food / travel

Mezcal Worms, Snails And Chili Sauce: Mexico's Hot, Haute Cuisine

Huaxmole, a traditional dish with beef or pork meat in a thick sauce of chili and guaje beans
Huaxmole, a traditional dish with beef or pork meat in a thick sauce of chili and guaje beans
Hildegard Stausberg

MEXICO CITY - There are a lot of good restaurants in Ciudad de México – Mexico’s capital city (its name sounds a lot more dashing in Spanish than the English Mexico City used by most).

Authentic Mexican cuisine is excellent, and Mexicans like to eat well - with little room to spare. So forget everything you ever ate at all those cantinas mexicanas that are becoming ever more popular around the world, claiming to serve “Mexican cuisine.”

The real thing is not only a lot more diverse, it’s also much more refined.

A visit to "La Opera" offers a great introduction to Mexican cookery. Located in the Alameda Central area – near the historic square of the old city – the renowned eatery is the perfect way to become attuned to what Mexico has to offer culinary-wise.

La Opera was opened in 1876 by two Frenchmen – the Boulangeot brothers. In its first years in business, it was only a pasteleria, a café that served pastries. The best hot chocolate in the country was served there.

Of course it was already too late to pay in cocoa beans, as had been the custom in ancient Mexico under the Aztecs – whose capital Tenochtitlán was located on the site of present-day Ciudad de México. But using precious cocoa beans as currency continued through the first decades of the Spanish colonial era.

We know that a turkey – a bird that originated in Mexico – cost 20 cocoa beans, while a very large tomato only cost one. Both the words for chocolate and for tomato – xocólatle and xitomatl – come from Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s a shame that there isn’t more general awareness of facts like these.

In 1895 "La Opera" moved to the premises that it still occupies today on Calle 5 de Mayo (May 5 Street). Its interior decoration has remained the same, all in a genuine Fin de Siècle style: stucco on the walls and ceiling, comfortable red-velvet-upholstered wooden banquettes, a heavy dark mahogany Baroque-style bar ordered from New Orleans.

Nearly all the greats of Mexican history have eaten at La Opera, the most famous of them perhaps being revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa. He came from the northern part of the country, and visited the capital twice after the start of the revolution in 1910.

On one of his visits to La Opera, he was involved in a brawl, where guns were fired – and one of the bullets from Pancho Villa’s gun hit the ceiling, leaving a hole that can still be seen to this day. Every time the paint has been freshened over the past 100 years, the workmen have been told not to touch up the bullet hole, which remains a big attraction.

The music is admirably suited to the Belle Époque vibe. The musicians not only play the traditional instruments of Mexican mariachis – the violin and the guitar – but also the marimba, a Latin American xylophone which has wooden bars instead of metal ones so the sound is much softer and warmer.

Worms and snails

Like the waiters, the musicians wear white shirts with black bow ties (the dress code is still formal in good Mexican restaurants) and happily too, as it is a long-standing Mexican tradition to serve guests properly, the motto being Para servirle – at your service.

What to order at La Opera? Under no circumstances tequila – you can get that all over the world. You’re better off with a good mezcal from Oaxaca – preferably a mature one, i.e. reposado.

By the way, no need to fear the agave worm (gusano de maguey) floating about at the bottom of the bottle: the worm mostly stays there, and if it should end up in your glass, just drink it down. After years spent in the bottle it has no other taste than that of mezcal.

One of the dishes La Opera is particularly known for is caracoles en salsa de chipotle – snails in a very hot chili sauce. Or try the huachinango à la veracruzana, red snapper with tomato sauce, olives and capers.

A particular delicacy, which may however not always be on the menu, is turkey, which Mexicans call guajalote. It’s best eaten with mole poblano, a slightly bitter chocolate-based sauce that you can sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

But whether you opt for sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), or a plato fuerte (main course) of chamorro a la gallega (leg of pork) or lengua veracruzana (tongue Veracruz-style), you are sampling genuine Mexican flavors.

La Opera also makes some concessions to foreign taste buds: pico de gallo, a sauce made of chopped tomato, onions, small green chili peppers and coriander, is also available in a slightly less hot version.

End your meal with a postre that cools your mouth down a little and reflects the Mexican love of flans and puddings – perhaps milk-curd based chongos zamoranos, natilla (custard) or arroz con leche (rice pudding).

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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