May 8, 2013

The Ice in Your Drink is the Least of Your Worries

I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.
Caskie Stinnett 

Most times, when you read well intended warnings about the dos and don’ts of eating and/or drinking in Mexico, you often see the following: “Beware of the ice in your drinks, it may not be made of potable water and you will get sick.” 

After 18 months of traveling in this country from large cities to small pueblos and from tourist centers to remote areas, we now can smile when we become aware of such recommendations repeated to new visitors.

Here is what is happening to that drink or food:  Before that coconut flesh or water gets into your ice-cold drink it is first felled from a tree onto a dirt path, it then travels by bike, motorcycle or truck where it will be cut open by someone on a street corner or sidewalk.  They will use a machete that has just been wiped clean on their shorts or t-shirt.  The coconut is then laid on a tree stump that lives on the sidewalk or road, spending the majority of its time used as a seat, a ‘hydrant’ for dogs, a cutting board, or a footrest.  The coconut water is extracted into a clear gallon jug.  Once emptied, the coconut is opened further to reveal the white flesh that is then scraped out with a type of curved knife cleaned in the same fashion as described above before use.  Each wedge either joins the coconut water in the gallon jug or in the mouth of the preparer or his/her passing-by friends.  Flies are batted away from the lid of the jug before the last of the coconut flesh is added.  The knife or a hand is used to stir everything around.  Ice from a clean plastic bag purchased from a company that also makes purified drinking water is then added…  Repeat same if using other types of fruits (mangoes, papayas, pineapples), or vegetables (cucumbers, jicamas)…
The next best things are the fresh fruits or fried shrimp on bamboo skewers (shish-kebab like) sold on beaches to people relaxing under the sun or sometimes on buses.  First that fruit is picked; its flesh removed then cut in a very decorative way – especially when it comes to mangoes; they make them almost look like cute hedgehogs or miniature pineapples.  Once attached to the skewers, put them upright in a bucket you found around the yard then carry to the beach uncovered in the back of a pick-up truck on a dusty dirt road with, perhaps, kids and dogs to accompany (yes we keep them in the back of the trucks, too)…  None of these fruits, veggies, or shrimp have ever seen refrigeration of any kind.  As for the shrimp, that is especially scary since these vendors spend all day on the beach with what seems to be the same batch slowly, very slowly, diminishing in size. 

Interestingly, Mexican people ARE really clean.  They are constantly washing their hands, cleaning their teeth and face, their clothes are spotless, etc but when it comes to street food vendors, the concept doesn’t seem to extend much further.  The truth however, is that they are mostly working for someone else and make a small pittance on each sale so they are not much involved in the process. 

We just spoke to another visitor who was offered the famous shrimp on a stick at a downtown plaza.  He told one of the three drunken vendors that he would offer him what profit he normally makes from the sale of one of these items to leave him alone, not risking his health while still making friends with the locals.
Unlike these itinerant vendors, established local restaurants seem to get it, not even wanting to touch money while handling any food.  They’ll use gloves or plastic to shield their hands from it. 

Speaking of established restaurant, we had lunch at Fortino’s (established 1967) and had their ‘Rollo del Mar’ (Sea Roll), a dish this region is known for.   Take a white fish fillet, fill it with shrimp and/or octopus, wrap the whole thing with very thin bacon and cover with a white almond sauce.  It is very tasty if done right.  While we had that dish we discussed with Margarita, our server that day, the differences between various types of bananas and platanos (plantains), their health values, and how to cook them.

We went back for appetizers and drinks with a friend a few days later.  After our meal, Margarita served us fried plantain with a delicate sweet white sauce.  She had remembered our conversation and wanted us to taste this dessert.  No additional cost.  It was very sweet of her.  We also had shrimp in a tamarind sauce – not overcooked (which is a tendency in Mexico).  More super flavors! 
Although located in a touristic spot (which we normally avoid), Margarita and her large family (14 siblings) all live in the area and they take great care in the dishes they prepare – they are very proud of their food.  When asked what was THE specialty of the restaurant; Margarita replied “All of them” with tremendous pride in her voice.

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