Published Nov 13, 2006 - (Updated Dec 12, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Fall/Winter 2006 issue.
Food is a universal language equated with love in every culture. So when you’re thinking of thoughtful gifts to take back home for friends and family, why not surprise them with fabulous food finds from our local supermarkets? Granted, this type of store is not the first place one would normally look for souvenirs. But the truth is they offer excellent prices and one-stop shopping for a wide range of items, including alcohol and even T-shirts!
And while you’re in Vallarta, what better way to tap into Mexico’s vibrant soul than to not only sample its most esteemed dishes in restaurants, but to experience shopping for, and perhaps even making, some Mexican specialties yourself!
Vallarta offers a panoply of foodstuffs and associated implements and serving ware that you would have a hard time finding in small-town Canada or the USA - southern California being a definite exception because it’s home to so many Mexicans. And when you consider the rising Mexican migration into the entire USA, in the not too distant future most foods from this country will likely be widely available there. So why not give yourself and those you care about a head start in getting acquainted with them?
In the areas frequented by tourists, the most popular local supermarkets are Gutierrez Rizo, better known as Rizo’s, in the South Side on Constitucion beside Isla Rio Cuale; Mega Comercial Mexicana in the Hotel Zone just south of the Sheraton and also in Plaza Marina; and Wal-Mart, which is beside Sam’s across from the marina where the cruise ships dock.
Although I have been into each of these stores countless times, they contain many items I never noticed until a Mexican friend recently pointed them out to me, reminding me of the truism that we tend to see only what we recognize. Plus, normally when we go to a supermarket it’s to stock up on the things we’re familiar with, as opposed to letting ourselves discover unique treasures.
But find them you can. And here are a few of the intriguing things to look for that are authentically Mexican, most of which you should be able to take home with no hassles from customs; however, I recommend checking out the current Canadian laws and American stipulations on bringing items into these countries.
- “Flor de Jamaica,” dried red hibiscus flowers, is sold in packages in the fresh fruit and vegetable section and makes a great tea or a refreshing cold drink. Pour boiling water over the petals and let steep for 10 minutes, then add honey or sugar to taste.
- “Cuitlacoche,” or corn fungus, sounds terrible, but is absolutely delicious and sold in easily transportable cans. Used to add creamy flavor to “quesadillas” and wonderful on steak, think of it as an exotic Mexican mushroom and the image problem is solved!
- Chiles galore, especially the dried ones for traveling convenience, add interest to many a dish. Each of the varieties found in Vallarta has its own distinctive flavor, but not all of them are hot — “adobo,” for example, conveying smoky nuances. “Mulato,” “pasilla,” “monta” and “serrano” among your options, you might want to buy a few of each for your favorite cook and let them discover their fire-power quotient.
- Canned salsas, bottled hot sauces and other Mexican condiments like mayonnaise with “chipotle” pepper, vinaigrette with mango, “jamaica” salad dressing, and so on make nice gifts when you put a few varieties together. You can even cheat on the laborious process of making “mole” sauce by buying it in a jar, thus avoiding having to have its 30-plus ingredients on hand.
- Everyone knows a Campbell’s soup lover. So introduce them to Mexico’s favorite renditions: “chile poblano,” “flor de calabaza” (squash flower), “elote” (corn) and “haba” (bean).
- Supermarkets have well stocked liquor sections with prices as good as you’ll find anywhere. Look for Kahlua, a variety of tequilas — “almendrada,” or almond, my personal favorite — and “rompope,” Mexico’s version of eggnog and a Christmas season must.
- Snacks run the gamut, many quite different than one is used to up north and all easily transportable, from suckers dusted with “chipotle” chile to jalapeno-flavor potato chips and Japanese-style peanuts, which are, in fact, 100% Mexican, having been invented in Mexico’s capital by a Japanese in 1945.
- You’ll notice there are lots of milk brands sold room temperature in cartons, which makes a great deal of sense in a country still lacking electricity in many areas. “Chongos zamoramos,” a fabulous traditional dessert made from sweet milk curds and cinnamon, is available in cans. And those who enjoy all things caramel should experience “cajeta,” made from goat’s milk and used as a topping on pancakes, ice cream and more.
- If you have access to cooking facilities here, you might want to pick up some dried beef (“carne seca”) and scramble it with eggs to make your own “machaca,” a good, standard, Mexican breakfast plate. And “chayote” is delicious too, a fruit tasting like a squash-type vegetable that is boiled until soft, and then peeled, cut into bite-sized pieces and topped with sour cream.
- The supermarkets here carry some pretty neat gadgets, as well. My favorite the carved wooden “molinillo,” a whisk rotated by rubbing the palms together, thus frothing the milk for drinks like hot chocolate — chocolate itself originating in this country and Abuelita Nestle highly recommended. Sold as gourmet items in the USA, lemon squeezers and mango forks (“exprimidor de limón” and “ensarta mangos”) are inexpensive here. Mangos plentiful in Vallarta, they probably once grew where your hotel now stands, these nifty “tenedores” the civilized way to enjoy their juicy sweetness. Another item to consider is a microwave-safe tortilla keeper, or “tortillero,” which also does a great job of keeping pancakes warm.
But when all is said and done, if you had to take just one item home with you I suggest it be vanilla — pure vanilla, not adulterated or synthetic substitutes for the real thing. So look for “coumarin free” on the label. Mexico is the home of “vainilla,” which is actually a beautiful fragrant orchid whose pods contain the beans from which he essence is extracted. Its aroma unlike any other, vanilla has the uncanny ability to instantly transport you back here every time you open the bottle.
Ate con Queso: A Delectable Duo
It only takes two ingredients to impress your guests with a popular dessert served all over Mexico. “Ate” (pronounced AH-tay) is a fruit preserve readily available in supermarkets. This delicacy has the consistency of a hard jelly. “Ate” is traditionally made of “membrillo,” or quince, a relative of the apple and pear native to Persia, where it is considered the fruit of love and fertility. The sweet, floral taste of “ate” truly shines when paired with a manchego or cheddar cheese. A common presentation is to serve a quarter-inch slice of cheese with a slice of “ate” atop. Start with equal proportions of each until you discover your favorite combination!