The Not-So-Fiery Flavors of Tabascan Cuisine
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
What most people know about Tabasco cuisine is that it’s hot — really, really hot.
After all, the southeastern Mexican state is renowned for its production of habanero chilies, considered to be one of the hottest chili peppers in the world.
And for sure, there is no denying that some Tabascan recipes are scorching enough to leave you searching for a fire extinguisher for your mouth.
But chef Gabriela Ruiz — who grew up in Tabasco’s Comalcalco region, home to Mexico’s cacao heritage and assumed birthplace of the country’s “mother culture,” the Olmec civilization, before completing her studies at the Culinaria del Sureste School of Gastronomy (ECS) in Mérida, Yucatán — is out to change that image of her home state’s gastronomic offerings.
“There is a lot more to Tabascan cuisine than chili peppers,” Ruiz said during a press dinner sponsored by the Swiss Victorinox knife company, for which she is an international ambassador (Victorinox’s first female chef ambassador ever, by the way).
“The state has a wealth of ingredients, from fresh seafood to an abundance of farm and ranch products, as well as plenty of indigenous fruits and vegetables and native herbs and spices.”
Indeed, Tabascan cookery has a long-standing tradition of pre-Hispanic ingredients and recipes at its foundation, drawing on both Olmec and Maya influences, plus the added spice of African gastronomy resulting from recipes imported by slaves brought to work on plantations during Mexico’s colonial period.
And of course, there is the state’s abundance of key ingredients like coconuts, cacao and, yes, those spicy habanero chilies.
Ruiz said she wanted to showcase some of her state’s other epicurean specialties at the dinner, mixing traditional recipes with modern elements, while never straying too far from the rich culinary legacy she inherited from her family and other Tabasqueños.
Shredded coconuts were at the heart of the first dish that Ruiz presented during the Victorinox dinner, a plate she called “tostadas de mentiras” (lying tostadas).
Replacing both fresh fish and shredded pork, Ruiz created a lime-infused ceviche tostada and a faux pork escabeche tostada.
In terms of appearance, texture and flavor, the two appetizers were dead ringers for authentic fish and meat tostadas.
The secret to making these ultra-vegan substitutes, she said, is knowing how and when to use coconut to replace more carnivorous options.
Because coconuts generally reach maturity (and are ready to eat fresh out of the shell) within six weeks, Ruiz said it is important to let the meat age, at least six months, to reach a fish-like consistency and nine months to resemble pork or beef.
It should be noted that both fish and pork are mainstays of Tabascan cuisine, and the “mentiras” pork tostada was true to the regional style, heavily doused in diced onions, coriander and lime juice to give it a citric tang.
Next came the main course, and, without a doubt, Ruiz’s pièce de résistance of the night, a cut-with-a-fork, melt-in-your-mouth tender beef rib served in a traditional Tabascan chirmol sauce.
“I like to draw on the flavors and aromas that surrounded me in my household as I grew up, and this was one of my grandmother’s recipes,” Ruiz said.
The creamy chirmol sauce — which Ruiz explained is unlike the Chiapas and Yucatan versions in that it is smoked rather than infused with ashes — was packed with mashed plantain bananas, ground pumpkin and glazed onions, and served with a whip of sweet cacao mole, all of which crescendoed into a delicious apex of bursting flavors that only heightened the bucolic taste of the meat.
I personally am not much of a meat eater, and usually barely taste my main course dishes in order to be able to write about them, but this dish was so exquisite that I finished my entire plate.
It seemed likely that Ruiz would come up short in the dessert department after the fantastic chirmol short rib, but drawing on an amalgam of native Tabascan fruits and spices, she managed to not only not disappoint, but once again wowed her gastronomic audience with her confectionary finalé.
As a tribute to the dinner’s sponsor, Ruiz named her dessert Victorinox, and she certainly did the Swiss company proud by mixing bits of lavender- and honey-infused gelatin with lemon merengues and crumbled brown cookies, all topped with petals from fresh flowers of the season.
Founded in 1884 in Ibach, Switzerland, the Victorinox company — known today for its classic Swiss Army knives — was originally dedicated to producing kitchen cutlery, specifically, kitchen knives, which it still produces.
It was not until seven years later that the company expanded into the military-issue market, providing a key tool to all Swiss Army soldiers and eventually becoming synonymous with the red-handled blades with a seemingly endless array of multifunctional uses.
Victorinox is also known for its quality, resilient and dependable timepieces, having entered the watch industry in 1989 under the brand name Swiss Army, and has more recently expanded into the luggage and travel gear sector.