Friday, January 4, 2013

Eating traditions: La Rosca de Reyes or King Cake

The arrival of the Three Wise Men, Kings Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar is January 6, according to the Catholic calendar, symbolizing the ending of the Christmas festivities. But for some, this date has very particular meanings.
La Rosca de Reyes or King Cake
The visit of the Three Magi signifies a deeply rooted tradition among Hispanics. It's the popular Rosca de Reyes, a sort of a crown adorned with dried and caramelized fruit, whose colors are similar to the jewels of the so-called 'Kings', representing peace, love, and happiness.
Its interior hides a figure representing Baby Jesus or Niño Jesús, which recalls the moment in which Joseph and Mary hid Jesus to save him from King Herod.
"'Rosca' is a Hispanic symbol," said Héctor Carrera, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, and who is one of the master bakers at Panadería Pancho Anaya, a fifth generation bakery, whose main plant is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "There is no Epiphany without Roscas. They are our traditions."
This year, the bakery is expected to make 2,000 Roscas, one of the most requested products this time of the year," he said. "Many people just come to buy Roscas", he added. "It's a very nice tradition."
Carrera explained that the custom dictates that the person who finds the Baby Jesus or the little doll should provides a party with tamales on February 2, the date on which commemorates the day of the Virgen de la Candelaria.
"Each Rosca has at least three little baby dolls," he said. "The Rosca will be cut and then each person takes a piece. Nobody will know where the baby is, It's a surprise."
For Armando Sánchez, native of Tampico, Mexico, and pastry chef at a bakery located in Southwest Tulsa, the decoration of the Rosca is "an art", adding that "preparing the Rosca takes many hours, but it is one of my favorite tasks"

Sánchez added that "there is nothing better than enjoying a Rosca when we are away from our countries. It brings good memories."
Taste a piece of tradition ... eat a Rosca de Reyes.
Photos by Juan Miret

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Feliz Año: Hispanics welcome the New Year with rituals

Some eat 12 grapes. Others eat lunch with a serving of tasty lentis, and many clean the house top to bottom. Whatever their ritual, Hispanics hope 2013 brings prosperity, health and success.

The Rituals
Extravagant acts include jumping on one´s rigth foot while holding a glass of champagne with a gold ring in it. Others who are more intrepid run around the neighborhood with their suitcases in hand, but not before putting on yellow underwear - and wearing it backwards.
 In short, New Year rituals are a vivid example that there are no laws that govern taste.
The transition from the old year to the new comes loaded with symbolism that ultimately seek to bring good omens for the new period about to begin.

These are some of the most Hispanic rituals that are seen during this celebration:

The 12 Grapes: Tradition says that one should eat a grape for each time the bells rings at midnight. Some combine six green grapes with six black ones. Each grape must represent a wish.

Money in the Shoes: To attract economic fortunes it is recommeded that one place a bill in each shoe.

Clothing: Wearing a brand new outfit or clothing item symbolizes starting the new year with prosperity. Some recommend complementing the outfit with yellow underwear.

Lentils: A Spanish proverb says, "You eat them or you leave them." These legumes represent abundance, and it is believed that those who eat a plate pf them on New Year´s Eve ensure their economic stability.

Candles: The colors of the candles take on special meaning for New Year´s. Green is for health, yellow is plently, blue is peace, white is clarity, and red is passion.

Suitcases: A classic ritual is going outside with suitcases in hand and walking around the house which supposedly assures going on many trips.

´Burning´ the old year: Difficulties and obstacles that have arisen during the year are listed on a sheet of paper, and at midnight the paper is burned, symbolizing the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

Sweeping: A clean and organized house represents and open door for the good things of a new year.

Traditions and rituals are passed from generation to generation. Whatever those are for you and your family, be sure to continue the custom.

Happy New Year 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tasting Navidad: Rompope, Ponche Crema & Coquito

When December arrives, Hispanics find that a particular sweet drink - with a silky texture, ivory color and a taste reminiscent of grandmother´s kitchen - is the perfect companion for a long get-together with family and friends after a holiday feast.

This is so because the magic touch of rum raises the spirits and extends the celebration.

Rompope, a Mexican elixir

A little bit of history: The nuns were in charge of entertaining their important guests by creating elaborate dishes, desserts and drinks, and for one of these eventsm within the convent of the Clarisa nuns in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, a tastty beverage was developed consisting of the simpliest of ingredients, such as eggs, milk, cinnamon, vanilla and sugar.
A sort of an urban legend says that a nun named Eduviges was in charge of this drink called Rompope - a type of eggnog - and to which rum was added; the drink itself was forbidden to the nuns, but Eduviges had special permission to taste it.

Ponche Crema, a symbol of Venezuela identity

In 1900, Eliodoro González P., a Venezuelan chemist, patented something unique: Ponche Crema, a drink like eggnog that was made of milk, eggs, sugar and a mixture of pure grape alcohol.
Despite the fragility of the drink´s ingredients, all 100 percent natural, the beverage remains unaltered for up to two years after being produced and bottled, even with no chemical additives for preservation.

Coquito, the sweetest drink of the Caribbean

From Puerto Rico emerged Coquito, a hybrid of Mexican Rompope and Venezuelan Ponche Crema, but with a magical additive: Coconut cream. 
For Puerto Ricans, there is not Christmas without Coquito.

Whether it is Rompope, Ponche Crema or Coquito, Hispanic punches are brimming with history and flavors ... ¡Salud!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Celebrating Navidad: Posadas, Aguinaldos and Novenas

Hispanics observe the nine days between December 16 and 24 with parties, singing, praying, piñatas, carols, scooters, punch, sparklers and many more symbols. That is how they celebrate and remembers the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph towards Bethlehem, where they sought shelter for the birth of the Messiah.

Mexicans ask for a room for the night through music; they leave their homes and go door to door, singing carols. The interesting part is the role played by those inside the homes, since they have to deny access to the pilgrims. However, the pilgrims insist until the doors are opened, representing the shelter they sought.
This tradition, brimming with symbolism, includes hsitorical analogies in elements as simple as a piñata. The piñata wioth seven cones represents the seven deadly sins. It is full of treats, a symbol on Earth of divine grace. The blindfold represents faith; the stick is God and those cheering through sing are the faithful, who together represent a church.

Venezuela prepares itself for the arrival of Baby Jesus with nine morning events known as the aguinaldo masses, which are celebrated from 4 to 6 in the morning. After the mass, music - called gaitas - are heard outside the churches, where youngters ride scooters and enjoy sweet pancake-like arepas and hot chocolate.
Usually, the last aguinaldo mass, which us held on Christmas Eve, offers a dramatization of the birth of God´s son.

This Colombian custom dates from 1700. Full of prayers, the novena has became a family celebration. During the novena, the Rosary is said for nine days, divided into four categories: sorry, preparation, requests and indulgence.
The prayers do not have to be said in church; they can be said at home or in public plazas. 
Once the series concludes, custard and doughnut-like buñuelos come into play, since for Colombians they are synonymous with Christmas, a gathering and a party.

Posadas, Aguinaldos and Novenas are proof of the cultural mix that envelops Hispanics. From the Rio Grande to Patagonia, cultural syncretism is manifested through family reunions and get-together with friends during the Winter holidays.

Photos by Juan Miret

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Discovering our flavors: Hispanic cheeses, multicultural explosion

The Spaniards introduced to the New Continent their cheeses and the ways of preparation and processing. However, Hispanic cheeses -far from European- are simply bathed of mixed races or ´mestizaje´. 

Unlike very aged or cured cheeses that which are of stronger flavors, in Latin America the kings are fresh cheeses. For this reason, it is common to have as an integral part of Hispanic cuisine cheeses such as ´panela´, ´cotija´, and ´asadero´. 

And if one talks of Mexico, then the best cheeses are from Chihuahua, Oaxaca. Hand-Made or ´De Mano´ and ´Telita´ are classic items for Venezuelans; and of course, we cannot forget the unique ´Costeño´ from Colombia.

According to the United States Dairy Export Council, 85 percent of the national production of cheeses are fresh cheeses, called frescos.  “Its flavor is friendly with any dish,” said Esteban Suárez, chef of the restaurant inside of a supermarket located in the Southwest of Tulsa. “Adding cheese to a plate improves it, because it is more flavorful.”

For María Sánchez, the cheese is an essential part of the kitchen. “You cannot make mistakes when you add cheese to your dishes", said Sánchez, who is from Guatemala, while doing her purchase in a market located in East Tulsa. “This cheese from Guatemala resembles ´queso de morral´ or backpack cheese for my people," she said. “We say so, because we tied the cheese to a backpack, then we sell it on the street.”

Like Sánchez, Piedad Soto, cannot be without cheese in her fridge. “I may lack a few items, but not the cheese,” she said while taking two wheels of cotija cheese. “I use it for everything.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mexico is tenth in the world for production of cheese; and with regard to its consumption, stands at eighth place. “For me there is no better cheese such as ´queso criollo´ or creole cheese from Taxco, Guerrero”, said Raimundo Pérez, via Twitter. “It is not easy to find.”

The Lord of the Cheese
Iván Ledezma has been working at a Hispanic market in East Tulsa for the last 5 years. His job is to set and rotate cheeses in the refrigerators of a huge warehouse. “The fresh ones are the most popular. It is ideal for enchiladas”, he said. “Then we have ´requesón´, although here they call it ricotta. It is also good to fill enchiladas.”

Another fresh cheese known as panela, or basket, is typically characterized by braids that make its outward appearance. “This is the king of the appetizers”, said Ledezma.
Among the soft cheeses, Oaxaca is the leader. “It has no competition. Every single quesadilla must have it.”

Ledezma stressed the flavor of cotija cheese, when aging is in play. “It is the parmesan of Mexicans,” he said without hesitation.

Finally the local expert expressed that "everyone likes a particular cheese, but at the end of the day everyone wants a fresh product that does not steal all of the flavor from the food".

A very different cheese
The Mennonite communities located to the North of Mexico, produce a cheese that is distinguished by its yellow color, similar to the popular cheddar. This is the famous Chihuahua cheese. “It's my favorite,” said Verónica Salcedo, who was looking for it in a market in East Tulsa. “There are many brands, but ´El Supremo´ is the best. The problem is that I never find it.”

This cheese is ideal to be melted, being a sort of delicacy for the so-called fried cheese.

In the U.S. we will hardly see woven baskets filled with crinejas or braids of cheese, or cheese balls covered in corn cob, typical of the cheese makers of the past, but at least we can find its flavor in the refrigerators in local supermarkets.

Photos by Juan Miret

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cooking for Thanksgiving: multicultural flavor

There are a few countries in the world where on one day the entire population gathers for dinner to enjoy a feast that is essentially uniform throughout. In the United States, this curious event has been happening for four centuries, and without doubt Thanksgiving is the perfect excuse to enjoy delicious food and huge servings without feeling guilty.

Reinventing the taste
Emmanuel Montes, originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, has been constantly reinventing his family´s Thanksgiving dinner, building it around tamales, whether they are cooked in banana leaves or cornhusks. "The tamale is the main attraction on the plate; no doubt it is what represents us," says the Chef, who prepared a sampling of his cuisine in his restaurant Casa Frida, in Tulsa, OK.
 "The custom is that it be a pork-filled tamale, whose flavor is heightened because of the banana leaf," says Montes. "It can be served with a green sauce. The color comes from the poblano chili, which provides just the taste, but not spiciness; the consistency is achieved with white fresco cheese and sour cream."

Those who prefer the chicken tamale can eat it with Montes´secret ingredient: pipián sauce, a tasty blend of pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds and peanuts. His version is not the traditional red or green sauce, but a blend of both, between spicy and sweet. 
"It is not conventional; it is a blend of flavor and regions. It has something from Veracruz (Mexico)," said Montes, while he suggested dipping a bit of turkey in that sauce. "That way we go from predictable turkey to a very authentic one, on that is very us."

And of course, there is no dinner without dessert, which is why Montes presented one of his specialties: chocoflan, a spongy dark chocolate cake with a thick covering of caramelized flan or custard. "Preparing this dessert is like doing magic," he said. "The mix of ingredients are so different that many people do not expect that the result will be something that you just can´t stop eating."

Photos by Juan Miret

Friday, September 28, 2012

Wladimir Zabaleta: Splashing Caribbean colors on universal art

Wladimir Zabaleta

To have extracted “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez from the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, is undoubtedly the most precious gifts that the Venezuelan artist Wladimir Zabaleta, 67, has given the world and especially Latin America.
Velázquez’s eternally famous work, considered one of the symbols of Western painting, was reinvented with the mist of the Caribbean sea and the mischievous brushes of one of Venezuela’s contemporary artists who enjoys a wide international exposure.
“The fascinating thing about the work of Velázquez is its realism. And a realism that is so beautiful that it does not hide the ugliness of the people,” Zabaleta said as he approached a monumental Menina, one of his own, titled “Tribute to Our Lady,” which is perhaps the largest Infanta Margarita (queen’s daughter) ever created. Situated on the north side of Valencia,Venezuela, It was unveiled on Jan. 27 as part of the beginning of a cultural program titled “Ciudad Museo” (City Museum), which uses very large outdoor sculptures to highlight creative talent.
Tribute to Our Lady
“The genius of Velazquez and his infinite genius make you forget for a moment the subjective ugliness of people and you fall in love with painting, with sculpture, with art.”
Zabaleta fixed his gaze for a few moments on his work, then described it as if he were reciting a poem: “She is like a little lantern in a large tunnel of artistic needs,” he said, adding that “only art and education allow us to dream. Although I do not paint dreams, I get inspired by a work to make others dream.”
This virtuoso has developed his artistic talent not only in painting but also in drawing, etching and sculpture. He found places to expand his creative ideas beyond the borders of Venezuela. Thus, France, Spain, Mexico, Italy and the United States, especially New York, have influenced his particular style.
His stay in New York, from 1989 to 1993, is considered by Bélgica Rodríguez in her book, “Zabaleta,” as the “years of prolific pictorial production.” She also said that city offered him a break for his creative needs, allowing “unprecedented existential and artistic experiences.”
Zabaleta said he will continue creating, using his Caribbean palette, “but in an elaborate manner. I do not paint for the sake of painting. I do not create for the mere fact of creating.” He said that “being at the forefront means transforming a spatial object into a symbolic object.”

About Zabaleta
Born in Valencia, Venezuela, on May 12, 1944.
He studied at the Arturo Michelena School of Fine and Applied Arts in Venezuela. He became the school’s director in 1979.
Between 1971 and 1979 he was director of the Carmelo Fernández School of Visual Arts in San Felipe, Venezuela.
In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate in education from the University of Carabobo in Venezuela.

Did you know?
 In Mexico in 2005 the National Symphony Orchestra premiered the suite, “Dos Visiones” (Two Visions). The piece was inspired by the work of the same name, created by Zabaleta.
Later, the Long Beach Museum of Latin American Art in California, acquired the original piece for its permanent collection.