It's no wonder that Michoacan state is known as "the soul of Mexico." Food writer Patricia Jinich finds Michoacanos generous, warm, hospitable and caring, and she can't get enough of their comforting cuisine.
Foods Of Michoacan Are Forever
Patricia Jinich for NPR
You know how some people become attached to a certain dish? They try it somewhere once and then want to go back to eat it again and again, or they make it at home repeatedly in an until-death-do-us-part kind of vow? Well, I am one of those people, and I have made that vow with quite a few dishes from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
It surprises me how Michoacan's cuisine has remained such a well-kept secret. It has a defined personality and a complex layering of delicious flavors like the more popular cuisines from Oaxaca and Puebla, but its dishes seem to be a bit more comforting and use fewer ingredients.
What's more, some of Michoacan's basic ingredients, such as pasilla chilies, tomatillos, cotija cheese and fruit pastes, have become readily available in stores outside of Mexico.
My love for Michoacan is inevitably tied to its food, but it goes well beyond its kitchens. The first time I went to Michoacan as a little girl, it had such an impact on me that whenever our family planned a trip, I begged my parents to return there. It wasn't only the enchanting cobbled streets, the immense wooden doors framed in cantera stone, the aromas of freshly made breads and ground mountain coffee, or the town squares filled with dozens of home-style ice cream carts and sweets stands, all surrounded with colorful balloons and birdseed sellers. There was something more.
I returned a couple of decades later, as a production assistant for a traveling cooking show. It was breathtaking. As we researched for and filmed foods prepared for Day of the Dead — a Mexican holiday celebrated this week — we traveled from town to town, sampling delicate and simple dishes in the markets filled with fresh ingredients and goodies that women brought in baskets and set down on mats on the floor.
In the cities surrounding the Patzcuaro Lake area, we saw the famous fishermen using their immense nets, which seemed to fly off into the sky, before sunrise. We tasted to-die-for fish soups, meat stews, tamales and sweets that cooks prepared for this occasion.
Day of the Dead is one of Mexico's most meaningful celebrations, and Michoacan is a spectacular place to experience it, partly because of its beauty and cuisine, but also because of the richness and depth of its centuries-old traditions.
The Purepechas, also called Tarascos, who remain the predominant indigenous group of the region, believed since pre-Hispanic times that the dead return once a year to visit those they miss. Centuries of intermarriage between Purepecha, Spanish and Catholic Church traditions and ingredients resulted in an eclectic mix of rituals and exquisite foods.
Last year, a decade after my second trip, I returned to Michoacan to do further research for the culinary program I teach at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. We brought our three young sons, and I was eager to share with them the things and foods I had been fascinated with on previous trips. Yet as soon as we unpacked, it became clear that there was so much more to taste and learn. I experienced new things along with my boys.
After a stay in Morelia, the colonial capital where we tasted traditional and modern spins of Michoacan cuisine, we spent a sweet time in the small town of Santa Fe de la Laguna among a Purepecha community. Some of the women fed us their traditional foods and invited us into their kitchens to teach us how to make those dishes. They also taught our boys, with so much patience and tranquility, how to work with their traditional black and green clay.
Upon our return, I finally realized what makes the cuisine of Michoacan distinctive: its people. Michoacanos are generous, warm, hospitable and caring. No wonder the state is known as "the soul of Mexico." And it is a beautiful soul for Mexico to have. The more I cook, the more I am convinced that the food of a place resembles the characteristics of its people. If asked to define in one word the cuisine from Michoacan, I would say "soulful."
In my until-death-do-us-part vow with the food of Michoacan, I shall keep sharing and cooking what I have learned from its cuisine until I am able to go back to explore and eat some more. What's more, if I'm given a license to come back from another world for Day of the Dead, I will happily feast on this menu with the people I love.