Cuisine and Culture of Sinaloa

One of the key attractions of Mazatlán, beyond its incredible natural beauty and its amazingly friendly and resourceful people, is its food. We all love our ceviches, aguachiles, shrimp and fish in garlic or chile sauce or barbecued (zarandeado) over an open fire, our pollo a la plaza. Thus, I was eager to attend the presentation Thursday evening April 11th in the Gallery Peralta, “Cuisine and Culture of Sinaloa.” Though mis-named, the talk was quite interesting and focused primarily on the cuisine and culture of Mexico. It was organized by CULTURA Mazatlán as part of the initiative to formally include Mazatlán in UNESCO’s “Creative Cities Network” as a “city creative in gastronomy,” a decision that will be taken during meetings in November.

The main speaker for the evening was Maestro José (Pepe) N. Iturriaga, who was introduced by Maestro Jaime Félix Pico, President of the Gastronomic Conservatory of Sinaloa (Conservatorio Gastronómico de Sinaloa A.C.) as the “foremost professor of gastronomy in Mexico.”  According to Félix Pico, Mazatlán “has met all the conditions to be formally included in the Network of UNESCO Creative Cities.” Our entering the ranks of the 180 cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development, would, indeed, be welcome news.

Iturriaga seemed a bit confused about where to begin his remarks, rambling and repeating himself for the first half hour. He explained that “we are what we eat;” that food is a key part of Mexicans’ national identity—way beyond just a method to gain nutrition; and that what makes Mexican cuisine unique is our triumvirate culinary staple: corn, beans and chile. He told the audience that other Latin countries also eat corn and beans but asserted that chile is unique to Mexico. Together this trilogy, according to Iturriaga, provides a very balanced diet. Beans are legumes with quality protein, very nutritious. Corn is a “cereal with carbs and a bit of unusable protein,” while chile is a fruit with vitamins and minerals but which also contains a substance that makes the nutrients of corn (protein, sugar, starch and fat) absorb better.

Iturriaga has recently written a book that shares the title of this conference, Cocina y Cultura de Sinaloa. He reported that the book is to be published by UAS (Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa) but has been languishing there unedited. Perhaps the lack of a book was the reason he seemed so lost as he started his presentation. At the conclusion of the evening, Maestro Papik Ramírez, Director of the Sinaloan Institute of Culture (Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura—ISIC), assured Iturriaga that his book would be edited soon by UAS and ISIC.

The most fascinating portion of Iturriaga’s presentation was when he explained to the audience the history of Mexico’s successful process to be named the only “World Heritage Cuisine” by UNESCO in 2010. According to Iturriaga, the effort began in 2000 and took the better part of ten years. He told us that key factors in Mexico’s successful bid to become a World Heritage Cuisine include antigüedad, continuidad and actualidad:

  1. Antigüedad: Mexican culinary tradition is antique. Corn was domesticated 8000 years ago from wild grass over a period of one to two centuries—thousands of years before the pyramids of Egypt were built.
  2. Continuidad: Mexican culinary culture has continuity and is an important part of the lives of people of all socioeconomic levels. It has no “high” and “low” cuisine. Even the richest Mexicans eat chilaquiles or enchiladas for breakfast, celebrate with a good mole, and pozole will be served in the wee hours at the most exclusive of wedding receptions. Mexican food is healthy and built huge empires; it is not a third world food, Iturriaga said, somewhat defensively. It is the food of kings as well as of the people.
  3. Actualidad: Mexican culinary culture is alive and well today, passed on from grandmothers and our mothers. We experience this long tradition in Mexican homes, as well as in fondas, mercados and street carts, within the country and in nearly every country worldwide. Mexican cuisine has great regional diversity, as well as great commonalty and shared tradition. According to Iturriaga, the over 30 million Mexicans residing in the USA typically share three cultural traits from their homeland: Mexican food, Mexican music, and the Virgen de Guadalupe.

According to our speaker, other countries do not have cultural traditions around cuisine, an assertion to which I as an interculturalist take great exception. Iturriaga repeatedly emphasized that the USA, for example, “has no endemic cuisine or regional culinary traditions that are not imported.” While I greatly understand and empathize with his pride in Mexican culinary culture, his habitual effort to put down other world cuisines, including those of France and China, dumbfounded me. Mexico can be rightfully proud without insulting the cultures of others.

He advised those attending that Mazatlán’s proposal to UNESCO should focus on the culture of Sinaloa’s gastronomy, not on the gastronomy per sé. UNESCO is a cultural, not a gastronomic, organization, and they will be interested in history, anthropology, ethnicity and literature surrounding our bid to join the Creative Cities Network.

Iturriaga then shared a few interesting statistics, noting that the beauty of Mexican food culture is a combination of both its ingredients and the cooks. He stated that:

  1. Mexico ranks fourth in the world for its biodiversity, after Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia. My research does not necessarily agree with this ranking, though the main point that Mexico is biologically a “megadiverse” country is very true.
  2. Mexico ranks second in the world for its cultural diversity, behind India and ahead of China. Iturriaga went on to explain that his ranking counts the number of currently spoken, living languages as a measurement. India, according to him, has 65, Mexico 62, and China 55. I love this idea, but again, as an interculturalist I cannot imagine where he got his data from; Ethnologue has very different statistics for living languages by country. I do agree that language is a solid litmus test of cultural diversity, as it’s fragile and very easy to lose, so is a sign of cultural cohesion and dynamism. Iturriaga said that 12% of Mexicans are indigenous, with the rest regional variations of mestizaje, mentioning Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German and French.

The key point is that there is a huge diversity of cultures within Mexico, particularly regional diversity. When you combine the diversity of its people with the biodiversity of its flora and fauna, Mexican cuisine has a huge natural advantage in this world. Yet another reason for Mexico to become a better steward of its natural resources as well as its people.

Turning finally to the culture and cuisine of Sinaloa, Iturriaga explained that our long coast here in Sinaloa is one of our strengths, as it is in Veracruz. The Tropic of Cancer dissects Sinaloa and is an important climactic marker, adding to our biodiversity. The state has an incredible variation of climactic zones from east to west, mountains to ocean, also. Iturriaga said that 13% of our state is conifer forest, and our estuaries are natural (I would add quickly disappearing) aquariums. Sinaloa’s biodiversity reflects that of the country as a whole.

Sinaloa is Mexico’s biggest producer of corn, tomato and shrimp—33% of the national production of the latter. Sinaloa is also an important producer of chile and beans. Referencing Sinaloa’s cultural diversity, Iturriaga said that in the 16th century there were 38 aboriginal groups in the area that now comprises Sinaloa. He went on to say that the Aztecs migrated from what is now Culiacán to Mexico City, another fact that sounds great but which my research shows as far from agreed-upon among academic experts. Most texts say the origins of the Aztecs are uncertain, though they did originate in northern Mexico. Mezcaltitán, just south of the modern-day Sinaloa state border, also claims to have been the original home of the Aztecs. Iturriaga told us that his upcoming book has a list of 30 fruits that are endemic and unique to Sinaloa, largely unknown outside our state. Very cool!

After this short interlude on the theme of the evening—Sinaloan culinary culture—we returned to Mexican culinary traditions. Iturriaga told the audience that:

  1. “Tomato” comes from Nahautl, the Aztec language—tomatl. Where would world cuisine be without these wonderful, originating-in-Mexico pomodoros?
  2. Guajalotl, or in Spanish guajalote, turkey—what would Thanksgiving look like without this Mexican gift?
  3. Chocolatl, so important to the economies and culinary culture of Switzerland, Belgium and France, among many other countries.
  4. Not just chocolate but vanilla also originated in Mexico—a key ingredient in several national dishes worldwide.
  5. Finally, Iturriaga told us that 95% of the world’s chiles are Mexican. The popular habanero is not; it comes from the Amazon, but even bell peppers, from which Hungary’s famous paprika is ground, originate in Mexico. We wouldn’t have goulash, curry or Szechuan food without Mexico’s culinary contribution!

Iturriaga concluded his formal remarks by talking about pre-Hispanic religious traditions. One of these included making idols of corn. He asserted that Mexicans may also have invented the practice of “communion,” now well-known in Roman Catholic and some other Christian churches, because pre-Hispanic priests would break up the cornmeal idols so that the community could share in the power and energy of the god represented by the idol. Tamales were and still remain a common religious offering. The Tarahumara (they prefer to be called Raramurí) make their beer—tesguino—from corn and then offer it to the four cardinal points. He went on to share with the audience that May 15th is the Day of San Isidro, Farmers’ Day; the cathedral in Culiacán has an altar to this saint and many people from the pueblo mestizo make offerings on that day, also bringing in seeds to bless before planting them. In conclusion, he assured us that gastronomy is cultural as well as religious.

After the talk, CULTURA generously shared with those attending canapés and yellow squash tamales made the traditional way in Palos Blancos, El Rosario municipality. CULTURA stressed that in Sinaloa, from Teacapán to Los Mochis, from tamales barbones (shrimp tamales) to huacavaque (beef stew), we can see the fingerprints of pre-Hispanic Mexico and the mixing of the races, even in modern dishes that rely on technological production methods and a desire for innovation.

All in all, I was glad I went downtown for the early evening. The talk was interesting, and I am happy to support this Creative Cities’ effort. If you are interested in learning to cook Sinaloan food in your home, you might wish to read about Doña Cuca’s cookbooks.

Love Fresh Produce?

Margaret Hefner

Mazatlán is blessed with a cornucopia of fresh locally grown vegetables and fruits, as well as those that arrive here from the interior of the country. Yet the large variety astounds those of us who haven’t grown up here; when we walk through the market or past a street vendor there is so much produce that is new and unfamiliar.

Now there is an interactive book—Frutas y Verduras: A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico—that you can download to your phone, tablet or PC to help us learn the name of the item as well as hear an audio recording of its pronunciation in Spanish! You can click to get information on its nutritional composition, tips for storing it most effectively, and chef-created recipes for using that ingredient. What a godsend for anyone not familiar with indigenous Mexican produce!


The “enhanced e-book” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s basically a website in e-book format: clicking on a photo, icon or link opens up further information. I learned that you can make pastry dough from cassava (yuca), that taro (malanga) improves digestion and gives you energy, and got a great recipe for prickly pear (tuna) syrup. It can be downloaded to your device from Apple (iBooks) or Kobo; because Kindle doesn’t allow such functionality, the book is not available there.

The volume is authored by Margaret Hefner, a Canadian chef living in Mexico City. When I recently spoke with her about Frutas y Verduras, I imagined we’d be talking about the book and her passion for the food. She surprised me, however, by spending most of our interview talking about her passion for the indigenous growers of Mexico. She has been moved to action in an incredibly heartfelt way by the fact that these farmers are way too often the voiceless in Mexican society, despite the fact that they are the custodians of ancestral knowledge regarding their plants and the medicinal value they contain. She wanted to do something to show her respect and appreciation for the campesinos whose stewardship has made Mexico a world heritage cuisine.


Photo from Margaret Hefner

Margaret, who was neither an author, publisher or programmer before this project, spent over two years researching, collaborating (with other chefs, UNAM professors, the Herdéz Museum) and experimenting to produce the content for the book. She travelled throughout the central portion of the country as well as to Yucatán, Oaxaca and Chiapas. While every region of Mexico is included in her book, her budget did not allow her to make it to the west coast. Margaret found Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s “Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana” very helpful; she hired a nutritionist in Guatemala to calculate of the nutritional values for each entry. Finally, Margaret spent six months glued to her computer screen programming the book’s interactivity.

The result is an absolutely beautiful and highly practical volume that I am delighted to own. Her goal? That more of us will buy local, from the growers, supporting family farms. She told me she believes many people are uncomfortable speaking to a vendor sitting on the ground; they may feel it uncomfortable, too hierarchical. Yet buying ten pesos worth of produce from that woman could make the difference in whether her children have books or shoes.

Margaret first fell in love with Mexican produce when she worked as a personal chef for an expat family living in San Miguel de Allende. She was used to only having imported produce over the snowy Canadian winters; the year-round fresh food here “blew her mind.” She loved throwing cocktail parties in which every canapé used a different indigenous ingredient in a surprising way. Her book contains multiple photos, indigenous names, and helpful information on over 60 of the hundreds of indigenous fruits and vegetables that exist in Mexico.

During her time in SMA she learned that the ingredients she had grown to love were often associated with the poor; that they had long been out of style and have only regained popularity in the past five years or so thanks to a few celebrity chefs.

Frutas y Verduras has a Facebook page where Margaret encourages people to upload photos of the fruits and vegetables they find throughout Mexico, in order to keep building the information depository. In this way, she hopes also to include more of the indigenous produce of Sinaloa and other regions where she was unable to travel. Margaret is offering a 30% discount to our readers through the month of January 2018. Just go to Kobo, and enter the code FYVmaz when you check out. You can also choose your own price here:


My Interview with the Queen of Sinaloan Cooking


“The Most Extensive Book on Mexican Culinary Arts”: Doña Cuca and her husband, Ernesto, in 1980.

In 2010 UNESCO honored traditional Mexican cuisine as the first and ONLY world cuisine to be named an Intangible World Heritage.* Cooking is part of the cultural identity of a community, and I’m more than happy to sacrifice myself to having to eat traditional Mexican food nearly every day!

Sinaloa, the state in which we live, is the food basket of Mexico—home to thousands of hectares of corn, chile, tomatoes, pork, beef, fish and all the fresh seafood your tastebuds might desire. Leave it to a Sinaloa native, then—Doña Cuca, or María del Refugio Fonseca de Cárdenas—to do us the favor of recording recipes that were traditionally handed down orally into the “most extensive book on Mexican culinary arts,” according to a national Mexican newspaper. Just think… that makes this woman, born in Guasave, who now lives in Mazatlán, author of an authoritative work on the only Intangible World Heritage cuisine!

Doña Cuca has taught thousands of Mexican women the art of cooking; her cookbook is a Bible for newly married women. Just ask your friends—they know her. Dozens if not hundreds of women have opened cocinas económicas using her recipes as their guide, so La Maestra has contributed to Mexico’s growing middle class, as well, enabling women to send their children to school with the money they earn.

I have long wanted to interview Doña Cuca, but she turns down cold most interview requests. She’s been known to say that at 85 “she’s had her day in the sun.” So what were the odds this strange gringa woman could score an interview with the icon of Mexican cooking?

Well, last week, my girlfriend brought the honest-to-goodness-best-pie-in-the-history-of-humanity to my house. I asked her about it, and she explained that she had gotten married at 18 and learned to cook from her mother-in-law; the pie was just one of many recipes she’d learned. Small world, but I found out that my friend Patty is related to Doña Cuca, so arranging to interview the Maestra was easy peasy! (Thank you, hermosa!)

I was intimidated going into our meeting; I had heard Doña Cuca could be a tough interview, and that she is quite the perfectionist. We were invited to her home, so I wanted to take a hostess gift. But I sure as heck wasn’t going to take any homemade snack or baked goods! Flowers, maybe? I settled on a scented candle.

What a joy our afternoon turned out to be! Doña Cuca has such a spark, and my oh my does she have the charm! She welcomed Patty and me into her home where she regaled us with stories that ranged from the ribald to the heartwarming. She brought out photos, clippings, letters, and, of course, some fresh juice and snacks. As if that weren’t enough, she gifted us signed copies of her book, first published in 1980 and now in its 21st printing!

Doña Cuca told me she’s loved cooking since she was seven years old. She was fortunate to learn from her grandmother, her mother, and the wonderful cook at her grandparents’ hacienda in Guasave, which led us to her first earthy story. As a pre-teen, Doña Cuca was jealous of the large bosoms she saw on the cook and her daughters. She asked them how they got such big breasts. “From milling the corn!” they exclaimed. Obviously they were clever women, as their response got Doña Cuca to take over grinding the corn for quite some time before she figured out it didn’t help her breasts grow bigger!

At her grandparents’ hacienda Refugio learned the importance of fresh produce, meat and cheeses, and that simple cooking with quality ingredients is often the best. She got married and had five children. The family lived in Mexico City and Ciudad Obregón, but after serious financial setbacks, they ended up back in Guasave. There Doña Cuca started El Instituto de Seguridad Social: para el bienestar de la familia with two girlfriends. As part of that effort she often taught cooking classes in the ejidos. She remembers that she’d take notes about the many cooking techniques shared by the housewives of the area during her classes. Years later she conducted research in 18 municipalities of Sinaloa, focusing on the traditional recipes. That book, with sets of 100 recipes for seafood, beef, chicken, gourmet food, etc., will be published in January, 2016 under the title, Colache: Para Mis Pequeñas Cocineras.

La Maestra told me her favorite fish is corvina, and she likes it on las brasas: cooked over an open fire. She told me the traditional way to make pescado zarandeado, that emblematic Mazatlecan dish, is to barbecue it over an open fire with only salt. The salsas and the vegetables (tomatoes, onions, green peppers) should be served separately.

Some of the typical Sinaloan dishes that we talked about included chilorio, machaca, and chorizo. I asked if some of these weren’t more typically Sonoran, but she replied that Sinaloa has always had great beef, too, and that many of these recipes date to before statehood, even to prehispanic times. The one that really stood out for me were the enchiladas del suelo—enchiladas of the floor! I read one newspaper account about how these very enchiladas, made by Doña Cuca, had been the hit of a huge society party in Guadalajara, given by the famous enchilada maker La Güera del Mercadito Vizcaíno, thus taking the limelight away from the hostess. Doña Cuca told me that enchiladas del suelo, along with el asado Sinaloense, are very typical, traditional dishes of this region. They were often served at parties (parrandas) and serenades, and were an alternative to menudo at the closing of a dance. She promised to teach me how to make them, and I am sure hoping to hold her to that invitation!

What about one of her heartwarming stories? Like any grandmother, it involves a grandchild; in this case, Ana Carola Cárdenas. Ana took after her grandmother, but in Ana’s case her love of cooking took her to study it in Europe. Grandma proudly showed me Ana Carola’s article, some photos of her culinary arts teacher, and the chair in which her children and grandchildren grew up enjoying her terrific cooking.

I feel honored and very lucky to have met and had the chance to interview this fine woman, and I am also extremely grateful to her for working so hard to keep our traditions alive. I look forward to using her book and doing my part in turn!


*Yes, French gastronomy was honored as well, but it was for the French custom of eating together, the serving of courses, etc.—not for the food itself.

Mukimono in Mazatlán

Honeydew melon

Honeydew melon

I’ve been noticing so much more Japanese influence in Mazatlán lately, despite all the cream cheese people insist on putting in what they call sushi here. Yet one more very cool event this week was held on Friday evening at El Roots Café in the Golden Zone. It was an exhibition of mukimono!

Chef Fyek Osuna was leading a crew of students from the School of Gastronomy that is behind the Hotel Hacienda in carving fruits for display. Gilbert, owner of the café, was carving, too. The group had several sponsors, including the school, the provider of the chefs’ uniforms, and a few local restaurants and businesses.

While the group carved watermelons for each of the sponsors, the main piece of art was a large sculpture of a dragon. We watched for a couple of hours, while we sacrificed ourselves eating an incredible meal and enjoying a drink or two. We left before the head and tail were put on the dragon, though. If anyone has pictures of the final, completed work of art, please share them! Click on any photo below to enlarge it, or to see a slideshow.

What a creative way to bring people out! It would have been a terrific event for ComoLocal, and hopefully we might see them again over the winter at the Farmer’s Market.

Life with Teenage Boy: The Art of Food Self-Defense


Greg barbecued chicken for us the other day. It was mightily good. Really good. There were grilled veggies to go with it, lots of mushrooms.

He made a lot of the chicken, as you can see below (we are three people). There were LOTS of leftovers. We put it in Tupperware in the refrigerator.


The next day, when Greg went to get a piece, it was all gone. The joven had struck! He had already finished it all for cena the night before.

This happens quite frequently. Danny’s a growing boy; he needs sustenance. Thankfully he’s healthy.

But, surely, a bit of self-defense or auto-protectivo was in order. So Greg got to thinking…. I had just cut up a PERFECT, sweet and juicy pineapple for us, and put that into Tupperware. Last week, I had done the same, and Danny “snacked” on it after school, finishing it all before we’d even tasted any (slight exaggeration). So, Greg hit upon an idea!


He printed a color photo of some asparagus—something that Danny says he hates. Greg taped the color photo to the top of the Tupperware, to disguise (and protect) the sweet juicy pineapple within.

While I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of his evil plan, and we both got a good laugh, it didn’t fool the joven for even one second. 😉