Hispanic cuisine gives the name “tablecloth stainer” to those dishes whose flavor creates such an extraordinary ecstasy in the diner that it results in spattering of sauce and juice upon anything in the vicinity, including clothes and the tablecloth.
These mancha manteles or stainers of tablecloths are more than just recipes, they are “a style of cooking.
A real mancha manteles should cover three of the senses and thus please our memory; thus the sumptuous dish should fully satisfy one’s sight, smell and – obviously – taste.
Others, perhaps more purists as to the way one should cook a “tablecloth stainer,” turn to complicated dishes.
That is how Héctor Zagal Arreguín tells it in an article published in 2010 in the Mexican magazine “Istmo.”
A mancha manteles “borrows the fruits from the chile en nogada (chiles in walnut sauce) and absorbs them into its reddish and spicy sauce,” he says. “Pieces of pork swim about unbothered around pieces of apple and pear. I do not know if, as in the case of mole, it was nuns who were the wise creators of the mancha manteles, or if it was due to patriotic maidens, as in the case of the chiles en nogada – green, white and red, the national colors.”
Zagal Arreguín is emphatic when explaining that the food is not a plain meal. Mexican and Hispanic cuisine is not a sea of destructive flavors composed of chili, mixed in with beans and tortillas, but a way of seeing life. It is a challenge to the courtly rules that come to us from the Spanish colony and that is why today we have our tablecloth-staining meals.
We have them because our kitchen is a hearth full of eccentricities and explosion of flavors, where staining a tablecloth with a food is a compliment to tasty cooking. “Among the griddles and pans lies the secret word of Mexican cuisine: mancha manteles,” says Zagal Arreguín.
Reviving the mancha manteles
In 2010, when Mexico was celebrating its 200 years of independence and 100 years of since its revolution, the Cloister of Sor Juana put out a call seeking people to reinvent a Mexican recipe for use in the celebratory menu.
A Mexican culinary group known as Lienzo Culinario decided to participate in the category of soups with a mancha manteles version, a stew based on chiles and beef, with a deep chocolate flavor, served with white and yellow sweet potatoes, and garnished with fried plantains and julienne strips of fried yellow sweet potato and ancho chile.
The inspiration for this soup comes from the timeless mancha manteles and has a bibliographic reference in the recipes of Doña Dominga de Guzman, a Mexican housewife who for 50 years collected her family’s recipes.
Photo by Juan Miret