As of today – and since many years back – my top three countries for food, in no order, are Mexico, Turkey, and Japan. There are plenty of countries out there with excellent eats, and I’m still missing what I believe to be heavy-hitters in the culinary world (the biggest one being Iran), but for a variety of factors, those three places are tops.
Thus, having friends or family in those destinations also works out swimmingly. Whether it’s local knowledge, language help, or having someone who doesn’t mind mouthing off to line-jumpers, you will cherish the experience.
Case-in-point, let’s take a brief look at the city of Atzacan, located in Mexico’s Veracruz state.
Last year, with friend who called the region home, I visited the small municipality of Atzacan. For those linguists out there, the name Atzacan derives from three Náhuatl (a group including the Aztecs) words— atl, or water, tzaqua, or stop, and can, or place; in other words, “the place where the water stops.”
Founded in 1825, Atzacan is best known for its maize (corn) and beans, as well as an annual festival in April celebrating Santa Ana (Saint Anne), its patroness saint.
Of course, we were there to eat. Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – my friend was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.
This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons. One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious. Two, it’s a locavore’s delight. And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.
Although the tamal can be found in countless forms stretching from Mexico to Chile, I couldn’t believe how many types there were just in Atzacan! Given how filling tamales are, we only sampled a few:
Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding Atzacan, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.
As for the atole, the hot drink made of masa, cinnamon, water, and often raw cane sugar (piloncillo), it’s a particularly heavy pairing with tamales, though no less tasty. Over time, atoles, too have come to be prepared with guavas, pineapple, nuts, and other naturally sweet ingredients…though its most famous cousin, champurrado, is made with masa, water, and chocolate.
My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener. Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of super-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.
Have you visited Atzacan, or anywhere in the state of Veracruz? Are you a fan of tamales and atoles?