I recently met a cousin for the first time – a second cousin, actually, once removed, and by marriage. A status remote enough that it would not have resulted in cooking an elaborate meal together had we not just really liked each other. Mary is a lover of food and travel – and especially finding ways to the combine the two, which is one of many reasons we liked each other immediately. When we met, she had recently been living in Mexico City and I had just been given a family recipe, in Spanish, for a regional Mexican specialty, Budin Azteca. I was told some of the ingredients might be hard to find, and there was that pesky problem of translation. But, impulsively, I sensed that she might be interested in helping and asked if she would be up for a project.
“Yes,” she responded, before I even elaborated. And then I explained – would she like to shop for, and cook, this dish with me? We made a date for a few weeks later.
The story of how I came to be in possession of this recipe is one I hope will happen another hundred times in my life: a chance conversation with someone I met at work led to a longer discussion of our disparate cultural experiences. His as a Chicano from Los Angeles, immensely proud of his strong heritage, mine as an Italian-American, ever seeking to learn more about mine. And of course, we both loved the food that represented this very core of our identity. He said he would ask his mother for the recipe for his favorite dish – Budin Azteca.
When he emailed it to me about a month after our initial conversation, I can’t say I wasn’t a bit alarmed that it was in another language. As he noted, it appeared complicated to make. Translation with the help of a dictionary and the internet would take hours I didn’t have, and I knew that his mother had typed it up, with likely casual directions that wouldn’t translate so easily. So, I had let this project regress into the back of my mind… until I met Mary. She has lived in Mexico, spoke Spanish fluently, and used to work at one of the more reknown Mexican restaurants in New York City. I emailed her the recipe and she set about translating it and tracking down where to buy ingredients.
In the meantime I searched for the history of Budin Azteca. Mary had noted upon first glance at the recipe that where she used to work had offered a dish by the same name on their menu, but that the version I sent her barely resembled the one she had known. Budin Azteca means, literally, “Aztec Pudding” and research into the history of this dish shows that it is made by many like a layered casserole or lasagna. The dish was made for large celebrations – by nature it feeds a crowd – and might have been born of sauce, filling and maize layered and cooked in the ground, wrapped in corn husks, like a giant tamale. And in fact, when Mary showed me her translated version, it was assembled very much like the lasagnas I have been making since I was young: layer starch, in this case pan-fried corn tortillas, with sauce, filling, cheese and repeat. And, like the myriad lasagnas I have made, this dish has as many regional or individual variations, depending on local ingredients or personal preferences. I was happy to see that this version required poblano mole – or the spicy, earthy, chocolately paste that would be the basis of the sauce. My friend’s mother recommend the Dona Maria’s brand mole, if one was not going to take the effort required to make mole from scratch, but Mary and I were lucky enough to find locally made mole paste at the warehouse-looking storefront where we went to purchase supplies: corn tortillas (freshly made, of course) and mole, plus melting cheese, crema, chicken, peppers (both jalapeno and red), onions, and cilantro. Our excursion took us to a Brooklyn neighborhood not far from where either of us lived, but one we had never visited. One glance at the refrigerated shelf of homemade mole and cheese behind the counter and we knew we would be back.
Once in the kitchen, Mary roasted the jalapenos and some onion and blended it with avocado to make a green salsa to go with pan friend tortilla chips. We boiled the chicken to be shredded, which would also create the stock for the sauce. Mary showed me how to cook the mole – something she had been shown in Mexico and had done numerous times since – until it started to melt, and then we poured in ladles-full of the homemade stock to thin it until it had the consistency of a viscous sauce, before folding in the chicken. I sauté-ed red pepper and onion – not in the recipe, but I wanted more contrasting flavors and some vegetables – to add to the first layer along with the pan fried tortillas, chicken mole and cheese. While it baked in the oven, we ate Mary’s salsa and drank sangria and beer, talking about her time in Mexico City and our mutual loves of travel and cooking.
Once the Budin Azteca was heated through and the cheese and tortillas lightly browned, we pulled it from the oven (the recipe had no cooking time, nor oven temperature, but, like so many similarities across cultures and dishes, we treated this like a an Italian lasagna, the heritage Mary and I both shared). The locally made poblano mole was earthy and spicy and also sweet – the recipe called for azucar to taste, and we had added just a touch, both of us preferring to cool the unexpected heat with the crema. The chicken added a heft, while our addition of red peppers and onions a nice contrast with the deeply flavorful mole sauce. The dish was not a quick one to make – the chicken had to be poached, only after which we could thin the mole, and, in my small galley kitchen, the frying of the tortillas couldn’t occur until we had another free burner. But I also could have taken another hour, even as we bumped into each other and shared tongs and spoons to taste the sauce, the salsa, asking each other what else it needed. The best meals bring people together – and I don’t believe I would have learned as much about my new cousin (and now friend) had we not been cooking together, and a meal at that which had meaning to her and all that she had experienced in Mexico.
I sent a photo of the finished dish to the friend who had given me the recipe. “It looks like what I have eaten many, many times,” he responded, adding his nostalgia for his home city of Los Angeles, where he wouldn’t be returning for a few more months. He couldn’t taste it, of course, so I wondered what difference the Brooklyn mole made, or if his mother fried her tortillas more crisply than we had. I momentarily pondered how “authentic” our version was. But then I realized that it didn’t matter. It was given to me out of respect for sharing culture and made with the same love that his mother has when feeding her family. Briefly, I was transported even to my friend’s family’s table on the west coast, and imagined hearing his family banter in a language that sounded like music, but I couldn’t understand. That is what the best meals do: they bring together people and cultures, from the family I just met, to the others who I never will, and for a moment it is as if we are all sitting around the same big table.