ornate as the local Baroque masterpieces, like the gold-and-white carvings in the Church of Santo Domingo’s Rosary Chapel, or the cherubs with indigenous faces and carved local plants in the Church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla in nearby Cholula. Traditionally, the chile pepper is stuffed with fruits found in Puebla, like panochera apples, criollo peaches, and sweet-milk pears, and sometimes candied cactus called acitron. The filling is a picadillo, a hash of ground or chopped meats and fruits popular in Latin America, which can, depending on the country or region, contain raisins, olives, or almonds. The meat is generally ground beef and pork. The white sauce is pureed walnuts with cheese or crema, a tangy rich cream akin to sour cream.

“The most important ingredient is nuez de castilla [walnut], the main ingredient for the sauce. Normally you add cheese, but it’s important to keep the flavor of the nut,” says Leobardo Espinsoa, director general at Meson Sacristia de Compania, an antiques-filled boutique hotel in an 18th-century house in Puebla. Its restaurant serves it, and its cooking school also teaches how to make the dish. Both occur only when the nut is in season, from July through September. Walnut season opens with a VIP dinner for national leaders at its restaurant, which serves 10 different kinds of chiles en nogada, one from each restaurant or hotel in Tesoros de Puebla, a network of local “treasures” that reflect Mexico’s distinctive culture and character.

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“Puebla is the Lyon of Mexico, the city that the locals invariably bring up when a conversation turns to their country’s cuisine,” a New York Times story notes. (The city’s industrious nuns even created mole poblano, a rich chocolate-based mole sauce native to Puebla, at another convent, Santa Rosa convent.) Locals recommend different places for wonderful chiles en nogada. Espinosa favors Casa de Los Munecos and Entre Tierras. Two favorites of Maria de Mar, a Puebla-born guide at Eat Mexico, are Meson de Santa Teresa, a cozy eatery in a 17th-century house a five-minute walk from Santa Monica convent, and Augurio, an elegant restaurant a half-block from Museum Amparo and its superb collection of pre-Columbian and Colonial art from Mexico.

But it’s served all over Mexico in the festivities surrounding Mexican Independence Day, September 16. An annual Festival del Chiles En Nogada is held in September at the Tijuana Cultural Center, featuring both professional chefs and home cooks from Baja California state. Scott Koenig, a San Diego journalist and blogger at A Gringo in Mexico, was a judge for its cooking contest in 2019, the only American chosen that year. “No two in this contest are alike. There’s a big debate in Mexico on if the chile pepper should be battered and fried with a crust, called capeado, or not. Some sauces are blindingly white, others nuttier and browner,” he says.

In Southern California, it’s the most famous dish at La Casita Mexicana, a restaurant in Bell, a city in Los Angeles County. Praised as a “riot of flavor” by the 2019 Michelin Guide, it stars on the eatery’s home page. In New York City, it’s fairly rare but served at Mesa Coyoacan in Williamsburg. The chef/owner of the Brooklyn restaurant, who went to cooking school in Puebla, adds more vegetables, uses organic meat, and spikes the sauce with rum and tequila. Following Mexican custom, both serve it in nut season only.

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