Eats

A Town in Southern Mexico City Celebrates Its Identity with a Modest Bowl of Stew

 

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Eleuteria Romero Contreras stands beside a pot of her cuatatapa beans during the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa 2017 on April 23 in the town of San Lucas Xochimanca. Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico
Mexico

In a town south of Mexico City, a sense of local identity is tied up with a special bean stew that shares a nickname with the town’s inhabitants. They celebrate their local specialty with an annual festival.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — The San Lucas Xochimanca plaza has been transformed with decorations. Streamers of varying colors, papel picado (decorative papercuts) and posters cover the walls for an annual festival which, at its essence, celebrates a modest bowl of stew. Despite its simplicity, the combination of beans, cactus and epazote (an herb) is a dish that elicits a sense of pride and identity in the community.

Here, in the Xochimilco delegation, just south of Mexico City, the main ingredient in the infamous stew, cuatatapa beans, shares a nickname with the town residents.

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In Romero Contreras’ San Lucas Xochimanca home, black beans await crushing on a metate, a type of mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock. In the bowls below, chilies (front), epazote and the crushed beans are ready for cooking.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

“Among the towns we have nicknames or pseudonyms,” says César Omar Becerril Enríquez. “To those from San Lucas, they call us cuatatapas.”

Becerril Enríquez is a member of the organizing committee within the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa. The event, which has been held on the last Sunday of April since 1997, was created to give the nickname a positive twist, as it is most often used pejoratively, he says.

During the festival, women from the community prepare the cuatatapa beans for residents and visitors to enjoy.

To share the town’s traditional dish is part of reclaiming the cuatatapa identity, Becerril Enríquez says. That’s why the first bowl is always given free of charge.

Each woman imprints the stew with her own seasoning and style. Some add pork, bacon or chicharrón (fried pork skins); others make it with fresh chili slices or dried chilies. Yet, the base is always the same: a thick bean broth with nopales (cactus leaves) and epazote.

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“Cuatatapa,” a Nahuatl word which means “disheveled,” used to be used as a derogatory nickname for the residents of San Lucas Xochimanca. In 1997, the first Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa occurred in an effort to reclaim the name and to instill a sense of pride in the community.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

The process for achieving the thickness of the broth begins before a single bean is cooked. Historically, a metate is used to crush the uncooked beans into small pieces. A metate is similar to a grindstone or mortar and pestle, and is made out of polished volcanic rock. In Mexico it’s used to grind grains, seeds and chilies, although today there are also people who skip the traditional route and use a spice mill or a blender.

While the ingredients of cuatatapa beans are popular items found in the diet of the town’s residents and its preparation is simple, it’s not a dish to be eaten daily, says Eleuteria Romero Contreras, 78. She has prepared cuatatapa beans since her youth and participates every year in the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa.

“It’s like a special dish,” she says. “It looks simple but it can’t be neglected because it can get burnt. That is, it costs work, that’s the trick.”

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Cuatatapa beans may include chilies, bacon and pork chicharrón (fried pork skins).

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Romero Contreras serves a bowl of cuatatapa beans during the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa 2017 on April 23 in the town of San Lucas Xochimanca.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Samantha Barrera serves her grandmother’s cuatatapa beans. The stew, she says, is an important part of her identity as a resident of San Lucas Xochimanca.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Laura Meléndez Ibarra serves a bowl of cuatatapa beans during the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa 2017. Her recipe, she says, was taught to her by her mother.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

No matter the recipe, the stew will always include black beans, epazote and cactus.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

And more often than not, tortillas will be served on the side.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Leonor Ramírez, 42, and her daughters, Victoria Esperanza Medrano Ramírez, 2, and Ana Patricia Isabel Medrano Ramírez, 7, do not live in San Lucas Xochimanca, but they come to the festival every year to enjoy the cuatatapa beans prepared and shared by the women in the community.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Alicia López, 77, and Josefina Espinosa, 64, are also visitors to San Lucas Xochimanca. They have attended the Muestra Gastronómica y Cultural Cuatatapa for three years running. "It is important because it is seen that the inhabitants have not lost their traditions," says Espinosa.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Samantha Barrera, 19, says that she has eaten cuatatapa beans her whole life.

“You grow up with this. It’s a tradition. So, you grow up with your grandmother making them, your mom making them, with the people making them,” she says.

This year, for the first time, Barrera participated in the festival, serving the cuatatapa beans that her grandmother made. Even in her 80s, her grandmother continues to guard her recipe with suspicion, Barrera says. She hopes to someday learn how to cook the dish.

As a resident of San Lucas Xochimanca, Barrera is proud that the name of the stew is connected to her hometown’s identity. “It’s like a unique characteristic and so that’s like an honor,” she says.

The outsiders that come to the festival also recognize this aspect of the dish. Leonor Ramírez, 42, who lives in another town in Xochimilco, thinks that the community having a dish that represents and identifies it is part of its cultural legacy.

“I believe that the preservation of culture doesn’t only have to deal with the visual aspect or the attire, it also deals with the food,” she says.

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Romero Contreras prepares cuatatapa beans in her kitchen. When she prepares the dish for her family she usually halves the recipe and uses a clay pot, but for the amount of stew she is making for the festival, large portions and a large aluminum pot are necessary.

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Romero Contreras shared her recipe for making cuatatapa beans with Global Press Journal.

What you need
Aluminum or clay pot
Pan
Ladle
Mortar and pestle or blender

Ingredients
1/2 kilo (1 pound) of black beans
50 grams (1.76 ounces) of epazote leaves
A small onion, diced
10 large nopales, cut into slices an inch thick
30 grams (1.06 ounces) of dried pasilla or guajillo chilies to give it a spicy flavor
1 tbsp. of cooking oil
Salt to taste

(Serves 10-15 people)

How to make frijoles cuatatapa
1. Crush the raw beans with a grindstone or blender until all beans are broken into small pieces.

2. Add the oil to the pan and turn the heat to medium-high.

3. Fry the onion in the oil, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn.

4. Put the nopales and one-fourth of the onion in the pot to simmer until soft. Salt to taste and set aside.

5. Heat 3 liters of water (0.6 gallons) in the pot.

6. When the water boils, add the beans, the rest of the onion, and salt to taste.

7. Once the beans are cooked (they will be soft), add the nopales, the epazote, and the chilies.

8. Stew at a high temperature for around 30 minutes while constantly stirring. It’s recommended to taste it frequently and add salt and water until it has the taste and consistency desired (it should be more watery than a sauce).

 

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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